The 2019 Astros might be the most talented team in the club’s history. A lineup littered with All-Stars collectively produced historically good numbers, the starting rotation was anchored by two of the game’s best pitchers, and a quality bullpen routinely shut the door. Heading into the July 31 trade deadline, their record was the best in the American League and, according to FanGraphs, their World Series odds exceeded all others by a fair margin.
Then this happened:
The Astros’ trade for Diamondbacks starter Zack Greinke two and a half years ago was earth-shattering news in the baseball world. There was no hint of a deal beforehand, and the report coming 13 minutes after the deadline only amplified the shock. Arguably the best team in baseball had just added a third ace to its exceptional pitching staff, and the overwhelming sentiment was clear: the World Series was the Astros’ to lose.
It was a bold move by former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who not only wanted to maximize his team’s chances of winning a ring in 2019, but to also have insurance for Gerrit Cole, who was a free agent after the season.
Greinke, who would be under contract for 2020 and 2021, netted Arizona a substantial package of top prospects: outfielder Seth Beer, right-handed pitchers Corbin Martin and J.B. Bukauskas, and infielder/outfielder Josh Rojas. MLB Pipeline ranked Beer, Corbin and Bukauskas in their top 100 at various points in 2019.
Considering they had perhaps gutted their farm system, it was paramount for the Astros that Greinke continue to pitch at a high level.
After posting a 2.90 ERA (3.19 FIP) in 146 innings for the D-backs, Greinke’s results in Houston during the regular season were similar, producing a 3.02 ERA (3.28 FIP) in 62 2⁄3 innings.
Despite a disastrous start in Game 3 the American League Division Series, the 35-year-old Greinke was terrific in his four subsequent postseason starts, allowing 7 runs across 21 1⁄3 innings (2.95 ERA), capped off by a gem in Game 7 of the World Series that saw him yield just 2 runs in 6 1⁄3 frames.
Though the Astros lost the last game of the season, their key mid-season acquisition was instrumental in not only getting them to that juncture, but was directly responsible for giving them a good chance to win it all, exiting in the seventh inning of Game 7 with a lead, before the Nationals’ Howie Kendrick hit one of the most impressive home runs in recent memory off the seemingly invincible Will Harris.
2019 did not yield the Astros their desired result, and it might have been the end of Greinke’s prime as well.
In 2020, amid an accelerated start to the season in the summer, an abbreviated schedule and generally abnormal circumstances, the six-time All-Star’s regular-season ERA exceeded 4.00 for only the second time in a decade. Peripheral stats suggested he deserved better (2.80 FIP), which fell in line with the overarching theme that the shortened season generated skewed stats.
In any case, in the postseason, Greinke again fared remarkably well in an elimination game, pitching six innings of two-run ball against the Rays in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
While the Astros again did not achieve their ultimate goal of winning the World Series, falling one win shy of returning to the Fall Classic for the third time in four years, Greinke’s contributions were essential. He finished second on the pitching staff in innings (67) during a season where eating them was vital, and it was mainly thanks to him that the Astros were able to stage their epic ALCS comeback.
For much of the 2021 season, Greinke was a solid source of quality starts and consistently pitched deep into games — he logged 115 1⁄3 innings in just the first half. In addition, his ERA remained below 4.00 each month until September, when a neck injury ostensibly caused the 2009 AL Cy Young winner to pitch poorly, which inflated his overall ERA to 4.16. An eventual stint on the injured list also cost Greinke his spot in the postseason rotation.
He scarcely pitched during the Astros’ playoff run but did make an impact in the World Series, pitching four scoreless innings out of the bullpen in Game 4, while also going 2-for-3 at the plate during the series as a pinch hitter.
Despite his efforts in the postseason over the past three years, the Astros did not win a championship with Greinke. Now a free agent, he doesn’t figure to be in the organization’s future plans.
The ongoing lockout and transaction freeze notwithstanding, the re-signing of Justin Verlander magnified the logjam in the starting rotation that already existed, and it was a clear sign that Greinke’s tenure as an Astro is likely over.
In his two and a half years in Houston, the crafty righty accrued a 3.4 bWAR and a 5.2 fWAR as he posted a 3.89 ERA across 300 2⁄3 innings. Before 2019, Greinke had pitched in only 11 playoff games since his 2004 debut. He matched that figure while with the Astros.
Perhaps fittingly, the one prospect who wasn’t particularly notable at the time of the 2019 blockbuster trade, Rojas, is now one of D-backs’ key position players and has surpassed Beer, Martin and Bukauskas on the organizational ladder, as all three have yet to make an impact at the big-league level.
When he acquired Greinke, Luhnow admitted in his ensuing press conference that he conceded to Arizona’s asking price at the last moment, citing the impact the future Hall of Famer could have on their World Series chances. The absence of another championship is not what the Astros’ brass had in mind, but be that as it may, based on his performance in Game 7 of the 2019 Fall Classic alone, Greinke proved to be what the Astros had envisioned.