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Two deadline deals the Astros could make this week

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Upgrading the bullpen is the name of the game.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

One of the busiest periods in baseball’s calendar has arrived. The trade deadline is merely days away, and now that the majority of teams are either clear buyers or sellers, more reasonable trade speculation can commence.

The Astros are among the American League’s elite and will surely be looking to add to their big-league roster. Let’s explore two trades general manager James Click could swing.

Chicago Cubs trade:

RP Craig Kimbrel

Houston Astros trade:

RP Bryan Abreu

RHP Alex Santos II

RHP Peter Solomon

Synopsis: The Astros address their greatest weakness by landing the trade market’s top reliever, while the Cubs add a young, big-league arm with late-inning potential, as well as a pair of solid starting pitching prospects.

By all accounts and reports, Kimbrel seems to be at the top of the Astros’ wish list, and for good reason. Despite being 33, the eight-time All-Star has been arguably the best reliever in baseball in 2021 and could be extremely valuable in October.

Additionally, Kimbrel is unlikely to just be a rental, as he has a 2022 club option worth $16 million that’s likely to be exercised by whichever team acquires him.

As talented as Abreu is, he’s been volatile and — at this point — isn’t an arm the Astros could feasibly rely on to pitch high-leverage innings in the postseason. It’s no secret the club is in short supply of those types, which would warrant a trade of this magnitude.

According to various evaluators such as FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and The Athletic’s Keith Law, Santos and Solomon both have the potential to be viable big-league starters. In April, Longenhagen ranked Solomon the Astros’ No. 9 prospect and Santos at No. 15.

Santos, the Astros’ top draft pick in 2020, is pitching at full season Low-A while just 19, though he’s yet to accumulate more than a handful of innings at the level due to an injury he’s since recovered from. The Bronx native’s value lies with his projectable 6’4” frame and a high-spin four-seam fastball that can reach 95 mph.

Solomon underwent Tommy John surgery just over two years ago and has spent much of the 2021 season at Triple-A. Were it not for the elbow injury, the 24-year-old’s profile might seem more enticing, as his talent and minor-league track record are notable. Consequently, his control is not yet where it needs to be.

Trades involving a big-name player such as Kimbrel are seldom received by fan bases without some level of contention. Some may think the Cubs will reel in more for their All-Star closer while others will deem this package an overpay of sorts.

What is indisputable is the Cubs’ need for pitching, and the Astros can offer that.

Pittsburgh Pirates trade:

RP Richard Rodríguez

RP Chris Stratton

Houston Astros trade:

SP/RP Brandon Bielak

RHP Jairo Solis

RHP Shawn Dubin

OF Alex McKenna

Synopsis: The Astros acquire two relatively controllable relievers who could be capable set-up men to closer Ryan Pressly, and the Pirates sell high on their closer who doesn’t fit their rebuilding timeline.

Neither Rodríguez nor Stratton alone would likely provide the immense boost that Kimbrel would to the Astros relief corps, but collectively, both could make a substantial impact.

Rodríguez has been a stout arm for Pittsburgh since 2018 and is 99th percentile in walk rate in 2021. Astros relievers have famously struggled to limit the free passes this year, so the veteran righty is perfectly equipped to help in that regard. Rodríguez has a 2.82 ERA on the season and kept it below 3.00 in 2020 as well. He’s recorded 14 saves in 17 chances in 2021, his first year as a full-time closer.

While his strikeout rate has plummeted from 36.6 percent last year to its current figure of 22.8 percent, the 31-year-old former Astros farmhand has made up for the lack of strikeouts by inducing easy outs. In terms of generating poorly hit fly balls, which Statcast categorizes via their Under% metric, Rodríguez is third among all relievers. He is also seventh in pop-up percentage.

But that mainly pertains to his 93 mph four-seam fastball, a high-spin (94th percentile) pitch he’s thrown a whopping 87 percent of the time this year. Rodríguez’s second offering, a low-80s slider, has the fourth-highest whiff rate among all sliders since 2020 (min. 50 pitches).

Stratton is an arm the Astros have probably kept tabs on, given his longstanding ability to really spin the ball. Despite not missing nearly as many bats as he did in 2020, the former first-round pick has made up for it by rarely getting barreled up in 2021, as evidenced by his 86th percentile barrel rate.

Following a poor April that saw Stratton post an ERA over 6.00, the 30-year-old righty has proceeded to pitch 39 innings of 1.38 ball since.

Ideally, Stratton either increases his strikeout rate or decreases his walk rate, as both are mediocre, but his stuff plays well enough to profile at least as a quality middle-reliever, and given the Astros’ history of optimizing high-spin pitchers, returning Stratton’s strikeout rate to last year’s rate of nearly 30 percent could be in the cards.

Both he and Rodríguez are not free agents until after the 2023 season, making them more valuable than a simple rental.

On the other side of the trade, the acquisition of Bielak would be somewhat reminiscent of when the Pirates acquired Joe Musgrove from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade before the 2018 season. Though perhaps not as highly regarded as Musgrove was, Bielak could still wind up being the competent back-end starter he’s comfortably projected to be the past two years. Like Musgrove in 2017, Bielak is pitching out of the bullpen because the Astros’ rotation is without an opening.

Solis is, in essence, pure upside at this point. Coming into the season, the 21-year-old ranked as one of the organization’s top prospects, as Longenhagen ranked him No. 3 and Law No. 6. Then he underwent Tommy John surgery in June. It’s the second time in less than three years the right-hander has needed the procedure. Given the pitching depth in the Astros’ farm, including the impressive stable of young, controllable starters at the big-league level, the club could afford to move on from Solis, who has yet to graduate from A-ball and isn’t slated to pitch again until 2023. The Pirates, who are in for a long rebuild, are an ideal team to take a chance on a high-ceiling, low-floor prospect of extreme variance.

Dubin, Law’s No. 8 prospect in the Astros’ system, might be the most intriguing piece in the package, thanks to a pitch arsenal that features a mid-90s heater and a pair of solid or better breaking balls. Per Longenhagen, the slider projects as a plus offering. Purely from a stuff standpoint, the profile that he and Law describe is one of a potential mid-rotation starter. What it could boil down to for Dubin, who is 25 and at Triple-A, is whether he can sure up his command.

McKenna was a preseason favorite of Law’s and was ranked No. 16 despite a lack of meaningful past production. The rather optimistic outlook was largely due to a “huge jump in his exit velocities.” A former fourth-round pick who received an over-slot signing bonus in 2018, McKenna has wound up displaying real progress at the plate in 2021, as he slugged 13 home runs in less than 200 plate appearances at High-A before being promoted to Double-A. Thanks to a significant increase in his pull rate and fly ball rate, the spike in power correlates with the improvements McKenna presumably made after his disappointing 2019. His contact issues notwithstanding (~30 percent K rate), the 23-year-old could again have the ceiling of an everyday player, profiling as a power-hitting outfielder who’s proficient in center.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant and FanGraphs