LET'S MAKE A DEAL

With Benintendi off the market, here are 3 trade targets in Astros sights

Luis Castillo Astros
This Astros have until August 2 to make a move. Composite image by Brandon Strange
JJ - Luis Castillo

With Major League Baseball’s trade deadline less than a week away, the Astros once again find themselves in playoff contention and will look to add pivotal pieces to make another World Series run.

On paper it seems as though Houston already has a complete team, but there is always room for improvement.

Sure, the Astros could add a few bullpen pieces and call it a day, similar to last season, but this year feels different. Houston has a winning record against arguably the two best teams in the league (4-0 against the Mets and 5-2 against the Yankees) and owns the second-best record in baseball.

Needless to say, this season is a World Series or bust year so it would behoove the club to make a blockbuster type trade to ensure their continued dominance over the rest of Major League Baseball.

The Astros have already been attached to a couple of big name players and look to be aggressive before Tuesday’s trade deadline.

Josh Bell

One trade candidate that makes sense for the Astros is Washington Nationals’ first baseman Josh Bell.

Sure Houston already has last year's batting champion at first base, but Yuli Guriel is having a down year by his standards. The 38-year-old is hitting a career low (excluding the 2020 partial season) .234/.286/.383. He has improved over the last month, but isn’t nearly as effective at the plate as he was in previous seasons.

Bell on the other hand is hitting .304/.388/.494 on a last place Nationals team and could be a potential upgrade compared to Gurriel.

The 29-year-old might just be a rental player as he is a free agent at the end of this season, so it shouldn’t cost the Astros too much in prospects for a trade to occur.

The former All-Star wouldn't outright replace, Gurriel, but could be used in a platoon role at first base.

Another way to look at Bell coming to Houston would be he could split time at first base and be a designated hitter to alleviate stress for both Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez.

Bell’s bat would be a welcome addition to the Astros lineup, and surely Dusty Baker could find a way for both Gurriel and Bell to split time at first base.

Willson Contreras

One player who has been on the mind of every Astros front office executive for a while now is Chicago Cubs’ catcher Willson Contreras.

Similar to the aforementioned Gurriel dilemma, Houston already has an everyday starting catcher in Martin Maldonado that everyone in the clubhouse seems to like.

The issue with the 35-year-old is an obvious one, he is not a good hitter and neither are the Astros' other catchers.

Maldonado’s .237 on-base percentage is the fifth-lowest mark among 260 hitters with 200+ plate appearances on the season.

The Astros have also been without Jason Castro for almost a month now, with no update on the severity of his knee injury.

Houston’s current backup catcher Korey Lee has shown flashes of success at the plate, but is still developing and may need more time before he is ready to become the club's everyday starting catcher.

Contreras on the other hand has always been an offense-first catcher, something the Astros have not had since the days of Evan Gattis and Brian McCann.

Assuming the Astros were to deal for the 3x All-Star, he could slot into a backup catcher/ designated hitter role. That way the pitchers could still work with Maldonado and the team can use Contreras off the bench in late game pitch hit situations or to give Maldy the day off occasionally.

Similarly to the Josh Bell scenario, trading for the 2022 All-Star starting catcher shouldn’t cost much, as he can walk at the end of the season via free agency. That’s not to say the Cubs won’t ask a lot for one of the last remaining core players from their 2016 World Series championship team, though.

The Astros might have to give up some better prospects for Contreras’ services, but it would be worth it to insure their catching position is in good hands.

Luis Castillo

One of the best elements of this Astros team has been their starting pitching. Justin Verlander is having another Cy Young caliber season coming off Tommy John sugary and Framber Valdez made his first All-Star team this year. Other pitchers such as Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier are having good seasons as well.

With Jake Odorizzi as the sixth man in this rotation and Lance McCullers Jr currently undergoing a rehab assignment, it’s safe to say the Astros don’t need anymore starting pitching, right?

Yes, but Houston could make an exception for another potential ace in their rotation.

Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Luis Castillo has a 2.77 ERA and 82 strikeouts this season despite pitching in a hitter-friendly home ballpark.

The 29-year-old could fit right in to this rotation, and the Astros could move someone such as Odorizzi or Garcia and prospects to make room for the Reds' ace.

Castillo has one more year of arbitration eligibility before he hits free agency in 2024, so the extra year of control may be enticing for Astros if they were to trade for him.

Although not a necessity, having another 2022 All-Star on this already loaded pitching staff would further solidify the Astros’ rotation as the best in baseball.

Houston may have one of the best teams as it currently stands, but adding a player like Bell, Contreras or Castillo could be just what the Astros need to make it back and potentially win the World Series.

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More plate appearances for Yordan Alvarez? Yes, please! Composite Getty Image.

Have you ever looked forward to something so much that you wish you could fall asleep and wake up on that day?

That’s how I feel about the upcoming Houston Astros season. The Astros are hosting the New York Yankees on Opening Day at Minute Maid Park on March 28. Astros v. Yankees! Does it get any better than that?

Let’s get this out of the way now. The Astros better beat the Yankees that day — otherwise they won’t be able to sell beer the rest of the season. Why? They will have lost the opener. (Credit: Highlights Magazine in my dentist’s office.)

Why am I so excited and optimistic about the Astros in 2024? Plenty of reasons …

Mostly it’s because there’s a new sheriff in town. Manager Joe Espada is not shy about taking the Astros on a different course. The names on the back of the jerseys will be the same as last year, but this is Espada’s team and they’ll be playing an exciting, whole different style.

It seems like Espada may have been a yes man standing next to former manager Dusty Baker the past few years, but things will change now. The Astros will be playing Espada ball.

First the Astros will run more, they’ll take extra bases more aggressively. Last year the Astros finished dead last in “extra bases taken percentage,” meaning the runner on first held up at second when the batter hit a single, or the runner didn’t advance more than two bases on a double. This year Astros baserunners will have their butts in gear. Coaches Gary Pettis and Dave Clark have the Astros practicing base running down in West Palm Beach like it’s back to Baseball 101.

Oh, and pitchers can’t pick their boutique catcher anymore. Last year divas Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez insisted that Martin Maldonado be behind the plate. Maldonado with his .191 batting average and horrible defensive performance. Astros management asked/told Baker that rookie Yanier Diaz needed to be the primary catcher, or at least play more. Baker dug in his heels and Maldonado caught practically every game the last couple of months.

And that’s why Maldonado is gone. And a big reason that Baker is gone, too. The question is, if Baker had made Diaz the starting catcher, would Baker be managing the Astros in 2024? The Maldonado thing really did become that contentious between Baker and Astros management, particularly general manager Dana Brown.

Espada has created a bit of a ruckus by announcing that he plans to bat slugger Yordan Alvarez second in the batting order. Some fans argue, no, the best power hitter belongs batting third or fourth. That’s how baseball has been played since Babe Ruth batted third and Lou Gehrig hit cleanup for the Yankees’ Murderers Row in the 1920s.

Espada’s current vision for the batting order has Jose Altuve leading off, followed by Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. I’d go to war in the American League West with that top of the order.

Alvarez batting second makes a whole lot of sense. Baseball is a numbers game today. The leadoff hitter gets 19 more plate appearances than the 2-hole hitter. And so on down the line. Each position gets about 19 more plate appearances than the next batter in the order.

You don’t think Yordan Alvarez getting 30-40 more plate appearances than if he hits fourth would help the Astros? Heck, the Astros missed the World Series by one stinking home game in the ALCS last year. The more Yordan, the more homers, the better.

It’s not like Espada has stumbled on the secret to the universe. According to MLB nerd boys, statistically the No. 2 hitter was the most productive bat in the lineup in 2023.

Mike Trout bats second for the Angels. Shohei Ohtani batted near the top of the lineup last year. Freddie Freeman bats second for the Dodgers. Ronald Acuna Jr., maybe the best all-around hitter in baseball, bats leadoff for the Braves. Remember when George Springer led off for the Astros? As Larry David would say, that worked out pretty, pretty, pretty good. It’s not like Altuve is a Punch and Judy slap hitter, either.

The Yankees’ Aaron Judge batted leadoff down the stretch in 2022, the year he broke the all-time American League single season home run record.

The Astros have sold more season tickets than any year before. The food has been upgraded on the concourse. The Astros will stretch doubles into triples. We have the best bullpen in the league. All the regulars are back from last year’s American League West championship team. And new manager Joe Espada has the right players on the field.

It’s going to be a fun season. If the season would just get here already.

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