A big deal

Patrick Creighton: Luhnow does it again as Cole trade = Grand Theft Astros

Patrick Creighton: Luhnow does it again as Cole trade = Grand Theft Astros
Jeff Luhnow and the Astros pulled off a steal in the Gerrit Cole trade. LA TImes

“In Luhnow We Trust.”

It’s fair to say that with full confidence the way Patriots fans say it about Bill Belichick.  In his six-plus years as Astros GM, Jeff Luhnow rebuilt the farm system into one of baseball’s best, constructed a powerhouse MLB team that led the majors in runs scored and won the first World Series in franchise history.  

After pulling off the biggest deadline deal of the 2017 season .landing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander after months of patiently waiting out the market (early in the season teams were demanding packages centered around 3B Alex Bregman, whom Luhnow refused to deal), Luhnow has struck again.

The Astros already have the best lineup in baseball.  They may now have the best rotation as well.

Luhnow swung a deal Saturday for Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, a top young pitcher who is only is only 27 years old and under team control while being arbitration eligible in 2019.  Cole just agreed Friday to a one year, $6.75M deal to avoid arbitration, an incredibly low number for a pitcher of Cole’s caliber.

In exchange for their new star pitcher, Luhnow managed to deal zero of his top prospects.

You read that right, zero.  

Luhnow traded 3B Colin Moran, RP Joe Musgrove, RP Michael Feliz and OF Jason Martin to acquire Cole, a 2015 All Star with a career record of 59-42 , a 3.50 career ERA and averages nearly a strikeout per inning.

Moran, 25, is a 3B with middling pop, limited range and no speed.  He doesn’t project to ever be a regular in Houston.  He’s certainly not overtaking budding superstar Alex Bregman anytime soon, and he’s not bumping Yuli Gurriel off 1B either.

Musgrove, 24, regressed in his first full season in the majors, struggling badly in the rotation before eventually being moved to the bullpen, where he found some success.  In 38 games, including 15 starts, Musgrove was 7-8 with a 4.77 ERA, while giving up a stunning 18 HRs in 109.1 IP.  The moves the Astros have made in both the rotation and the bullpen (Joe Smith, Hector Rondon) made Musgrove an expendable piece.

Feliz, who will be 25 in June, has struggled to find a place in the Astros bullpen.  He was 4-2 in 2017 with a 5.63 ERA.  He surrendered 53 hits (including 8 HRs) and 22 walks in only 48 IP last season.  Feliz has struggled to show any consistency in his 2+ years with the big club, displaying wipeout stuff but lacking control, and has been unreliable.

Martin is the youngest of the players in the deal, is 22 and finished last season at Double-A Corpus Christi.  In 2017, Martin slashed to a line of .273/.319/.483 in 300 AB with the Hooks, bashing 11 HR with 37 RBI.  He doesn’t project as a power hitter at the MLB level (approx. 15 Hr guy) but has shown some raw power.  He has good speed but needs to learn better basestealing technique (7/13 SB).  He will need to improve his defense in CF and learn better routes to balls to ever be a major league regular as he doesn’t project as a corner OF due to lack of power and below average arm.

For that quarter of non-top tier prospects, Luhnow landed a starter who finished fourth in the NL in the Cy Young voting in 2015, is in his prime, is inexpensive, and under control until 2020.  

The Astros projected starting rotation is now:

Justin Verlander

Dallas Keuchel

Gerrit Cole

Lance McCullers Jr.

Charlie Morton

That may very well be the best rotation in the majors.  It’s certainly the deepest.  Plus, should injuries arise, Brad Peacock (13-2, 3.00 ERA, 161K in 132 IP in 2017) and Collin McHugh (5-2, 3.55 ERA 62K in 63 IP in 2017) are ready to step in.  Not only is the starting five the deepest in MLB, they legitimately have the best two “in house guys” ready to step in.  

It’s a brilliant move by the GM who has shown he is willing to go for the gold but always pays the "iron price." Every other team in baseball is groaning today that the World Champs just got better.

This team is not only built to win in the regular season, it's built to dominate.  There’s also nothing to say that Luhnow is actually done improving the roster.  He just does it his way, patiently stalking and pouncing when the moment is right.

Grand Theft Astros.

This is why every Astros fan can say this loud and proud, “In Luhnow We Trust.”

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With both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers making their way back from surgeries that sideline that Astros pitchers last season, and given the team's thin depth in their starting rotation, Houston fans and media have waited on bated breath for scraps of information to leak out of the notoriously secretive organization regarding their progress.

In a week full of mostly Hurricane Beryl-related bad news, the Astros organization had some discouraging news of their own when manager Joe Espada told the media that Lance McCullers has been shut down from pitching after his arm did not respond well to his latest bullpen session. The team says they are "formulating a plan for what's next."

Another Astros starter making his way back from injury is HOF-bound Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the IL since June 16th with neck discomfort and, while there was initial hope that JV would only miss a start, his status has become increasingly murky as he is still apparently not close to returning.

Shifting from the health questions of the starters to the performance questions of the bullpen, some Houston fans have voiced concern via social media that Astros big-ticket 9th inning pitcher Josh Hader is not looking like a "shut-down" closer. Hader gave up more home runs in the first week of July (3) as he did the entire month of June (2).

In this week's episode of Stone Cold Stros, Charlie Pallilo and Brandon Strange discuss how the fluid dynamics of Astros pitching is impacting the competitive landscape of the division race. To watch the conversation, just click the video YouTube embedded in this article. To listen to the entire episode on podcast, search "Stone Cold Stros" in your favorite podcast app or click one of the following links.

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