THE LONGER HOUSTON WAITS TO MAKE A MOVE, THE HIGHER THE PRICE WILL GO.

The time is now for Astros to get in the arms race and get their man

Composite photo by Jack Brame

When Brad Peacock was scratched from his start against the Angels Monday night due to lingering shoulder issues it should have been the final straw. After Framber Valdez couldn't get out of the first inning in his start against the Rangers last week and the Jose Urquidy experiment failed to impress, the writing is all over the wall that Houston needs to get into the arms race and trade for pitching help before the prices go up and the teams involved do too. The time is now for GM Jeff Luhnow to make a move for a starting pitcher or two and beat the heat that is sure to be straight fire by the time we hit the final week in July. With only one trade deadline this year and so many teams within striking distance of a wild card at the very least, it would seem to me that the sooner the Astros can complete a deal for the main weakness remaining on the roster, the better off the squad will be.

Astros Forrest Whitley, Josh James Composite photo by Jack Brame

The Yankees are the main competition for the Astros in the race for best record in the American League and home field advantage will go a long way in deciding which of the two teams gets out of the AL with a birth in the World Series and the other goes home wishing they had been able to do more. New York is also Houston's number one competition in the sprint to obtain starting pitching before the trade deadline at the end of July. The Yanks are rumored to be in the market for not one, but two starting pitchers to solidify the biggest weakness on thier club and compliment the powerful and destructive offensive lineup they fill out their batting order with on a nightly basis. The Red Sox and Athletics have already made moves to strengthen their rotation with the addition of Andrew Cashner and Homer Baily respectively. When you factor in the numerous teams in the National League that are within shouting distance of a Wild Card, including the Reds and Diamondbacks and others that started the year not given a chance to sniff the post season, it becomes even more imperative that the 'Stros act fast and avoid the rush. Houston loves their top prospects and Luhnow has been very cautious when considering trades that involve his blue chip youngsters like Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley. Teams that are going to be sellers are ecstatic that so many teams may be in the market to buy at the deadline, which will cause bidding wars and the inevitable urge to over pay to guarantee they get the help they desperately need for a stretch run.

Astros Gerrit Cole Composite photo by Brandon Strange

Depending on the contract status of the players Luhnow and the Astros are interested in, the price will fluctuate accordingly. A player under contract for a few more years will have a much higher price tag than a player in the final year of his deal who will be looked at as a rental more than a long term solution to a short-term need. Houston isn't quite sure how much of a long-term need they will have, but do realize that Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley are free agents in the offseason and there's some uncertainty as to how healthy and capable Lance McCullers will be next season as he comes back from Tommy John surgery. Peacock and Colin McHugh have not had the season that the organization expected and therefore there are more question marks than answers for their long-term future as potential arms in the rotation. All of this on top of thier other top pitching prospect Corbin Martin shelved for the foreseeable future after he was diagnosed with arm issues serious enough to require his own Tommy John surgery. It's crazy to think that a position group that was universally looked at as one of the best rotations in the game could now be facing a dilemma of needing to make at least one move for a starter to keep them in contention to compete for the AL crown.

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Some possibilities that are on the market and could help Houston in thier starting pitching issues are Marcus Stroman, Madison Bumgarner, Robbie Ray and Matthew Boyd, with the longshot being Noah Syndergaard if the Mets become sellers and decide to make the power pitcher available. Of those mentioned, Bumgarner would be a rental and cost the least while Syndergaard would probably cost the most due to his experience, contract and productivity on a really bad team. One other factor to keep in mind is the Astros have found the Blue Jays to be a friendly trade partner in recent moves that included Roberto Osuna and Aledmys Diaz. I say that to say that Marcus Stroman is a quality arm that the Blue Jays will almost certainly move before the deadline and if the two sides can work something out again, he would be just what the doctor ordered to boost the Astros staff and solidify their patchwork starting rotation. Regardless of who they like and who Luhnow targets, the time is now to act fast and get the guy you want before you get in a bidding war and get caught holding the bag instead of all the cards.

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

This has been the best Little League World Series ever — with championship weekend still to go.

The coach of the New Hampshire All-Star team accused the Rhode Island team of stealing signs, a definite no-no, totally against the honor code of Little League. Thou shall not steal signs or bases. There's no leading off bases in Little League.

Online gambling sites are taking wagers on the Little League World Series this year. Bovada, one of the most popular sports books on the web, has the international children a -150 favorite over the U.S. tykes. The Japanese and South Korean teams are the bettors' picks to win the title.

Bet on these kids

Why not bet on Little League? I've bet on dogs, horses, jai alai players, celebrity boxers, the Academy Awards, and whether a tiny little ball will land in a red or black slot.

A player on the New Jersey team threw a hissy fit on TV after his coach pulled him for a pinch runner. You don't see that too often in Little League. I was rooting for the Jersey boys because the team was from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and practiced on the same fields in Warinanco Park where I played Little League.

Here's the thing about Little League that you don't hear mentioned on ESPN, maybe because ESPN paid $60 million to air the Little League World Series.

A big drop for Little League

Little League's popularity is in steep decline. Participation is way down across the U.S. In the Southeast Region (Georgia, Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas), once a hotbed of Little League, the number of players has dropped 43 percent from 2007, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The culprit is select baseball, which takes youth baseball to crazy levels of competitiveness, expense, and sometimes heartbreak. This is the sales pitch select managers give to parents of a talented 12 year old, "Do you want your kid playing Little League … or real baseball?"

Little League...or Select?

Little League doesn't allow leads off bases, the bases are only 60 feet apart, there are strict pitch limits, everybody makes the team regardless of ability, and everybody must get in the game.

Select ball pretty much plays by the same rules as college and professional baseball. The highest levels of select ball are super serious and cutthroat. A player could pour his guts into making a team, only to be replaced if the manager finds a better player. That's life, kid.

True story. I once wrote a column about a local, absurdly successful select baseball program with teams in several age groups. These teams travel to tournaments across the U.S. Parents pay about $3,000 for their kids to be in the program. I met a woman who said her family was moving from North Carolina to Houston, so her 13 year-old son could play for one of the teams.

Select’s domination

How dominating are these select teams? I asked the manager, if your team of 12 year olds played the Little League champions, who would win? He laughed at me. "We'd win every time. Give me a number, that's how many runs we'd win by."

As for the Rhode Island team being accused of stealing signs, the coaches and kids allegedly used an elaborate system of hand gestures to relay to the batter what pitch was coming. I never saw sign stealing when I coached in Little League, but here's how I watched coaches work it during summer travel ball.

If the third base coach caught a glimpse of the opposing catcher's signs, he'd let the batter know by innocently saying his name. If a fastball was coming, the coach would shout "Come on, Jimmy!" If a curve was on its way, the coach would yell, "You can do it, Johnson." A changeup was "Let's go, son." First name, fastball. Last name, curve. Son, changeup.

Continue on CultureMap to find out if Little League is still dangerous.

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