Here’s a notion that should frighten the rest of the American League: The Houston Astros are in the market for another frontline starter. This is the team that traded for Justin Verlander last August, then won the World Series. It also has Dallas Keuchel in its rotation plus a still-getting-better Lance McCullers Jr.
Even scarier: This isn’t coming from an anonymous source or a trade rumor. The team’s owner, Jim Crane, said Monday that the Astros are in the market for another big-name pitcher. Specifically, he told MLB.com’s Alyson Footer they’re “actively pursuing a high-end starter.”
The Astros know the road to AL West supremacy goes through Mike Trout and the Angels, who have added Shohei Ohtani to their ranks. Their path to another World Series may very well include the New York Yankees, with whom they sparred last October, but who now have Giancarlo Stanton in their lineup.
Improving the rotation? That sounds more like a necessity than a luxury when you think of it that way. Yahoo Sports’ own Jeff Passan reported Monday that the Astros are talking to the Pittsburgh Pirates about Gerrit Cole, which is smart because the Yankees are also in on Cole and if the Astros get him, that means the Yankees don’t.
Sources: The Houston Astros have engaged with the Pittsburgh Pirates on trade talks for starter Gerrit Cole. One name bandied about as a return: outfielder Derek Fisher. For a trade to happen, Pirates almost certainly would need Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley as a centerpiece.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 8, 2018
So if the Astros want another big-name pitcher, here are five who they could be chasing:
1. GERRIT COLE
Continuing the thread from above, Cole finds himself an in-demand trade chip for the Pirates. He’s 27 and still two years away from free agency, which means he’s perfect for a team whose window is wide open this season. Cole has a big pedigree (he’s a former No. 1 overall pick) but has never fully delivered on the hype. He’s been good but not great, solid but not spectacular. He has a career 3.50 ERA in five big league seasons and is a coming off a 12-12 year with a 4.26 ERA. Still, contenders would jump at him in a second. The Astros might also benefit from pairing Cole with pitching coach Brent Strom, who has a knack for improving pitchers. The question is whether the Pirates, who have been dangling Andrew McCutchen out there for a couple years now, would actually trade Cole or if they’re just doing more dangling.
2. YU DARVISH
He’s the top name available on the free-agent market and the Astros know him well — probably too well if you believe that Darvish was tipping his pitches during the World Series. That’s the past, though, so as we wait for Darvish’s market to develop, you know someone is going to give him a big payday. He’s a strikeout machine when he’s right, but struggles with going deep into games. When he’s off, well, just ask Dodgers fans what they think. Still, the Astros know Darvish from his years pitching against them in a Rangers uniform. They know what he’s capable of.
3. JAKE ARRIETA
The biggest question about Arrieta’s free agency is whether he still qualifies as a “high-end” starter. Last season with the Chicago Cubs, he looked lost at times and dominant at others (check that 2.28 ERA after the All-Star break). His agent, the almighty Scott Boras, would tell you that Arrieta is a frontline starter and give you a binder’s worth of reasons why. He’s a Cy Young winner, he won 18 games in 2016 and he still looked great at times in 2017. Arrieta might not have as much hype as he did a year ago, but the Astros should at least consider him.
4. CHRIS ARCHER
The Tampa Bay Rays already traded away franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria, which means they’ve at least thought about tearing down even further and trading ace Chris Archer. He’d have plenty of suitors, but the Astros have enough young talent to match almost anyone else trying to make a deal. Archer is a little like Cole in that he’s never really put everything together over a prolonged period of time, but he’s shown glimpses of being one of the better pitchers in the league. Archer, like Cole, would benefit from working with Strom and the Astros’ staff. The price would be higher than Cole, however, as Archer is under team control until 2020 AND on a below-market contract.
5. MICHAEL FULMER
Did the Astros like striking the Verlander deal with the Tigers? Because a second one might serve them well. Michael Fulmer, the 2016 Rookie of the Year, could also be a great fit for Houston. We’re stretching things a bit by calling him a “high-end” starter because his name doesn’t exactly ring out like an ace, but that could all be about timing and playing for a bad team. The cost for Fulmer — who is 24 and under team control until 2023 — is high, but could be even higher after another great year. Fulmer’s career is still ramping up and he has shown in two seasons that he’s only going to get better. If the Tigers are willing to move him, the Astros would be wise to take a long look.
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