HOUSTON – For years the Astros have been competing for minor-league championships while asking their big-league fans to be patient. Wait for the kids to grow up, they kept saying, and then we’ll go out and buy the veterans we need to win the World Series.
Indeed, general manager Jeff Luhnow built such a fine grassroots system that his former employer, the ring-heavy St. Louis Cardinals, dared to hack into it — and got caught.
Another famously successful organization, the Oakland A’s, with Moneyballing GM Billy Beane, also has had eyes on the Houston farm, though as far as we know not with the aid of illegal peeping.
The Astros were willing to part with two of their Class A prospects in order to land an ideal No. 2 major-league starter, Scott Kazmir, three-time All-Star who has pitched at that level this season. His 2.24 ERA leads the American League.
Kazmir is one of the top rental properties in MLB, earning $13 million this season and being a free agent at the end.
Since he’s from Houston and makes it his off-season home, the Astros would seem to have the inside track on re-signing him. But first things first: winning a pennant, which the Astros have not done since 2005. It now looks possible, although the Kansas City Royals remain the favorite after trading for Cincinnati’s very rentable ace Johnny Cueto days after Houston made its move.
Luhnow was not exaggerating when he said the trade for Kazmir “gives us potentially a great rotation.” The key word here is “potentially.”
Indeed, if you look at their current stats, the Big Four of Dallas Keuchel, Kazmir, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers could match up with anyone’s postseason rotation.
Keuchel, 27, started the All-Star Game and is the front-runner for the Cy Young Award. McHugh, 28, looks solid, behind Kazmir, at No. 3, being 11-5 after last year’s 11-9. He has a 2.85 ERA for his past seven starts. At No. 4, perhaps rising, is Lance McCullers, 21-year-old rookie with a 2.52 ERA who averages more than a strikeout an inning.
McCullers was in Class A at the end of last season, so you have to wonder if he’s ready for the leap to the big-time postseason stage. No doubt he benefits by the presence of Kazmir, 31, who, unlike Cueto, has won in the postseason. Kazmir is a role model of perseverance for the kiddie-corps staff.
After five consecutive years of double-digit wins, Kazmir was released by the Angels in 2011, back ailing and seemingly washed-up at 27. He began his comeback pitching in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. “Playing independent ball, I’m thinking I’ll never play again professionally,” he said. But he returned to the majors – and stayed — in 2013.
In a playoff series, having two lefthanders, Keuchel and Kazmir, at the front of the rotation could be unsettling to opponents. The Cardinals, favored to reach the World Series, are the fourth-worst team in the majors at hitting lefties.
Kazmir made his debut for the Astros in Kansas City on Friday night, and first impressions could not have been much better. He pitched seven innings and gave up three hits – all singles – in Houston’s 4-0 win over the AL Central leaders.
Of course, you don’t pull a fast one on Billy Beane. In catcher Jacob Nottingham and former Texas A&M pitcher Daniel Mengden, the A’s acquired two legitimate prospects.
Mengden, 22, has a strong arm but has struggled at the higher end of Class A and may not be more than a back-end starter in the majors. But Nottingham at 20 is breezing through the minors and projects to be in the Show in two or three years, a catcher with power and surprising speed: 14 homers, 2 triples in 76 games.
He’s a near top-tier prospect a team hates to give up, but must do so to win a championship now. You don’t get that many chances.