HOUSTON — Jeff Luhnow is a master builder who cannot put the finishing touches on the mansion. In early 2012 he took over the Houston Astros and – as one of his assistants put it – “burned the whole thing down.” He constructed perhaps the best farm system in baseball, and this is the year it produced the greatest roster in the major leagues.
At the All-Star Break the Astros had the best record in the bigs, as they were pounding the ball with a vengeance not seen since the ’27 Yankees. As Monday’s trade deadline approached, all Luhnow needed was a front-line starter and a lefthanded reliever.
Well, he got half of it. The wrong half.
Francisco Liriano at 33 is a serviceable bullpen southpaw, which the ‘Stros desperately needed, given the melting away of Tony Sipp. Solid for three years as the team’s lefty specialist, Sipp at 34 is a horror. He’s served up 7 home runs in 32 innings, has an ERA of 6.42 for the season.
Liriano, 102-97 for his career, 6-5 this season as an up and down starter, cost the Astros little: a second-rate outfield prospect, Teoscar Hernandez, and a backup big-league outfielder, Nori Aoki.
It seems a smart move by Luhnow. But while he repaired the attic, he left a crack in the foundation.
The Astros have two of the finest starting pitchers in the sport, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. But both have been on the disabled list for parts of the past two seasons, and neither is near the top of his game now.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed in not getting some of the moves done that we were working on,” Luhnow said, adding that he was close to closing on one of his top two quarries, who were Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray. Luhnow said that near the end he was “90 percent” sure he would succeed.
Dear Jeff: When next year’s trade deadline nears, you should go on vacation and play horseshoes, where close is often good enough. Let someone else take over trading operations for a week.
By all accounts, Luhnow had more pieces to move than any other general manager. His hand was strengthened by St. Louis giving him two of the top 75 picks in the June draft, as penalty for a hacking scandal.
But too much in love with his own handiwork, Luhnow couldn’t part with young, developing talent to bring in the veteran talent that wins championships. Shakespeare would have told him to give up some of his kingdom for a horse.
If you’re counting, this was the third consecutive trade deadline that Luhnow has botched. Remember Scott Kazmir? Carlos Gomez? Exactly.
I covered the Astros for the Houston Chronicle when Gerry Hunsicker was in charge, and I cannot imagine him emerging from a trade jamboree without something more than Francisco Liriano.
Hunsicker departed the Astros in 2004 because the owner at the time, the longtime baseball novice Drayton McLane, would not let him fire a front-office flunkee, Tim Purpura.
Hunsicker went on to build a contender in Tampa, and now he’s ensconced in the massive front office of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who acquired the most cherished deadline prize, Yu Darvish.
I don’t share the gushing enthusiasm for Darvish. Yes he had the greatest slider in America in 2013, when he was 13-9 for the Texas Rangers, with a 2.93 ERA and 277 strikeouts. But he tore his elbow in 2014, missed all of 2015 and has been rather average since.
Most pitchers need two full years to recover from Tommy John. Many can throw hard, as the 6-foot-5 Darvish does. But they don’t get consistent downward drive with the forearm and wrist. The elbow is not fully healed, mechanics slightly off. Pitches hang, get hammered.
Darvish has allowed 20 home runs in 137 innings, which is why his ERA is over 4. He’s 30, and his days as a dominant power pitcher are probably over.
Not that his future is dim.
With a Japanese mother and Iranian father, he has striking looks that led to a modeling career in Japan. Women in his homeland couldn’t buy enough copies of a fashion magazine that showed a nude Darvish, face profiled, backside fully exposed.
But if the main quest of deadline shopping is not soft porn but front-line pitching, the Yankees won the trade wars. Sonny Gray is in his prime at 28 and an accomplished postseason performer (total of 3 runs allowed in 2 starts). Yankees GM Brian Cashman gave up three prospects but none of his top three.
Gray is not a rental property, as the Yankees own rights to him for two seasons after this one. He was 6-5 with a 3.43 ERA for a mediocre Oakland team. He’s had two 14-win seasons for the A’s.
In the final two weeks of non-waiver trading, Cashman not only perfected his starting rotation but added a powerful third baseman, Todd Frazier, and two excellent relief pitchers, righty Tommy Kahnle and lefty David Robertson.
The Yankees, who lost 20 of 25 games entering the All-Star Break, have won 9 of their past 11 and are improving by the day. They have baseball’s home run leader in superhero rookie Aaron Judge, and they have its best young pitcher, 23-year-old Luis Severino, who’s 8-4 and among the MLB top four in ERA and strikeouts. He’s the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in the Show, recently clocked at 101 mph.
Of course, the Yankees also have baseball’s hardest-throwing relief pitcher, Aroldis Chapman. He has a very respectable 2.97 ERA, which is only the seventh best in this bullpen.
As for the Astros, they have a deep enough staff, especially with Liriano added, to hang onto their brand as American League’s Best Regular Season Team. With utilityman Marwin Gonzalez posting sabermetrics comparable to those of broken-thumbed All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, the Astros will continue to pummel all but the best pitchers.
But as we’ve heard too often, in the playoffs good pitching stops good hitting. Gray is not great, but he’s reliable. As is venerable lefty C.C. Sabathia, 9-3 with a 3.66 ERA.
Unless Keuchel and McCullers make firm recoveries during the next eight weeks, the Astros will enter the playoffs knowing they can’t match up to the Yankees’ 1-2-3 starters. Never mind the Dodgers’ in a World Series.
For 13 years, Alan Truex covered the Astros and Major League Baseball for the Houston Chronicle.