With seconds to spare at the August 31, 2017, waiver trade deadline, the Houston Astros struck, acquiring Tigers ace Justin Verlander. The then-34-year-old Verlander, who’d recently returned to peak form after a slow start to the season, was under team control for the 2018-19 seasons at annual salaries approaching $30 million. The Astros, who’d struggled in August and seen their staff thinned by injuries, picked up most of that money to fuel their playoff push. The investment was well worth it: Verlander dominated down the stretch and pitched well in the playoffs, helping propel the Astros to the franchise’s first championship and anchoring their rotation in the two seasons since.
Having watched one aggressive upgrade pay dividends, the Astros decided to do it again. The waiver deadline is dead, but just before the July 31 consolidated trade deadline, the Astros struck again, trading a package of four prospects to the Arizona Diamondbacks for 35-year-old starter Zack Greinke, who’s posted a 2.90 ERA and a 3.21 FIP in 146 innings this season. For the second time in three summers, Houston has acquired a well-preserved and well-compensated future Hall of Fame righty with two-plus years of team control remaining. Unlike last time, though, the Astros haven’t added an ace to a rotation that lacked one; they’ve added an ace to a rotation that already boasted two, forming the majors’ most formidable playoff pitching powerhouse.
Your 2019 leaders in WHIP:— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) July 31, 2019
1-Justin Verlander 0.81
2-Zack Greinke 0.94
5-Gerrit Cole 1.00
That's your Game 1-2-3 starters in Houston. Scary.
Entering Wednesday, the 69-39 Astros owned the American League’s best run differential and an eight-game lead on the A’s in the AL West, making them virtual locks to win their division. Although their needs were less acute than most other contenders’, they did have two possible playoff vulnerabilities: the bullpen, and the end of the rotation behind Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and lefty Wade Miley. With Lance McCullers out for the season following Tommy John surgery late last year, top prospect Forrest Whitley alternately injured and ineffective, Collin McHugh demoted from the rotation after a shaky start to the season, Brad Peacock and Josh James nursing injured shoulders, and last year’s high-impact deadline addition, reliever Ryan Pressly, going on the IL on Wednesday with a sore knee, the Astros sought reinforcements. It got them not only in Greinke, but in Blue Jays pitchers Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini, as well as glove-first catcher Martín Maldonado, who joins the Astros for the second consecutive deadline (this time replacing even lighter-hitting backstop Max Stassi, offloaded on the Angels).
Not only did the Astros address their deficiencies in one day, they did it without surrendering top prospects Kyle Tucker or Whitley. Greinke cost them their third-, fourth-, and fifth-ranked prospects, according to MLB.com—2018 first-rounder Seth Beer, 2017 first-rounder J.B. Bukauskas, and Corbin Martin, who made his big league debut in May but had T.J. surgery earlier this month—plus 22nd-ranked Joshua Rojas. The Astros will also assume $53 million of the $77 million remaining on Greinke’s contract, which runs through 2021, with the Diamondbacks sending $24 million to Houston to defray the righty’s cost (some of which is deferred to 2022-26). The price for the two Toronto arms was Derek Fisher, a former top prospect who hasn’t hit much in the majors and was buried behind Tucker on the organizational depth chart. The quartet of prospects the Astros extracted for Greinke will bolster Arizona’s rebuild, which began in earnest with last winter’s Paul Goldschmidt trade, but none of the four is a consensus top-100 guy or MLB-ready right now. The Astros could afford to deal that kind of depth, especially as their industry-leading player-development methods keep the farm flush.
In Greinke and Verlander, the Astros now feature two of the three 35-and-older pitchers to amass at least three wins above replacement this season. (The third, Rays starter Charlie Morton, was an Astro from 2017 to 2018.) Unlike Verlander, whose fastball still sits in the mid-90s, not far from where it was at his peak, Greinke has made concessions to age: His once-blistering four-seamer has averaged only 89.8 mph this season, fourth-slowest among righties with at least 100 innings pitched. (One of those three slower throwers, Mike Leake, went to Arizona in a separate deadline trade.)
Even when his stuff was unsurpassed, though, Greinke had a finesse pitcher’s brain in a flamethrower’s body; during his 2009 Cy Young season, he regularly backed up his heat with 60-something curves, and he threw pitches at every mile-per-hour increment between 60 and 100. He no longer reaches the top end of that range, but diminished velocity has hardly held him back. He’s compensated by throwing more off-speed stuff and mixing his offerings relentlessly: According to Pitch Info’s classifications, Greinke has thrown eight different pitch types this season, and hitters have a hard time predicting whether they’ll see changeups, sliders, or shape-shifting curves when behind in the count. Greinke’s command and control are among baseball’s best, and among pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown this season, only Hyun-Jin Ryu and Leake have bested his career-low 3.7 percent walk rate.
In recent years, the analytical Astros have shown a knack for improving pitchers—reclamation projects like McHugh and Morton and formerly pedestrian pitchers like Pressly, yes, but even erstwhile aces like Cole and Verlander. Greinke, an inveterate tinkerer who scouted for the Diamondbacks pro bono and has always eagerly embraced information, may already be maxing out his abilities, but no pitcher would make a more attentive pupil for Houston’s high-tech pitching seminar. On the other hand, moving to the AL will sap some value at the plate, where Greinke has honed himself into one of the best-hitting pitchers of the past three decades. Greinke has recorded a career 59 WRC+ in almost 600 plate appearances, and his nonpitching contributions have tacked on five WAR to his total since the Royals traded him to Milwaukee after 2010.
Even if the singular Greinke doesn’t benefit from an Astros-style tune-up, he’s already put himself on a path to Cooperstown through endurance and resisting decline; he’s never hit the IL with an arm injury, and he’s made at least 26 starts in every season since 2008. In the 2017 playoffs, the Astros made up for an iffy relief corps by using starters in relief; this time around, they may just stick with their starters deep into games. Among the 102 pitchers with at least 80 innings out of the rotation this year, Verlander, Greinke, and Cole rank second, eighth, and 15th, respectively, in innings per start.
Zack Greinke gives the #Astros four starting pitchers with an ERA+ over 140 (Verlander, Cole, Miley)— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) July 31, 2019
No team has had four starters with an ERA+ over 140 since the 1907 Cubs https://t.co/JpTMR7rYaF pic.twitter.com/ZGGQZbYKek
Cole, Miley, and McHugh are all impending free agents, so Greinke gives the Astros some certainty even beyond this season. So does Sanchez, who, like Greinke, is the Astros’ to control through 2020. The 27-year-old Sanchez, a 2016 All-Star and Cy Young contender, has fallen on hard times since, struggling to stay on the mound amid repeated blister problems. Although the blister bug hasn’t put him on the IL this season, it has flared up a few times, and when he has been on the mound, he’s been one of baseball’s least effective starters. Sanchez leads the majors in losses and the AL in earned runs, and his fastball has lost two ticks since 2016.
However, his high-spin curve—an Astros signature—moves more than most pitchers’. If the Astros use him in relief, the combination of the curve and what would be a high-90s heater in short bursts could make him a nasty late-inning arm, while also potentially decreasing the strain on his fingers’ sensitive skin. (Only three starters in the aforementioned group of 102 arms have averaged fewer innings per start than Sanchez, so it’s not as if Houston would be losing a lot of length.) The 29-year-old Biagini, meanwhile, has ridden his increased cutter usage to a career-high K rate, providing additional depth.
The Astros’ late activity salvaged a deadline that seemed destined to be underwhelming overall. Until intrepid rumormonger Ken Rosenthal broke the Greinke trade—and nearly broke Baseball Twitter—13 minutes after the 4 p.m. ET deadline, it appeared that the best players dealt would be Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer. Although the unified deadline put pressure on teams to make moves that once might have waited until August, the uncertain state of the standings kept some clubs on the sideline. The graph below—based on Baseball-Reference transaction data compiled by baseball analyst and author Scott Lindholm—shows that this slow-starting July was the most active on record in terms of trades made, trailing only the past two deadlines in total players exchanged. But until the Astros acted, those swaps were sorely lacking in impact potential.
The Astros’ aggressiveness stands in stark contrast with the relative inactivity of a few of the teams they’re most likely to match up with in the playoffs, most notably the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers, none of whom made many (if any) significant trades. In isolation, the Astros’ moves made them much better. In conjunction with other top contenders’ failure to keep pace, though, Houston’s activity either established it as World Series favorites or solidified that status. The Astros’ willingness to supplement at midseason has already helped them win one title, and no other club looks scarier right now.