The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Defending champion Astros set their sights on a 2018 repeat with trade for Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole is heading to the Houston Astros. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

A sleepy baseball offseason, defined by the ongoing stalemate between a slew of high-end free agents and a slew of high-end teams that seem determined to avoid them, was jolted awake Saturday when the Houston Astros pulled off a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates for former all-star right-hander Gerrit Cole.

Once again, a high-profile team, the defending World Series champion Astros, made a splashy move without having to commit tens of million of dollars in annual salary well into the next decade. It does little to soothe the fraying nerves of all those free agents watching the calendar creep closer to Opening Day, but more than ever, this is how baseball’s offseason talent marketplace operates.

The trade for Cole, 27, cost the Astros four younger players – pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran and outfield prospect Jason Martin – none of whom was indispensable, and it positions them for another run at a championship in 2018. The Astros have two years of Cole’s services before he reaches free agency.

Boswell: Nationals pull ahead in National League by staying in place

Cole, a 19-game winner in 2015, a flamethrower with one of the best fastballs in the game and a workhorse with two 200-inning seasons in the past three years, was the ace of the Pirates’ staff, but he will likely be the No. 3 starter on an impossibly deep Astros rotation headed by Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel. Charlie Morton, a World Series hero who closed out the decisive Game 7 with four dazzling innings of relief, is reduced to being the Astros’ fifth starter in 2018.

The decisiveness of the Astros’ front office over the past 4½ months has been something to behold. On the morning of Aug. 31, 2017, the Astros were 80-53 and running away with the American League West, which they led by 11 games at the time. But General Manager Jeff Luhnow and his lieutenants – in perhaps the most analytics-driven front office in the game – saw the roster as something less than championship-worthy. So they acted.

Since that date, the Astros have acquired Verlander and now Cole, at a cost of seven talented young players. Without the Verlander deal, the Astros almost assuredly would not have won the World Series last fall. Without Cole, the Astros probably would have been fine in 2018. But with him, they are once again monsters.

And perhaps just as importantly, the Astros’ trade for Cole kept the big right-hander from going to the New York Yankees – the team the Astros vanquished in seven games in a thrilling American League Championship Series in October, and the other team the Pirates had engaged heavily in trade discussions this winter.

Diamondbacks prospect pays off parents’ mortgage for Christmas

The Yankees are yet another top team with the means, but not the desire, to spend heavily in free agency this winter. They made their biggest move by far, acquiring slugger Giancarlo Stanton, via a trade with the Miami Marlins, and they were known to covet Cole as well – though not so much that they were willing to include uber-prospect Gleyber Torres in the deal.

With Cole now out of the picture, and few other front-line starting pitchers on the trade market, the Yankees may be forced to revisit the free agent market and fork over a nine-figure contract to the likes of Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta. Such a move would allow them to answer the Astros’ deal for Cole but would also push their payroll past the $197 million luxury-tax threshold that they seem determined to stay under.

Spring training camps open in a month, Opening Day is a mere 10 weeks away, and baseball’s free agent marketplace is awash with talented players looking for a home. Gerrit Cole was not among them, but perhaps the Astros’ trade for him will be the spark that ignites a quiet winter.

More from The Post:

Longtime Nationals third base coach Bob Henley keeps old duties, adds new ones

Will Nationals still sit near the top of MLB in stolen bases under new regime?

BogNats’ 2018 promos include a Max Scherzer eye patch and a ‘Game of Thrones’ figurine