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Astros’ late deadline trade for Zack Greinke brings to mind Justin Verlander move

Zack Greinke is landing in Houston. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
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An MLB trade deadline day marked by inaction and minor moves — with mostly third and fourth starters and middle relievers changing hands, instead of aces and closers — began gaining steam in the hours before the 4 p.m. deadline, and finally exploded in the minutes just after, as news of some late-arriving deals trickled out. And one team, the Houston Astros, emerged as the day’s clear winners, if not this fall’s clear World Series favorites.

While other top contenders picked around the margins of the marketplace, or stood pat completely, the Astros, nearly alone among the elite teams, made the kind of bold move that often means the difference between winning and losing in October.

Already in possession of one of the best rotations in the game, as well as an American League-best 69-39 record entering Wednesday, the Astros sent four top prospects to the Arizona Diamondbacks for veteran right-hander Zack Greinke — a 35-year-old ace with a Cy Young Award and six all-star appearances on his resume, not to mention the ninth-lowest ERA (2.90) and second-lowest walk rate (1.1 per nine innings) in the majors this season.

Pity the team that runs up against the Astros in the Division Series, where their Games 1, 2 and 3 starters, in some order, will be Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Greinke — who are a combined 36-13 with a 2.85 ERA this season, and rank first, fifth and second, respectively, in the majors in walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP).

With apologies to the Los Angeles Dodgers (Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler) and Washington Nationals (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin), no potential playoff team in either league could put forward such a trio in October.

“You just don’t know when you’re going to assemble a group this talented again,” Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow told reporters. “So you have to take advantage of it. ... We are definitely going for it this year.”

The Astros’ late-arriving move — which didn’t even leak until roughly 15 minutes beyond the 4 p.m. deadline, as paperwork was approved at Major League Baseball’s Manhattan offices — was reminiscent of their trade two years ago for Verlander, a move that ultimately helped them win the 2017 World Series.

But there was one major difference: that deal occurred on Aug. 31, at the so-called “waiver” trade deadline (because involved players had to first clear waivers) — which baseball eliminated this year, consolidating its trade protocols into a single July 31 deadline.

The Astros’ cost to land Greinke was understandably steep. The four prospects they sent to Arizona — first baseman/outfielder Seth Beer, right-hander J.B. Bukauskas, right-hander Corbin Martin and infielder Joshua Rojas — were rated the third-, fourth-, fifth- and 22nd-best minor leaguers in their system by MLB Pipeline.

The Diamondbacks also reportedly sent $24 million to the Astros to partially offset Greinke’s remaining salary in 2019, plus 2020 and 2021, when his $35 million salaries will again rank among the game’s highest. Greinke also represents a solid hedge in the event Cole, as most industry observers expect, departs via free agency after this season.

Less sexy, but potentially crucial in their own right, were the Astros’ late-breaking trade with the Toronto Blue Jays for reliever Joe Biagini and swingman Aaron Sanchez. Neither pitcher has been at his best this year, but given the Astros’ reputation and track record for turning around struggling pitchers, it would surprise few if Biagini and Sanchez, the latter a former all-star, wound up contributing for them down the stretch and in October.

While the Astros moved swiftly and decisively to add pitching, their chief competitors in the AL, the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, were far less bold. The Yankees, with their rotation suddenly compromised by injury and underperformance, made no big league deals whatsoever, while the Twins added a solid reliever — Sam Dyson from the San Francisco Giants. The AL East-leading Yankees, at 67-39, trailed the Astros by a game in the overall league standings entering Wednesday, while the Central-leading Twins (65-41) were four back.

Notably, Greinke had the Yankees as one of the 15 teams on the no-trade list in his contract, but did not have the Astros on it.

Meanwhile, the National League lacked the same sort of signature move that the Astros pulled in the AL, but the Chicago Cubs, who ceded first place in the NL Central to the rival St. Louis Cardinals this week, made a late-breaking trade with the Detroit Tigers for outfielder/third baseman Nicholas Castellanos — who should help them against left-handed pitching down the stretch while serving as insurance as Kris Bryant deals with a knee injury. Castellanos cost the Cubs two pitching prospects.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, whose 70-39 record entering Wednesday led the majors and stood 6 ½ games clear of their closest NL pursuer, were also curiously quiet. Despite an obvious need for bullpen help, which had them linked to most if not all of the top available relief arms on the market, the Dodgers added just one modest piece — lefty Adam Kolarek, who had a 4.19 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays but has limited left-handed batters to a .209 batting average.

The Dodgers would have preferred all-star lefty Felipe Vazquez of the Pittsburgh Pirates — as would any team — but reportedly balked at the Pirates’ high demands for him.

There seemed to be a lot of that dynamic going around, in what was decidedly a seller’s market — aided by the wide open wild-card races in both leagues that resulted in few teams being clear sellers. Despite rampant rumors and speculation in the weeks leading up to Wednesday, top starting pitchers such as San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and Texas’s Mike Minor, as well as relievers such as Toronto’s Ken Giles, San Francisco’s Will Smith and the Mets’ Edwin Diaz stayed put.

“We tried,” Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters after his team, out of range of the Yankees in the East but in the hunt for a wild card, failed to address its bullpen shortcomings. “We just didn’t like the asking prices. We went right to the very end.”

But as always, moving decisively at the trade deadline was a choice some teams made, no matter the costs, and some didn’t. While the Astros clearly ruled the day in the AL, their counterparts in the NL were the Atlanta Braves.

Even as the Braves’ battered bullpen was blowing another save Wednesday at Nationals Park — in a game against Washington that Atlanta ultimately won in 10 innings — their front office was pulling off major deals, completed within minutes of each other, to acquire a pair of accomplished relievers: Detroit Tigers closer Shane Greene, an all-star this season, and San Francisco Giants veteran Mark Melancon, a three-time all-star.

Those moves, paired with their trade for Texas Rangers right-hander Chris Martin the day before, should overhaul the Braves’ bullpen as the team embarks on a two-pronged mission to hold off the Nationals in the NL East and construct a roster capable of taking on the Dodgers in the NL side of the playoff bracket.

The dealmaking may have been slower than in years past, and the biggest names on the market — those of both players and teams — may have stayed put at the close of Wednesday’s business. But as the Astros and Braves and a handful of other teams showed, there were major, game-changing deals there to be made. All you had to do was say yes.

Nationals, Athletics make minor moves

By early afternoon Wednesday, as the minutes ticked away to the 4 p.m. cutoff, most of the movement was confined to No. 3 and No. 4 starting pitchers or sixth- and seventh-inning relievers changing teams — with the Washington Nationals doing much of the heavy lifting by obtaining three relievers in exchange for low-level prospects: lefty Roenis Elias and right-hander Hunter Strickland from the Seattle Mariners (in separate deals) and right-hander Daniel Hudson from the Toronto Blue Jays.

Cincinnati Reds right-hander Tanner Roark, the former Nationals workhorse, was dealt to the Oakland Athletics — who, like many contenders, were looking to make minor upgrades without giving up premium prospects.

Indians deal mercurial Trevor Bauer, acquire also-mercurial Yasiel Puig

Tuesday: Two games out of first place at the start of Tuesday’s play and in possession of the first wild card in the American League, the Cleveland Indians on the surface would appear to be strange candidates to jolt the sport of baseball on the eve of Wednesday’s trade deadline by dealing away their most dependable, innings-eating starting pitcher.

But in these strange times for the industry, where bleak, small-market economics intersect with risk-averse, analytics-based decision-making, the Indians’ trade of former all-star Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds — as part of a three-way deal that also included the San Diego Padres — made a certain sort of twisted sense.

In return for Bauer, the iconoclastic right-hander with a 9-8 record and 3.79 ERA this season, the Indians reportedly received right fielder Yasiel Puig from the Reds and outfielder Franmil Reyes and left-handed pitcher Logan Allen from the Padres. The Padres, meanwhile, received highly regarded outfield prospect Taylor Trammell from the Reds.

The deal also reportedly involves prospects Scott Moss and Victor Nova. Cleveland received Moss, a left-handed pitcher, from Cincinnati and Nova, a 19-year-old infielder, from San Diego.

So why, in the heat of a playoff race, would the Indians trade Bauer, a 28-year-old workhorse who leads the majors in innings pitched this season and is under team control through next season?

It wasn’t about Bauer’s quirky personality, which is an acquired taste, to put it lightly — exemplified most recently by his chucking the baseball from the mound over the center field wall as he was being pulled from his most recent start. Bauer was a fixture of baseball’s trade-rumor mill even before that episode.

From the Indians’ standpoint, the trade was equally about economics — as a small-market team, they felt they wouldn’t be able to afford his salary in 2020 — and old-fashioned baseball dealmaking. Still hopeful of catching the first-place Minnesota Twins in the AL Central, the Indians felt they were dealing from a position of strength (starting pitching) to bolster a deficiency (outfield).

With two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and veteran standout Carlos Carrasco expected back in the coming weeks, and with youngsters Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac taking major leaps forward this summer, the Indians felt the time was right to spin Bauer off for outfield help. Puig, 28, and Reyes, 24, have combined for 49 homers this season. (Puig, though, is at least as mercurial as Bauer; and as if on cue, he was involved in a benches-clearing brawl in his final moments in a Reds uniform Tuesday night.)

The bigger question with the Bauer trade was: What were the Reds thinking? This marked the second time in three days that a starting pitcher coveted by numerous contenders wound up going to a fourth-place team on the outer fringes of contention. On Sunday, it was the New York Mets swooping in to nab right-hander Marcus Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays. On Tuesday, it was the Reds — who were 6 1/2 games out of a playoff spot — and Bauer.

As with the Mets two nights before, the Reds sacrificed a chunk of their future — Trammell, 21, was the 16th-rated prospect in the game by MLB Pipeline before the season — for a pitcher who is unlikely to push them into the playoffs this season. But in both cases, the moves appeared to be focused more on 2020 than 2019, because both Stroman and Bauer will presumably be part of formidable rotations in New York and Cincinnati, respectively, next season.

Given the strange, stagnant state of free agency in recent winters, it appears teams such as the Mets and Reds have discovered an alternative way — counterintuitive trades — to augment their rosters for future seasons.

Mets defy reason, acquire Marcus Stroman from Blue Jays

Sunday: While the standings typically divide major league baseball into buyers and sellers at the July 31 trade deadline with a high degree of logic and reason, there is sometimes no accounting for whim, reckless abandon or the New York Mets.

And so, the main-event portion of this summer’s trade season commenced Sunday evening, less than 72 hours before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, with a shocker of a deal: The New York Mets, 11½ games out of first place in the National League East and six back for a wild card, made a big move — not to unload veteran pieces but to acquire one.

The Mets reached an agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays to acquire right-hander Marcus Stroman, a top target of a half-dozen or more contenders. The deal sends pitching prospects Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson to the Blue Jays. MLB.com first reported a deal was done; the Athletic first reported Toronto’s return.

The word “contender” is not one that has often been applied to the Mets in recent weeks — outside of Queens, apparently. Aside from their sizable deficits in the standings and their fourth-place position in the East at 50-55, the Mets were also staring up at seven teams ahead of them in the wild-card chase — a hill most teams would see as insurmountable.

But a 10-4 spurt over the past two weeks, capped by an 8-7 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, may have swayed the Mets’ brain trust and caused the unforeseen shift from sellers — with closer Edwin Díaz, third baseman Todd Frazier and starters Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler among those rumored to have been available — to sudden buyers.

Stroman, a 28-year-old Long Island native, was one of the prized arms of this marketplace, a first-time all-star this season who sports a career-best 2.96 ERA and who should be able to put up even better numbers in the NL. He is also under team control through the 2020 season — which means the Mets, even if they fall short this year, could still field a formidable rotation, headed by ace Jacob deGrom, next season.

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