Richard Justice

Astros have pieces to be players at Deadline

Justice: Astros will be in good spot at Deadline

Astros have pieces to be players at Deadline
HOUSTON -- For the team seeking a quality starting pitcher, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow is the man to see.

If you're looking for a solid closer, Luhnow can help you there, too.

Need some middle relief? Luhnow might have what you're looking for.

This guy isn't just about pitching. In fact, his shortstop has been very solid this season. For the right price, he could make some lucky manager awfully happy.

As the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches, one of the decisions every general manager has to make is whether he's buying or selling.

That's a tougher question than ever to answer after the Cardinals and Rays came from 10 games off the pace to clinch playoff berths on the final day of the 2011 regular season.

With an additional Wild Card opening in each league, more teams figure to remain in the hunt until the end. At the moment, 19 of baseball's 30 teams are within five games of first place.

Not one of those 19 general managers is completely happy with his team, so there could be a feeding frenzy for available players. Playoff berths could be decided by the general manager who makes the shrewdest moves.

Luhnow has no such questions about buying or selling. His team is the youngest in the National League, and at 24-31, is tied for the fifth-worst record in baseball.

Nothing that happens over the next eight weeks is likely to change Luhnow's blueprint. He was hired from the Cardinals to rebuild a franchise that was once one of the most successful in the game. Between 1997 and 2005, the Astros went to the playoffs five times with a roster dotted with homegrown talent.

As the farm system declined, the Astros learned the tough lesson that no team -- not the Yankees or Red Sox and certainly not the Astros -- can be competitive without a productive farm system.

During Ed Wade's four years as general manager, he steered the franchise back in the right direction, upgrading the Minor League talent from near the bottom to the middle of the pack.

But there's still work to be done. This week's First-Year Player Draft could be a significant step in the right direction. Another could come at the Trade Deadline, because the Astros have some veteran talent that could bring another infusion of young talent into the system.

At the top of the list is closer Brett Myers, who has converted 14 of 15 save chances after being converted to the bullpen after back-to-back 200-inning seasons in the rotation.

Myers, 31, has regained some velocity on his fastball with the switch and, thanks to eight seasons with the Phillies, has been through the highs and lows of a pennant race. He's a tough-minded, combative, competitive soul who seems to relish the big moment.

If your team is shopping for something slightly less expensive, Luhnow has a pair of setup men who could be valuable additions to a pennant race. Wilton Lopez throws hard and misses bats. Meanwhile, Brandon Lyon has made a nice recovery from shoulder surgery and has gotten better and better as the season as worn on.

Luhnow could have one of the better starting pitchers on the market as well. Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez has a 3.34 ERA since the start of the 2009 season and has averaged 197 innings.

He doesn't throw especially hard, but at 33 years old, he has learned to change speeds, pound the strike zone and keep hitters off balance. The downside is that he has two years and $26 million left on his contract after this season.

Finally, there's shortstop Jed Lowrie. At 28, his move from Boston to Houston has jump-started his career. He has been solid across the board, especially offensively, where his .864 OPS is tops among Major League shortstops.

Luhnow probably would discuss any player on his roster, but those four likely will draw the most interest. For his part, Luhnow flatly declines to reveal whether any player is available. He'll only say that he's in a listening mode.

With the playoff races still coming into focus, things may not happen quickly. But as the Deadline approaches, a dozen or so other general managers will likely have his phone number memorized.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.