BALTIMORE — The Houston Astros were in first place in the American League West by 3½ games on May 1, by 11 games on June 1 and by 13½ games on July 1, and they were 17 games up on the morning of July 24 — which is also one week before the Major League Baseball nonwaiver trade deadline. In essence, they have had the luxury of preparing for October since well before spring turned to summer, which is why the only question left regarding the Astros is this: Is the AL's regular-season juggernaut built to win in the postseason?
Even as they were winning two of three games from the Baltimore Orioles this weekend — to improve to 65-33, a 107-win pace over 162 games — the answers were not readily apparent. Two of those three games featured meltdowns by the Astros' bullpen: On Friday night, the Astros entered the eighth inning ahead by seven runs but barely held on for an 8-7 win. And on Sunday, the bullpen turned a one-run lead entering the seventh into a 9-7 loss.
Jeff Luhnow certainly doesn't believe the Astros are a finished product. The Astros GM has been laying low but is known to be on the hunt for pitching this month, with an eye toward October. That means his only targets would be a high-end starter who could start a Game 2 or 3 of a postseason series (assuming ace Dallas Keuchel, on his way back from a neck injury, is healthy enough to take the ball in Game 1), or an elite reliever who could lock down a late-inning, game-on-the-line situation. Or both.
With Keuchel expected to return as soon as this week and with Collin McHugh (43-26 with a 3.71 ERA from 2014-16) having made his season debut on Saturday, the Astros' rotation no longer appears to be in such critical condition. (Not that any rotation wouldn't benefit from the addition of say, Sonny Gray from the Oakland A's.)
But the bullpen is another story. While the Astros possess a capable closer in Ken Giles, and a brilliant, multi-inning, high-leverage monster in All-Star right-hander Chris Devenski — two primary reasons the Astros' relievers lead the majors with a strikeout rate of 11.3 per nine innings — there aren't many other arms down there in whom manager A.J. Hinch has shown complete trust of late, especially with right-hander Will Harris currently on the disabled list. It is also a bullpen that has been heavily taxed, given the many injuries to the rotation — Astros relievers have thrown the fifth-most innings in the AL, and Devenski has thrown more innings, 581/3, than any reliever in the majors.
Most glaringly, the Astros don't have a dependable left-handed specialist to attack the opponents' best left-handed hitters, with Hinch sometimes bypassing Tony Sipp, his lone lefty, in favor of one of his better right-handers, especially late in games.
"We just keep throwing righties at them," Giles said of the Astros' lack of left-handed options. "All of us can get lefties out. That hasn't been a problem. We're more prepared for lefties than for righties in some ways. … Even if we're dead tired, we're going to go out there and grind it out for our teammates."
Added Devenski: "We've got guys from the right side who have the kind of stuff that plays well against lefties. We're all different as pitchers, but we have a good plan and approach against lefties."
But it's telling that the Astros' relievers did not disagree when it was suggested they could benefit from an additional arm or two for the stretch run.
"If the front office feels like they'd be more comfortable adding someone else — the more, the merrier," Giles said. "We're open arms. There's never any hard feelings over asking for more help."
Said Devenski: "I'm always in favor of anything that makes us better."
Everyone knows what happened at last year's deadline. The Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, both already in possession of solid bullpens, made deals that pushed them over the top — with the Indians acquiring lefty Andrew Miller and the Cubs getting closer Aroldis Chapman, both from the New York Yankees, sacrificing sizable chunks of their future to import the sort of weapons that become crucial in October.
For the 2017 Astros, the best option to shore up their October bullpen may have been the one mowing down their hitters in the ninth inning Sunday. Orioles lefty Zach Britton pitched a scoreless ninth, with two strikeouts and a walk, and with a sinking fastball that sat at 97 mph, for his 55th consecutive save dating from last year. If the Orioles decide in the next several days that they are ready to part with veteran pieces, Britton, despite missing much of this season with an arm injury, would be a perfect fit for the Astros — he can get out lefties, close games, pitch multiple innings, or all of the above.
Though the cost for Britton would be steep — the Orioles would almost certainly require, as a starting point, Francis Martes, a right-hander rated as the 48th-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, and someone who could slot immediately into the Orioles' rotation — the Astros have a deep farm system, rated third best in the game, from which to deal.
As currently constructed, the Astros may be the AL's best regular-season team since the 116-win Seattle Mariners of 2001. But nobody wants to be remembered for that (just ask those 2001 Mariners, who lost in the ALCS). All that matters now is October, and what happens by the end of this month will go a long way toward determining what sort of team the Astros will be in the postseason.