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Should Astros target starting pitching or relief pitching? Why not both?

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HOUSTON – The Houston Astros are yet again one of the best teams in the majors but are a couple of pieces short of being the dominant team in the American League – especially when they may have to face the New York Yankees or Minnesota Twins powerhouse offense in the playoffs.

Barring injuries, Houston’s lineup is basically set – aside from average production from the catcher spot between Robinson Chirinos and Max Stassi (.705 combined OPS), the Astros have more than above-average production everywhere else. One-through-eight in the lineup is terrifying, and only the Yankees, Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers can field a lineup as good or nearly as good.

Rotation issues

The Astros issues heading into the playoffs lie in the rotation. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are two of the best pitchers in baseball, and Wade Miley has been a surprise with a 3.06 ERA in 22 starts, but with injuries to Lance McCullers Jr. and Brad Peacock, the Astros currently don’t have a No. 4 starter.

Rookie Jose Urquidy, a nonprospect, has pitched well in his past two starts (1.38 ERA in 13 IP) and can likely hold down the No. 5 spot until the playoffs start.

Peacock is a potential No. 4 starter, but Miley’s postseason experience is limited to the 2018 run with Milwaukee, one where the Brewers never let him pitch more than 5.2 innings. Miley has been good, but the Astros would like a stronger No. 3 starter.

Bullpen woes

For the bullpen, Houston has been one of the best in the majors, but with a recent recurring knee injury to Ryan Pressly and shaky stats from Chris Devenski and Will Harris, the Astros need another piece to feel comfortable.

Here’s a look at the Astros Trade deadline pitching targets:

Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets

  • Age: 26
  • Right-handed starting pitcher
  • 2019 Stats: 7-5, 4.33 ERA, 126 K in 126.2 IP

Syndergaard's numbers have been down this season, but his track record is excellent. He also has dominant playoff experience. Most recently, he pitched seven scoreless innings against the Giants in the 2016 Wild Card game.

Syndergaard has a career 2.42 ERA in 26 playoff innings. He throws a 100 mph fastball, a 93 mph slider and his curveball has been described as “the hook from hell” by ex-Mets manager Terry Collins.

It will likely take too much of a prospect cost to acquire Syndergaard, but the Mets are determined to trade him.

Syndergaard has two more years of team control after the 2019 season. The Astros would be World Series favorites with this acquisition.

Noah Syndergaard reacts after recording the final out of the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 10, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.
Noah Syndergaard reacts after recording the final out of the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 10, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.

Zack Wheeler, New York Mets

  • Age: 29
  • Right-handed starting pitcher
  • 2019 Stats: 7-6, 4.71 ERA, 137 K in 124.1 IP

Zack Wheeler would be a rental because he is in his final year before free agency. It would also make his cost much lower.

Wheeler has struggled with inconsistency this season, but at his peak can be dominant. Wheeler pitched to a 1.68 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break last season.

Wheeler is also coming off a minor shoulder injury, which continues to lower his cost. The Astros must be wary, as he has an extensive injury history. Wheeler missed 2015 and 2016 after Tommy John surgery and resulting complications with his rehab.

Wheeler is an intriguing option because he could slot in as the Astros No. 3 starter in the playoffs or be used as a long reliever in case of a short start. At his peak, Wheeler throws 99 mph and could play well in the bullpen.

Zack Wheeler is taken out of the game in the sixth inning during their game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field on July 07, 2019, in New York City.
Zack Wheeler is taken out of the game in the sixth inning during their game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field on July 07, 2019, in New York City.

Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers

  • Age: 28
  • Left-handed starting pitcher
  • 2019 Stats: 6-8, 3.94 ERA, 178 K in 132.1 IP

Boyd is probably the second-best starter on the market behind Syndergaard and has had great strikeout numbers this season. 2019 is also by far his best season at age 28, and he’s controllable for three more years.

Because he’s left-handed, and because of his uptick in strikeouts this year, Boyd will come with a heavy prospect cost. He pitched against the Astros once this season, and struggled, giving up three runs in four innings. At his peak, Boyd struck out 13 Yankees in his second start of the season. He has struggled lately, pitching to a 5.28 ERA in his past 10 starts covering June and July.

Starting pitcher Matthew Boyd pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning at Progressive Field on July 18, 2019, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Starting pitcher Matthew Boyd pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning at Progressive Field on July 18, 2019, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Robbie Ray, Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Age: 27
  • Left-handed starting pitcher
  • 2019 Stats: 9-7, 3.91 ERA, 173 K in 129 IP

The Diamondbacks may not be looking to sell, but Ray would be a good acquisition for the Astros. Ray would also likely cost a bit much. Ray would only have one more year of control before 2021 free agency but has been great the past three years. Ray has been near the NL lead in strikeout rate for those three seasons.

Starting pitcher Robbie Ray pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during the sixth inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on July 22, 2019, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Starting pitcher Robbie Ray pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during the sixth inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on July 22, 2019, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians

  • Right-handed starting pitcher
  • Age: 28

There’s no point to get into it – the Astros have no interest in trading for Bauer.

Starting pitcher Trevor Bauer watches from the dugout after leaving the game during the 7th inning of the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on July 02, 2019, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Starting pitcher Trevor Bauer watches from the dugout after leaving the game during the 7th inning of the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on July 02, 2019, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Mychal Givens, Baltimore Orioles

  • Age: 29
  • Right-handed relief pitcher
  • 2019 Stats: 1-5, 4.54 ERA, 57 K in 41.2 IP

Givens would be a reasonable, smaller move that the Astros would easily be able to get done with a mid-tier prospect. The Orioles reliever has struggled this season but is controllable through two more seasons and has been a reliable back end option for five years now.

Mychal Givens delivers a pitch during the bottom of the ninth inning of the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 3, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Mychal Givens delivers a pitch during the bottom of the ninth inning of the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 3, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Shane Greene, Detroit Tigers

  • Right-handed relief pitcher
  • Age: 30
  • 2019 Stats: 0-2, 1.22 ERA, 22 Saves

Greene is an All-Star closer and will likely take too great of a prospect haul to get for the Astros, but stranger things have happened. Greene's track record of struggles as closer (5.12 ERA in 2018) could work against the Tigers when it comes to asking for too much.

It's unlikely the Astros are willing to spend for Greene, but if Pressly's knee injury is significant enough to warrant an IL stint, or hurts his effectiveness heading into the playoffs, Greene may be an option.

Relief pitcher Shane Greene throws in the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on July 14, 2019, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Relief pitcher Shane Greene throws in the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on July 14, 2019, in Kansas City, Missouri.