After steady rebuild, Astros on verge of taking a step back

HOUSTON -- No offense to any of his peers, but the next time Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow sees another player receive a no-trade clause, pardon him if he excuses himself.

It’s these no-trade provisions that has him waking up in a cold sweat, wondering if any franchise has been impacted more by trades that never happened than the Astros.

“You can’t help,’’ Luhnow said, “to think about it.’’

No one is saying the Astros would necessarily be leading the AL West these days, or have a 2015 World Series ring, but if not for two exercised no-trade provisions these last 12 months, their fate certainly would look a whole lot different.

The Astros, the American League’s version of the Chicago Cubs a year ago, can only look on in envy this season, fighting for their lives simply to stay relevant in the wild-card race.

The Astros, who were crushed 8-2 Wednesday by the St. Louis Cardinals, are hopelessly out of the division race, losing their fourth constructive game and now trailing the Texas Rangers by 9 ½ games.

They are six games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox in the wild card race entering Wednesday night.

But, oh, how everyting could have been different if Cole Hamels didn’t exercise his no-trade rights when the Philadelphia Phillies were traded to the Astros a year ago, and Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy wouldn’t have vetoed a deal two weeks ago to the Cleveland Indians.

“It changed,’’ Luhnow said, “everything.’’

So instead of the Astros landing Hamels as the ace of the staff, he goes to the division rival Rangers. To make matters worse, if they had acquired Hamels, they wouldn’t have had the same prospects to trade for outfielder Carlos Gomez, who turned into a colossal bust, and last week was designated for assignment.

And instead of landing Lucroy themselves after their trade proposal, he winds up with the Rangers, too.

“So we’ve had two deals not accepted by the player,’’ Luhnow told USA TODAY Sports, “that has directly impacted us the last two trade deadlines.

“That’s why I sure wish teams wouldn’t give out no-trade clauses.’’

If the Astros haven’t suffered enough, even after aggressively bidding on New York Yankees slugger Carlos Beltran, they watched the Rangers land Beltran, too.

The Astros instead did nothing, except trade veteran starter Scott Feldman to the Toronto Blue Jays. Two days later, they lost starter Lance McCullers, who was pitching better than anyone on the staff, with a strained right elbow.

“It’s hard to go from a veteran leader like Feldman to kids who have never been up here,’’ veteran reliever Pat Neshek said, “and find ways to get the team cohesive. We went from two rookies to nine rookies in a couple of weeks. It makes it tough.’’

The Astros, who nearly buried themselves the first two months of the season, going 17-28, only to recover and go 44-27, now are sliding again. They’ve lost four in a row, 10 of their last 15, and the upcoming schedule is relentless. They play 20 of their next 26 games against playoff contenders Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Texas, Cleveland and the Cubs.

“It’s a brutal schedule, which obviously I’ll admit is less than ideal for our group,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “But the way we started the season, we sort of earned the stress. We earned the hill that we have to climb to get where we need to get.

“We still have an opportunity in front of us to do something, but the four months it has taken to get to this point has taken its toll.’’

The Astros, who have the fourth-youngest team in the major leagues, with no one in baseball having more than their nine rookies, have no choice but to do it with their kiddie corps. Their only help is in the farm system, with prized Cuban third baseman Yulieski Gurriel.

Gurriel, who signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract last month, originally was expected to arrive Tuesday. Yet, a 2-for-17 stretch with Class AA Corpus Christi changed those plans. He was promoted, anyways, but only to Class AAA Fresno.

“The feeling was that he wasn’t 100% confident that his timing was there yet,’’ Luhnow said. “He has to be ready and he has to be comfortable that he’s ready.’’

While the Astros have been impressed with rookie third baseman Alex Bregman’s defense, Luhnow says that the starting third base job will go to Gurriel, at least through this season, while Bregman would move to left field. If nothing else, Gurriel should provide an energy boost, helping squelch the letdown after failing to acquire a veteran for the pennant stretch. Besides trying to acquire Beltran and Lucroy, they talked to the Tampa Bay Rays about their starting trio of Chris Archer, Matt Moore and Jake Odorizzi, and even made inquiries about Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale.

They came away empty-handed.

“We attempted to make moves,’’ Luhnow said, “but we weren’t prepared to pay the costs for the players we tried to acquire. The message we delivered to our guys was that we believe there’s talent to win this season with the guys that are here. It should be a boost of confidence to their abilities, as opposed to feeling like we didn’t do anything to help them.

“We did acquire one of the best international players of the last decade, who’s major-league ready. He will be here, help us out, and he should provide a boost.’’

Who knows, maybe it’s silly to dismiss the Astros with six weeks left. They stunk when the expectations were enormous at the season’s start. They thrived when they were counted out. Badly faltered again when they closed within 2 ½ games of the Rangers three weeks ago. Now, just when it looks like they’re done, maybe they’ll have one more surprise.

“I think we play really well as the underdog,’’ Neshek said. “When we’re in position that everybody gives up on us, it’s like, here we come. I just think early on there were a lot of expectations, we kind of went out there expecting things to happen, and they weren’t happening.

“When you have those expectations to win the World Series, and people are picking you as a sure thing, sometimes it’s hard to live up to.’’

Certainly, Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel knows the feeling. A year ago, he was 20-8 with a 2.48. This year, just 7-12 with a 4.86 ERA this year, compared to 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA last season.

“The way this season has panned out sure hasn’t been the way we wanted,’’ said Keuchel, who is yielding a .240 batting average against lefties this year compared to .177 a year ago. “We definitely built ourselves a hole, but I really believe the hitting will be there. It’s the pitching that will make us or break us the last month. If we get good pitching, we’ll be right there. If we don’t, we’ll be sitting at home.’’

Still, if the Astros are to somehow stay in the wild-card race, they’ll need to find production besides their magnificent core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. They believe that Bregman will be a star, and the same with first baseman A.J. Reed, too, but both are clawing toward .200. Outfielders Colby Rasmus, who has battled vertigo after accepting the Astros’ $15.8 million qualifying offer, and Gomez have been disasters.

The Astros still love their future, and hope to add a few veterans in the winter, but for the present, well, it’s starting to look more like a step back after years of dogged progress.

“It’s just been a tough year for us,’’ said Correa, who hit .429 with a 1.324 OPS last week, “but really, I cannot tell you why. What can I tell you?

“It’s baseball, man. “Sometimes, it’s just hard to explain.’’

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