MLB Insiders: Houston Astros

A.J. Burnett

The Pirates open a four-game series in Houston on Thursday night. Right-hander A. J. Burnett will be on the mound for the Bucs. Houston will start lefty Dallas Keuchel.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are set to open a season-high 10-game road trip in Houston. Two new faces that they're hoping will help get them to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years will join them there.

Former Astros left-hander Wandy Rodriguez will meet his new Pirates teammates and prized prospect Starling Marte is expected to make his major league debut Thursday night in the opener of a four-game set against woeful Houston.

Pittsburgh (55-42), which has not had a winning record or a playoff appearance since 1992, is atop the NL wild-card race and 2 1/2 games back of NL Central-leading Cincinnati. To bolster a solid rotation led by A.J. Burnett (11-3, 3.59 ERA) and James McDonald, the Pirates acquired Rodriguez from the Astros on Tuesday.

The offense, which combined for four runs and 12 hits in a just-completed three-game series with the Chicago Cubs, may receive a boost from the promotion of Marte from Triple-A Indianapolis.

The 23-year-old Marte hit .286 with 12 homers, 21 doubles, 13 triples, 62 RBIs and 21 steals in 99 games for Indianapolis. He is expected to bat leadoff and be Pittsburgh's everyday left fielder.

Since June 1, the Pirates are second in the majors in both runs (247) and homers (69), but their left fielders have had little to do with that success. For the season, Pittsburgh's left fielders rank last in the majors in batting (.196) and RBIs (25).

The Pirates have won 13 of Burnett's last 14 starts with the right-hander posting a 2.84 ERA, but his worst outing in that stretch came against Houston.

He gave up two runs in eight innings of a 3-2, 12-inning win over the Astros on May 13, but in a rematch July 3, he yielded six runs and a season high-tying 12 hits in five-plus innings of a game the Pirates rallied to win 8-7.

Burnett was much sharper in his last start Saturday against Miami, allowing a run in 7 2-3 innings of a 5-1 win.

He'll be facing a Houston team that has plated three runs or fewer in 12 of 14 games, and has lost 22 of 24.

Closer Francisco Cordero coughed up a ninth-inning lead in each of the last two games for the Astros, who've matched a season-worst nine-game losing streak. They haven't lost 10 in a row since May 20-30, 2007.

Houston manager Brad Mills will now give the ball to Dallas Keuchel (1-2, 4.03), who permitted four runs, seven hits and four walks in 5 2-3 innings of a 6-4 loss in Pittsburgh on July 4.

The rookie left-hander was then sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a couple of starts before being recalled Saturday, when he was knocked around for seven runs and seven hits while walking four in 3 1-3 innings of a 12-3 loss to Arizona.

For one day, all was quiet in the Astros' world, at least from a trade perspective. The 25 players who began the day in uniform all ended it that way in a 5-3 loss to the Reds, so general manager Jeff Luhnow was able to take a little inventory of what the Astros had acquired in four deals in three weeks.

In exchange for the departed Carlos Lee, J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez, the Astros received 11 prospects, two prospects to be named and two big-leaguers. What they did not acquire was any organization's consensus top prospect. Thus, the emphasis was on quantity and on stockpiling players (and especially pitchers) not found at the top of any prospect lists but with a good chance to be solid contributors.

"We shot high every discussion, and most teams were resistant to give up their top prospects," Luhnow said. "You can either walk away at that point or you can work on another solution.

"Because we have lack depth in our system and because you really never know the difference between a No. 2 prospect, a No. 6 prospect and a No. 12 prospect, if we can get three No. 12 prospects instead of one No. 3 prospect we might be better off. And we might see (the rankings) differently than others."

The Astros have been the most active team in the trade market this season, and their experience reflects what's going on across baseball. Top prospects have not been moved, in part because of the elimination of draft-pick compensation for losing one-year rentals to subsequent free agency.

According to Baseball America's preseason rankings, Matt Dominguez was the only prospect in his organization's preseason top five, ranking No. 4 in the Miami system. Other top-10 prospects from their organizations were Rob Rasmussen (Marlins No. 7), Robbie Grossman (Pirates No. 8) and Asher Wojciechowski (Blue Jays No. 10).

Notes, Quotes

RHP Francisco Cordero blew his second save in two chances since coming to the Astros in the trade from Toronto. Manager Brad Mills said he would wait to decide the future of the closer position but felt better about Cordero's stuff than in his first blown save Tuesday. "I thought tonight it seemed crisper than last night, but I thought it was a real good thing to see," Mills said. "I know (Drew) Stubbs got him both nights and it's tough to have the same guy get you both nights, but I definitely thought his stuff was crisper."

LHP Wesley Wright spent his first day Wednesday as the senior member of the Astros, which is fairly incredible since he was a Rule 5 pick before the 2008 season. Wright has been joking about the moment since Astros players started getting dealt recently. He knew that once Wandy Rodriguez was traded, he was it.

LHP Xavier Cedeno was recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City to take Wandy Rodriguez's spot on the roster Wednesday. Cedeno's arrival gave the Astros an eight-man bullpen, which comes at no cost to position players for now. But once a starter has to be called up for Rodriguez's rotation spot on Saturday, that no longer will be the case.

LF J.D. Martinez hit the ol' Little League home run Wednesday night, giving the Astros a 3-2 lead on a double and two errors that allowed him to round the bases. Martinez said he felt much better after being out of the starting lineup the last three days because of a shoulder injury.

2B Jose Altuve continued to show that his post-All-Star slump (3-for-28) might have been just a temporary blip. Altuve is 10-for-19 (.526) in his last five games after a three-hit night that also included a walk.

By The Numbers: 3—Losing streaks of eight games or more for the Astros, including the current one, which reached nine on Wednesday night.

Quote To Note: "I'm sure a lot of us thought that was it. That's baseball. It's frustrating, but I'm sure we'll bounce back." —LF J.D. Martinez after the Astros scored three in the eighth to go up 3-2 but blew it in the ninth Wednesday n Recommended Stories

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