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Are the Astros a match for Cole Hamels?

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Houston is off to a blazing start, but will they upset their timeline to go after Cole Hamels?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Just as you've dug yourself out from under that big pile of Cole Hamels trade rumors, I'm piling another one on top of your poor head.

You see, some things are happening in the American League West. Prior to Monday night's 2-1 loss to the Texas Rangers, the Houston Astros had won 10 games in a row. They have the best record in the American League at 18-8, lead the West by 7 games and have the third-highest run differential in baseball, after the Royals and Cardinals.

As I wrote about for numberFire on Monday, this team that had its last winning season in 2008, and had averaged 104 losses a season over the last four seasons, is suddenly in command of a division that many saw as one of the toughest in baseball heading into the season.

But they are far from a polished product. They hit a lot of homers and have had good success drawing walks, stealing bases and scoring runs. Their bullpen is much improved over last year's horror show, and they have two top starting pitchers in the reigning AL Pitcher of the Month for April in Dallas Keuchel and number-two man Collin McHugh.

However, after those two, Houston is running out Scott Feldman, Roberto Hernandez and Asher Wojciechowski as their bottom three starters, hardly arms to rely on in a heated pennant race.

There is a clear need for a front-line starter in Houston. Which, of course, brings the Phillies into the picture.

Could Cole Hamels be a match for the Astros? In a New York Post article out today, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow seems to understand his team might need one to stay in the race.

"...the back end of our rotation is the area of most concern, and we will try to mix and match internally or go external if that doesn’t work."

Further along in Joel Sherman's piece, there's this.

As one opposing assistant GM said, "I don’t think it is sustainable because they lack starting pitching depth. They have been hot now, but over the course of the season the lack of starting pitching will hurt them."

Before we go any further, it's important to note that the Astros ARE one of the 20 teams on Hamels' no-trade list, so Hamels would need to approve of a trade to Houston, and would most likely require them to pick up his $20 million option in 2019 in order to agree to go there. That would be a payout of $90.5 million from 2016-2019 for Houston, through Cole's 35th birthday.

And as we've said before in other cases, the Astros would have to be willing to trade top prospects in order to land him. It appears as if Luhnow is at least open to the idea, even though the initial projections for his team to contend was still probably a year away. However, when that door opens, it's best to walk through it rather than hope it opens again some other time.

How often does a team break out to a 7-game lead on May 5? Strike while the iron's hot.

Of course, trading prospects could hurt Houston's long-term plan, something Luhnow has spent four long tanking years trying to build. Still, if he's inclined to make a move soon, there are prospects in Houston's system that, as MLB Trade Rumors pointed out today, could interest the Phillies.

The Astros have a host of Top 100 prospects, with Mark Appel likely considered the second-best among their ranks. Appel ranked between 30th and 35th on the Top 100 lists of BA, Law, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, while Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel ranked him 18th entering the season. A deep farm system beyond that top two reveals the likes of Vincent Velasquez, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Domingo Santana, Josh Hader and Brett Phillips, among others. And while parting with a significant portion of that talent would come as an unequivocal blow to their organizational depth, the Astros are positioned to add more high-impact talent in this year’s draft, with two of the top five picks and four of the top 46.

The Astros' top prospect is a 20-year-old stud shortstop named Carlos Correa, who isn't going anywhere. So cross him off your list.

Any deal with Houston would have to include their number-two prospect, right-handed pitcher Mark Appel, who features a mid-90s fastball that easily reaches the upper 90s when needed. He also has a solid slider and changeup, all of which could make him a potential staff ace.

Appel's overall numbers in the minors last year weren't terrific, with a 6.91 ERA in 18 starts between A+ and Double-A. However, he struck out 8.4 batters per nine and walked just 2.6, both of which are very solid peripherals, and his numbers last year upon a promotion to Double-A were pretty good, with a 3.69 ERA in six starts. In five starts this year, he has a 4.57 ERA with 18 strikeouts and 8 walks in 21.2 innings, and this report indicates Houston isn't happy with his inconsistency.

Appel, meanwhile, hasn’t shown the consistency the Astros seek, with a 4.57 ERA in five outings. His first three starts at Corpus Christi saw him allow just three runs in 14 innings with 11 strikeouts in two walks. But his last two have been shakier, with eight runs in 7 2/3 innings.

The righty threw a season-high 90 pitches in a season-low 3 2/3 innings Monday. He struck out a season-high seven — including three Ks in the first inning — but he also walked a season-high four and allowed three runs.

Appel is still largely seen as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, though, someone the Phillies would be sure to ask for in any deal.

Of course, the Phils and Houston have a long history of dealing, with the Phils on the other end of the acquisitions during Ruben Amaro's tenure, acquiring Hunter Pence and Roy Oswalt. Jonathan Singleton and Domingo Santana were dealt away in the Pence trade and are still in the Houston system, but both have struggled a bit over the last two years.

Singleton is hitting .221/.343/.453 in 102 PAs this year with 4 homers and 10 RBIs, after hitting .267/.397/.544 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs last year in Triple A. He's still getting on base at a good clip, but he was brutal during his call-up to the Majors last year, and it's doubtful he'd be a featured player in any deal.

Santana strikes out a ton, 32 times in 86 PAs so far this year, but is also hitting .267/.360/.640 with 7 home runs. He's on the fringes of Houston's top prospects, but his power potential could interest the Phillies in a reunion.

Vincent Velasquez has a terrific arm, but has already undergone a Tommy John surgery and is dealing with more injuries. Lance McCullers Jr. is a 21 year-old right hander pitching very well in Double-A, striking out 12.6 batters per nine, while walking 3.6 and posting an ERA of 0.90 in 20 innings.

There are also a couple other players that are interesting, including 22-year-old third baseman Colin Moran, who came into the season as the 61st best prospect by Baseball America. There is also 21-year-old outfielder Brett Phillips in High-A and 22-year-old outfielder Teoscar Hernandez in Double-A. Hernandez has a lot of power but more downside than Phillips, although neither player is a lock to be a star.

If I'm Ruben Amaro, I'm asking for Appel as the headliner, and I'm not accepting a deal without him. I'd also probably ask for McCullers Jr. and one of Phillips, Hernandez or Santana, plus another lower-level prospect with upside.

It would be a steep price for Houston for sure, and as noted by someone who knows prospects a lot better than I, it is not a perfect farm system from which to choose.

That being said, there are some interesting players there, some of whom are former Phils farm hands. If Houston becomes serious about dealing for a front-line starting pitcher, there may be enough pieces here for a match.

Of course, we've said this before about lots of other folks, haven't we?