WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Given it was only March, a pitcher can't look better than Jose Quintana did when he worked against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
It was the perfect showcase for a pitcher who remains imminently available for any team that has enough high-level prospects to pull off a deal -- like, say, the Astros. They have the pieces it would take to acquire this low-maintenance left-hander who has ranked among Major League Baseball's top 10 starting pitchers the past four seasons.
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Only one issue with this long-rumored trade. The Astros don't need Quintana.
Oh, he'd help them, for sure. He'd help any rotation. But without Quintana, Houston is quietly getting its pitching swagger back this spring.
You may have forgotten that this is a team that led the American League in ERA two years ago. They, however, have not.
"People want to talk about the Indians, want to talk about the Cubs,'' Astros right-hander Lance McCullers said. "Those guys deserve to be recognized because they have great pitching staffs as well. [But] we know what we're capable of, and we've shown that. … When our guys are right, I don't think there's anybody better out there.''
Houston's rotation starts with 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, who paid the price for throwing an AL-high 232 innings by battling shoulder issues throughout last season. He was floundering along at 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts when he was placed on the disabled list in late August.
Keuchel faults himself for not disclosing discomfort in his shoulder when he first felt it last spring. But expectations were high after the Astros beat the Yankees in the 2015 AL Wild Card Game and got within one win of knocking off the defending AL champ Royals in the AL Division Series.
Keuchel is feeling strong and locating pitches this spring.
"Keuchel's as good as they come,'' said 12-year veteran Brian McCann, acquired to be Houston's primary catcher. "I've faced him for a couple years now. He gives you the illusion the ball's on the plate until the last minute, after you've made up your mind to swing, and then the ball's not there. He's going to be a pleasure to catch.''
Rest appears to have repaired the sore elbow that limited McCullers to 14 starts in 2016 after notching a 3.22 ERA over 22 starts in '15, and that's huge for the Astros. His hard curveball is a devastating pitch, and he threw plenty of them in a recent start against the Mets, afterward saying he felt great.
Collin McHugh led Houston in innings last year despite his ERA jumping from 3.89 to 4.34. He was knocked out in the first inning at Yankee Stadium in his first start, and then he gave up five or more earned runs four other times.
"You can go back and look at Collin's year,'' McCullers said. "He probably had three or four horrific starts; you take that away, and he had a [really] good year.''
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow could have landed Chris Sale if he was willing to move Alex Bregman, but he loves his young hitters, including coveted 20-year-old outfielder Kyle Tucker. So rather than look to bring in another proven arm, Luhnow has created safety in numbers.
Houston retained McHugh (who won 19 games two years ago) and Mike Fiers, signed Charlie Morton (two years, $14 million) and developed prospects Joe Musgrove, Francis Martes and David Paulino. All three of the prospects were acquired in their professional infancy from other organizations, on the reports of pro scouting director Kevin Goldstein and his staff.
Musgrove, who appears ahead of Fiers in the Astros' fifth-starter battle, has impressed McCann.
"You see him go about his daily activites, his mindset, it's really impressive,'' McCann said. "To have four pitches and command them in the strike zone [is impressive]. He's going to be very successful at this level for a long time.''
Morton was a low-risk signing after he made only four starts for the Phillies last season because of a left hamstring injury.
"He looks amazing,'' McCann said. "The ball's coming out great. He's throwing sinker, cutter and got that big power curveball. I really like our team.''
So does McCullers, and he's not just talking about the lineup built around Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer.
"If you have the best pitcher in the whole league and the next four guys aren't up to par, you're not going to win a lot of games,'' McCullers said. "The fact we have five really solid guys we can roll into the season with gives us, as a staff and as a team, a lot of confidence.''