HOUSTON -- Astros owner Jim Crane said on Monday that the club is "actively pursuing a high-end starter," possibly on the free-agent market, but also through a trade.
Attending a news conference at Houston City Hall to formally announce the Astros' World Series Championship Trophy Tour, Crane said the club would be willing to dip into its talent-rich farm system to acquire a front-line starter and fortify a World Series rotation that starred Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel.
Trade talk between the Astros and the Pirates revolving around Gerrit Cole is picking up steam, a baseball source told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez on Wednesday, and a source told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi that the talks intensified in the past 24 hours, though it is not clear if a deal is imminent. The Astros asked the Pirates about Cole this offseason, a source told Morosi, joining the Yankees in pursuit of Pittsburgh's 2017 Opening Day starter. Neither club has confirmed the negotiations, which were first reported by Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan.
Passan mentioned outfielder Derek Fisher as a possible return and suggested one of two prized prospects -- Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley -- would need to be included as the centerpiece of the deal.
Though Cole was not quite as dominant in 2017 -- his ERA was 4.26 -- he exceeded 200 innings and struck out 196. Cole is under club control through '19 and will become a free agent in '20.
"We're always looking to upgrade the team," Crane said. "It would have to be a significant upgrade. We're happy where we're at. We've been told on paper we have the best team in baseball, but paper doesn't win titles."
Crane declined to name specific players the team may be pursuing and said the Astros haven't sealed any deals, adding that "it may not come to be."
"But," Crane added, "we're constantly looking to improve the team."
The Astros have also been reported to have inquired about free-agent righty Yu Darvish, one of two starters expected to command high dollars but who as of Monday was still unsigned. Right-hander Jacob Arrieta, whom Houston has also inquired about, is the other big-name free agent still looking for a team.
Rays right-hander Chris Archer has also been rumored to be available. The 29-year-old has pitched more than 200 innings in each of his past three seasons and has a career ERA of 3.63. In 2017, he recorded a 4.07 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP with 249 strikeouts.
Archer's team-friendly contract would seemingly add to his allure. He signed a six-year extension with Tampa Bay in 2014 and is signed through '19, with club options in '20 and '21. Archer will make $6.25 million this year and $7.5 million in '19, and if the option years are exercised, he's slated for $9 million in '20 and $11 million in '21.
A slow-moving Hot Stove season has resulted in many free agents still seeking work, even with pitchers and catchers slated to report to Spring Training in a little more than a month.
The Astros are seemingly capable of making another championship run, but they also need to prepare for what could happen beyond 2018, when Keuchel becomes a free agent. If the All-Star lefty does depart, acquiring a starter now could provide depth to protect them against a possible defection.
Houston has made several deals over the past few seasons to strengthen its Major League roster, but the club still has a strong system in case it wants to do more.
"With the depth of the farm system, some of the guys are going to be blocked for some time," Crane said. "It might be prudent to try to make a move and get a deal done that makes sense."