Blockbuster trades by Astros, Angels alter AL playoff chase

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The Houston Astros have acquired pitcher Justin Verlander in a blockbuster trade with the Detroit Tigers.
USA TODAY Sports

The jumbled American League playoff picture got some definition in one stunning day. Who knew the second trade deadline could have such an impact?

Normally the ugly sister of the much-hyped non-waiver trade deadline of a month earlier, Thursday’s final day for transactions involving players eligible for the postseason produced high drama and the relocation of three players with a combined 13 All-Star Game invites.

The upshot: The balance of power has now settled in the American League West, with the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels pulling off blockbuster deals to fortify themselves.

The Astros already boasted the league’s top record and a comfortable cushion that practically guarantees them the division crown, but they have been drifting aimlessly for the last six weeks, going 18-22 since losing star shortstop Carlos Correa to a thumb injury.

Lately, their focus has naturally been diverted to the tragedy unfolding in their home city as it deals with the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, which forced the club to relocate to Florida for a three-game series.

Now, awaiting the Astros when they make a delayed return to Minute Maid Park on Saturday will be former MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, acquired at the last second Thursday in a startling swap with the Detroit Tigers.

The 13-year veteran has a 3.39 ERA in 16 career postseason starts, and he should serve as a stabilizing force for a wobbly rotation that also includes 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, expected back from the disabled list next week.

MORE:

Tigers deal Verlander to Astros in last-minute deadline stunner

As Angels gear up with Upton, Tigers downshift to lengthy rebuild

Angels acquire Phillips in trade with Braves

Correa figures to beat him to the active roster, possibly returning this weekend. The Astros may drift no more.

“I think he’ll add a dimension we don’t have,’’ Astros owner Jim Crane told MLB.com about Verlander. “He’s pitched well his whole career and has been pitching well lately (2.06 ERA in his last seven starts). I think he’ll add a dimension in the playoffs, hopefully, when we get there. I think it’s great for the team. I think the players will be excited and fans will be excited.”

The Astros shouldn’t have much difficulty fending off the Angels, who trail Houston by 11½ games, but may look upon them more warily come October. Until the Verlander shocker, the Angels had owned the day with two out-of-nowhere trades.

Jumping on the Tigers’ desire to rid themselves of the $88.5 million owed Justin Upton in the next four seasons — and other clubs’ reluctance to claim him on waivers — L.A. added a powerful bat to its underwhelming lineup, which ranks 12th in the AL in runs scored.

And not content with the prospect to inserting Upton in the batting order alongside Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, the Angels also dealt for second baseman Brandon Phillips, bolstering yet another position that had been an offensive black hole.

Suddenly the Angels look much better than merely the third-ranking club in an eight-team race for two wild-card slots. With Andrew Heaney rejoining their rotation after recovering from Tommy John surgery — he had an excellent start Monday — and Garrett Richards likely returning this month, the Angels are getting reinforcements right and left.

Will that propel them over the Minnesota Twins, who are somehow not just hanging on to the second wild card but actually thriving with a four-game winning streak and an 11-4 record since Aug. 17? And could the Angels possibly even overtake the New York Yankees, who have been faltering as Aaron Judge’s struggles continue?

We may soon find out. The Angels begin September with a nine-game trip and will play 16 of their last 28 games on the road. That’s a daunting task, especially with 12 of those games coming against two fellow wild-card pursuers from their division in the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. Six other matchups will pit them against the Astros.

But given the developments Thursday, those six could represent more than just a gauge of how much the Astros and Angels have truly improved. They could also provide a preview of what’s in store in the playoffs.

PHOTOS: Players traded after the July 31 deadline

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