Whenever major league baseball’s annual trading deadline rolls around on the last day in July, it generally involves the real good teams that are contending for a division pennant and the real lousy teams that already are out of the playoff picture.

Unfortunately, our Houston Astros fall in the latter category and will become sellers instead of buyers as Sunday’s trading deadline nears.

In fact, the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants got a head start on the field by snapping up Houston’s veteran starting second baseman Jeff Keppinger last week in return for a pair of minor league pitching prospects, 25-year old Henry Sosa and 22-year-old Jason Stoffel, a fourth-round draft choice in 2009.

The trade opened a spot on the Astros’ 25-man roster that was filled with 21-year-old second sacker Jose Altuve, who leads all of the minor leagues with a .389 combined batting average (139-for-357). Keppinger was batting .307 with four home runs and 20 RBI in 43 games this season.

The Astros bought Altuve’s contract from Class AA Corpus Christi and received relief from the balance of Keppinger’s $2.3 million salary this season. The addition of Altuve and 20-year old Jordan Lyles lowered the average age of the Astros to somewhere in the middle 20’s.

Major league scouts from contending teams have been flocking at the Astros’ games the past couple of weeks looking at some of the Houston players. The most interest seems to be in speedy outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn plus veteran pitchers Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez.

According to last Friday’s edition of the Houston Chronicle, the Astros are listening to teams interested in Pence, but they will have to offer a lot. Pence would be a good fit for the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, all of which are shopping for a right fielder.
“Since Bourn is among the newest additions to agent Scott Boras’ stable, the Astros may be best getting something for him before he hits the free agent market,” the Chronicle pointed out. Possible teams courting Bourn include the Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves.

Rodriguez and Myers both sport hefty, long-term contracts that the Astros may be asked to eat some of the salary on, but teams needing a crafty lefty include the New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. Myers would be good for any team not afraid to take a fly-ball pitcher who leads the major leagues in home runs surrendered.

In an article written by former Houston Astros’ manager Larry Dierker for MLB.com, he points out that “when you rebuild a team like the Astros, you attempt to fill your needs with young players and Pence and Bourn are both only 28 years old.

“If they were five years older, they would likely join the pennant race in another city in August. That’s what happened to Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman last season,” the article continued.
Perhaps the hottest commodity during this final week of the trading deadline is former Astro and present New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran. He was also pursued heavily after his stint with Houston, when he chose the Mets over the Astros a few years ago.

According to Jim Heyman of Sports Illustrated, the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are the teams leading the Beltran sweepstakes. Heyman also mentions that the Milwaukee Brewers are involved as well.

“The Phillies are the best team in baseball and won’t be affected that much if they don’t land Beltran,” wrote Eric Bowman of bleacherreport.com on Friday. “Adding Beltran would strengthen the Phillies’ offense and make all teams fear them even more heading into the postseason.

“The Atlanta Braves have the best shot at landing Beltran, but it’s the San Francisco Giants who desperately need a power hitter. The Giants rank 26th in hitting and if they expect to defend their World Series title, then they need to make a deal for Beltran now.

“The Mets really want some of the Braves’ top pitching prospects, which is why Atlanta has the best chance at landing Beltran,” the article concluded.

But as far as the Astros are concerned, let’s hope the Jeff Keppinger trade is the only raid of Houston’s starting players. If they expect to start building a winning franchise, it must have a nucleus of players like Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. Otherwise they’re looking six-to-ten years down the road.

KWICKIES…Former Oklahoma head basketball coach Kelvin Sampson has re-surfaced as the lead assistant for Houston Rockets’ new head man Kevin McHale. Sampson, 55, posted a 279-109 record with the Sooners from 1994-2006. He had been cited for exceeding the number of phone calls permitted to recruits under NCAA rules while he was coach at Oklahoma.

We hate to keep harping about the way and number of losses the Houston Astros roll up, but they found another way to lose Sunday in Chicago when Hunter Pence lost a fly ball in the tough Wrigley Field sun with the score tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 10th inning that fell for a triple. After a couple of intentional walks to load the bases, pinch-hitter Jeff Baker slapped a single over the drawn-in infield, giving the Cubbies a 5-4 win and a sweep of the three-game weekend series. The Astros lost 67 of their first 100 games, topping the record of the 1962, ’63 and 1975 teams that lost 64 of their first 100 games.

Although the annual Hall of Fame exhibition football game set for Aug. 7 has been canceled this year because of the NFL lockout, second baseman Roberto Alomar, pitcher Bert Blyleven and executive Pat Gillick were inducted Sunday at Cooperstown. Gillick, who built champions at Toronto and Philadelphia, got his start with the Houston Colt .45’s/Astros from 1963-74. “Tal Smith took me under his wing and became my mentor and friend, a friend to this day. Thanks Tal,” Gillick said at the induction ceremony. However, the canceled football game between the Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Rams will lose the Hall of Fame about $1.5 million.

The American men’s swimming team lost a relay Sunday for the first time since 2007 in any world or Olympic competition and finished a disappointing third in the 400-meter freestyle relay. Michael Phelps put his teammates in second place on the opening leg, but his three teammates were unable to gain and were upset by the Australians. France took the silver while the Americans received a bronze medal.

JUST BETWEEN US…Now that the NFL’s new 10-year collective bargaining agreement was approved Monday by a simple majority vote by the players, the lockout is over and the draft choices and free agents should be getting signed by their teams. The players should be reporting to their respective training facilities to begin conditioning drills and classroom instructions after going through the formality of voting to re-certify as a union.