Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On the Dexter Fowler Trade

Yesterday, the Astros finalised their trade of Fowler to the Cubs - a deal that has apparently been percolating for the last six weeks or so.  I had an article planned (and which I will still write) about why the trade market for Castro and Fowler has been a little slow this winter.  Essentially, teams seem happy to have a glove-first guy at C and CF, and the teams that do have a weakness in that area are not great match-ups for the Astros in trade talks for various reasons.  Fowler finally got traded, and the published analysis seem to see the trade as fair, logical and good for both teams (although this pundit likes it for the Cubbies).

Looking at this trade purely from the Astros' perspective - and ignoring any judgment about who "won" the trade - it is evident that this trade was one that needed to be completed.  The loss of what Fowler brings to the table is significant, as he is a solid player who likely would have played well enough for a qualifying offer at the end of the year.  But subtracting him for an infielder who can be a league-average bat at the left side of the infield is also an idea of considerable merit.

Lets start by looking at what Fowler is.  He is a solid source of on-base percentage, and a great baserunner (but not necessarily a base stealer).  OBP is vital for the Astros, who seem to be hell-bent on assembling a lineup of high-strikeout power-hitters.  OBP turns solo homers into crooked-number innings.  OBP ratchets up the pressure on the pitchers, who must deliver strikes when players are on-base, perhaps making the chances of a fat, hittable pitch more likely.

Fowler, and his career .366 on-base percentage, was an ideal switch- and leadoff-hitter on the Astros.  With the Astros, he struck out at an average-to-slightly-superior clip (21.4%), walked a lot (13.1%) and stole a few bases (11, versus 4 caught-stealings).  As mentioned above, most of his measured base-running value is in taking the extra-base and going first-to-third, rather than base-thievery, so he should be seen as an intelligent baserunner, rather than an out-and-out burner like Jose Altuve.

Fowler plays a moderate CF.  His defensive numbers - depending on whether you choose to believe them or not - peg him as a fairly awful CF compared with other major-leaguers, which is a combination of a poor range and weak throwing arm.  I also recall that he botched a number of plays late in the season last year, including a dropped fly-ball, a couple of outfield bobbles, and a slow throw into second that allowed the opponent to take an extra-base, which are more examples of sloppy play rather than defensive weakness.  The CF fielding numbers measure his poor range and noodle-arm, rather than overt lapses of concentration - but it could be true to say that the lapses of concentration and the fielding metrics were both difficulties.

None of this is a problem for many ML teams.  Fowler is a perfectly passable CF plug-in, especially on a one-year contract.  However on the Astros, Fowler would probably be the fourth best defensive option as a CF, and profiles better as a LF on the Astros.  Presley, Springer and Marisnick are all better defensive options than Fowler, and perhaps Grossman represents one as well.

Fowler's bat is a big-plus as a CF, but as a corner outfielder, that would not necessarily be the case.  His OBP is great at any position, but most teams would likely want more power out of a corner outfielder.  Fowler should not be keen to make the shift a corner position with one year to go before free agency, either, as it most likely diminishes his value considerably.  So the Astros may have been keen for a defensive upgrade in CF, but would likely have faced some resistance from Fowler had he been asked to move to the corners.

Additionally, MMP has a giant CF to patrol, and a comparatively small LF - which is important for half of the game the Astros will play.  Putting Fowler in left would not necessarily be a good use of what defensive virtues he does have.  And he doesn't have the arm for right, so flipping the defensive positions of Fowler and Springer was never going to fly, either.

What this does - in terms of the Astros outfield situation - is very interesting.  Prior to the Rasmus signing - which has just been made official - it likely raised the possibility of a platoon between Marisnick and Presley or Marisnick and Grossman.  That platoon could exist either in CF or RF, with Springer manning the other position.  One assumes that Gattis will man LF, but this is also subject to confirmation, and there appears to be a non-zero possibility that Carter will be traded and Gattis never sets foot in the outfield.  Gattis remains listed on the 40-man as a catcher, but this means precisely nothing at the moment.  And if Gattis is considered an outfielder then I would think that the Astros will want to carry four others on the active roster for reasons of allowing both rest and defensive substitutions.

The complexity of all of this makes my head spin, and much depends on any personnel moves in the next few weeks.  But what the Astros have created is the possibility of a very flexible outfield alignment, with legitimate ML bats being able to be plugged in at one of a number of positions.  Which acts as a nice segway to the main spoils of the trade, infielder Luis Valbuena, who also happens to have a good bat (or at least did in 2014), and offers considerable positional flexibility.

Valbuena seems like an... uh, expressive ballplayer, whose various (sometimes hypotheticalbat-flipping antics (and his awesome own appeal to the third base umpire) have gained him a bit of a following in Chicago.  Much like Fowler, he has considerable appeal that falls short of all-round awesomeness, and he is in an organisation which has a lot of league-minimum depth at his position(s).  His strong points include a degree of positional flexibility, batting left-handed, patience (walk rate at least 11.9% since 2012) and some recent power (.435 slugging in 2014) - albeit at the expense of contact (20.7% strikeout percentage in 2014 - the highest of his career).  This makes him ideal to plug in at third base on the 2015 Astros, potentially as part of a platoon with Dominguez.  His drawbacks include a short track record of success, middling (read: probably below average) defence and a lack of speed.  And again, as with Gattis, the Astros are gambling on recent track-record being more indicative of future performance in a player in their late-20's, and this seems like a good guy to take a gamble on.

The other part of the trade - Dan Straily - is an interesting pitcher - a soft-tosser who has previously had some success in the AL West based on solid strikeout rates.  However, he can be somewhat homer-prone and gives up a lot of walks, which has led to some rough periods throughout his career.  He had a solid but short 2012 in the Majors - when he threw 39.1 innings - and a good 2013 - when he threw 152.1 innings of league-average ball, both for a contending Oakland team.     Last year represented a large slide backwards in terms of results (6.75 ERA, 5.32 FIP in 52 major-league innings) despite no real change in peripherals.  Straily has suggested that he had some mechanical issues last year, which potentially bodes well for a bit of Brett Strom magic.  But at this time he is probably best thought of as a pitching project who lives on a knife-edge even when throwing well, and has no real margin for error.  Brad Peacock, anyone?

The Rasmus signing perhaps adds a little to the Front Office's thinking behind the Fowler trade, but that is a subject for another article.  For now, I like this trade, mostly because Fowler represented a poor defensive CF option or a powerless corner option for the Astros, and the Astros had a number of other superior defensive options to patrol CF in the 81 games at MMP.  The loss of the OBP may be significant, but the Astros are now close to fielding a team where every player in the regular batting lineup (aside from the current AL batting champ) could hit 20 homers.  Which is what they seem to be aiming for, and which is another reason why Fowler perhaps didn't fit.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Astros sign Colby Rasmus, Subject to Confirmation.

Apparently, the deal will be for one year.  As yet, no other contract details are available aside from the fact that Rasmus will earn north of 4MM.

A 40-man roster place would have to be cleared for either Rasmus or Ryan Vogelsong to be added.  I doubt either would agree to a minor-league deal.

SNEAKY BATGUY UPDATE: Looks like the deal for Rasmus is for $8M. Carlos Corporan has been designated for assignment to make room on the 40 man. Corp had recently agreed on a $975K, 1 year deal with the Astros to avoid arbitration.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Astros trade Dexter Fowler to Cubs

So the Astros were back at it again today, trading Dexter Fowler and his .375 OBP (and injury concerns) to the Cubs for pitcher Dan Straily and utility infielder Luis Valbuena.

Since we're Astros fans, and have been conditioned to think of the financial aspect first, let's take a look at that. Fowler, who was arbitration-eligible for the final time and would be a free agent at the end of the season, had asked for $10.8m. The Astros had offered $8.5m. Valbuena settled his arbitration case last Friday for $4.2m, So at the very minimum, the Astros saved themselves $4.3m in 2015.

What is Houston getting in return?

1. 26-year old RHP Dan Straily, a 2009 24th Round draft pick (think: Billy Beane's devil magic) traded to the Cubs last July in the Addison Russell/Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel deal. Straily was bonkers in the minors, striking out 11.2 batters/9inn in 2011. He made 27 starts for Oakland in 2013, allowing 132H/67ER with 124K:57BB in 152.1IP. In 2014, that number came down to 9.4, and he posted a 4.42 ERA/1.35 WHIP in 118IP between Triple-A Sacramento and Iowa.

He's young, yes. Those are some glittery minor-league numbers, yes. Last year was not good, yes.

2. 29-year old utility man Luis Valbuena. He has a career .229/.313/.374 slash line in the majors. Before you vomit blood, 2014 was his first season of getting more than 400 MLB plate appearances, and he hit .249/.341/.435 for the first >100 OPS+ season of his career. Valbuena hit 33 doubles and 16 homers with 113K:65BB in 547 PAs. So that's not bad, right? 124 of his games for the Cubs in 2014 were at 3B, so Matt Dominguez is officially on notice.

But let's take a wider-angle view of this and see what has happened over the last five days:
The Astros have traded Dexter Fowler, Mike Foltynewicz (who, I thought, was a lock for SP5 in 2015), Rio Ruiz, and Andrew Thurman for Evan Gattis, James Hoyt, Dan Straily, and Luis Valbuena.

Hey, those look like moves from a team ready to do some "competing" in 2015. Valbuena won't be a free agent until 2017, Gattis won't be a free agent until 2019, and Straily is under team control until 2020, so it's not as though the Astros went all Randy Johnson trade in the last week, because there isn't anywhere close to a Randy Johnson in these deals. But they have traded young, controllable assets for not-as-young, controllable MLB players. By "MLB players" I simply mean that they are players who have played in the Majors.

Three questions I currently have:
1) Is Straily an upgrade over Foltynewicz?
2) Is Gattis an upgrade over Fowler?
3) Is Colin Moran better than Rio Ruiz?

Because the Astros believe they have answered all of these questions with a Yes this week. It's impossible to evaluate now if the Astros won the trades, or won anything at all. It might only be when Rio Ruiz turns into the 2nd Coming of Chipper Jones in Atlanta before we know. But the Astros have done Some Things this week that make them better in 2015.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tales from the GOATpen: All-Star Break Update

It's been another two weeks in our alternate universe, and Tales from the GOATpen just held their All-Star Game! But before we get to that, let's look at how we shake out leading up to the big event.

The standing continue to stay relatively close, with no more than 8 games separating the leader from the cellar in either division. Albuquerque has clawed into a tie for first in the Colt .45s division, while Nacogdoches continues to hold a comfortable, but not insurmountable, lead in the Astros division.

Let's look at the goings on of note for the last two weeks:

6/9 - Sean Berry had his 3rd (!) five hit game of the season as Greenville beat Katy 10-2. He had 4 singles and a double, along with 3 RBI and 2 runs scored.

6/15 - Jon Singleton is expected to miss at least one game as he takes a leave of absence to be with his ailing mother. Philadelphia manager The Constable said "I told him to take all the time he needs. I know what he's been going through, and the most important thing is that he's there for both her and the family." Singleton is hitting just .168 on the season.

6/15 - Ken Forsch of the Going Going Thon pitched a 4 hit shutout against Katy, walking 2 and striking out 2. Katy manager Masked Marvel said, "He had the changeup working. You knew it was coming and you still grounded out...and then he threw it even slower."

6/16 - Albuquerque's Dave Giusti threw a 4 hit shutout to beat Greenville 2-0. Giusti struck out 6 and walked 2.

6/17 - Greenville reliever Aurelio "SeƱor Smoke" Lopez announced he will retire at the end of the season. This season he's appeared in 10 games with an 8.62 ERA.

6/18 - Roy Oswalt of Little Rock shut out the Andujar Jar Binks on 4 hits, striking out 11 while walking 2. "I can't take all the credit for this one," Oswalt said. "I had some great defense behind me."

6/18 - Greenville's Nolan Ryan took his turn shutting out Katy, giving up 6 hits and 6 walks while striking out 9 in the Master Bateman's 3-0 victory. Ryan said "It just happened to be one of those games where even when I made mistakes they either fouled them off or someone would make a fine defensive play. It was just one of those games that things went my way."

As I mentioned, the All-Star game was recently held; here are our squads:

Astros Division
Roger Clemens
Larry Dierker
Scott Elarton
Mike Hampton
Roy Oswalt 
Andy Pettitte
J.R. Richard
Octavio Dotel
Jim Umbricht
Billy Wagner
Jose Valverde
Dan Wheeler
Mark Bailey
Mitch Melusky
Jeff Bagwell
Glenn Davis
Jose Altuve
Craig Biggio
Art Howe
Bob Aspromonte
Vinny Castilla
Miguel Tejeda
Moises Alou
Jose Cruz
Carlos Beltran
Kevin Bass
Terry Puhl

Colt .45s Division
Mike Cuellar
Turk Farrell
Darryl Kile
Bob Knepper
Shane Reynolds
Mike Scott
Frank DiPino
Doug Jones
Mike Magnante
Joe Sambito
Dave Smith
Jason Castro
Cliff Johnson
Ray Knight
Bill Doran
Jeff Kent
Sean Berry
Ken Caminiti
Morgan Ensberg
Denis Menke
Billy Hatcher
Carlos Lee
Bob Watson
Lance Berkman
Jim Wynn
Hunter Pence
Rusty Staub

The Astros Division broke the game open early and never looked back. Colt .45s starter Mike Scott allowed 8 hits and 6 runs in 1.2 innings and the Astros never looked back, ultimately winning 14-1. J.R. Richard was the All-Star Game MVP after pitching 2 perfect innings with 3 strikeouts to go along with a bases loaded triple in the 2nd inning.

And here are your leaders as we near the halfway point in the season.

If you're interested, rather than continue to clutter Astros County with fake stats, I've posted full stats for every team on my mostly neglected other blog. Click here for batting and pitching stats.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Astros' Acquisition of Evan Gattis Confirmed

(Not Hank) briefly reported earlier that the Astros had stealthily acquired Evan Gattis from the Braves.  As a trade, it is entirely logical, and only required an 8 week incubation period for all parties to see sense, and consulate it.  You may recall the Constable earlier reporting on a potential trade that seemed like Gattis-and-every-ugly-contract-in-the-Braves-organisation for all of Houston's top prospects, and cash.  Or something.  This trade seems fair, and much less one sided than the previous reports indicated.

After (Not Hank) reported the trade, he was careful to indicate that it had not been formally announced by the teams.  There was supposedly a hold-up in the physicals - seemingly with Gattis' knee and back - but recently the trade has been officially announced.  The Astros get Evan Gattis (with his 4 years of control, one at league minimum) and minor-league righty-reliever James Hoyt in exchange for the previously reported trio of Mike Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz and Andrew Thurman.

And, apparently, not Chris Johnson and/or B.J. Upton.  Hoo-ray!!

(Not Hank) earlier linked to a fabulous story about Evan Gattis, and how he nearly got lost on his way to the Bigs.  The article also outlines his tools well - power and arm - and tells some great stories about how hard he hits baseballs.  James Hoyt has a similar story - he was undrafted out of college, worked on yachts for a while, bounced around Indy Ball, then wound up in Mexico, where he was noticed by a Braves scout.  At 27, and having spent his age-27 season in AA and AAA, he is certainly not on the normal developmental path, but he pumps gas in the mid-90's and apparently has a plus-slider.  So he seems like a great lottery ticket to get as a throw-in for a trade of this magnitude.

But Gattis is the big piece here, and he is where this trade lives or dies.  In one fell swoop, the Astros managed to patch one of their offensive Black Holes from 2014.  Which hole, of course, is a potential bone of contention.  He seems destined to start playing in Left Field.  This would allow Singleton to have more development time at first, while providing insurance in case Singleton can't get his contact issues under control, and potentially forming the basics of a future platoon (with Carter mixed in there somewhere) with Singleton in case they want to sit him against lefties.  

But, remember Gattis' other tool - his arm.  One of the comments guys in (Not Hank)'s earlier article wondered about the possibility of a lash at third base, and this probably shouldn't be discounted.  Dominguez will nearly certainly get a half-season or so to show what he has and potentially seal his place as a big-league player, but if he cannot make it all happen, the medium- or longer-term plan could well be to try Gattis at the hot corner.

And before y'all laugh (or wince, or cry, or whatever), part of the benefit of having a late-blooming bat without a position is the number of flexible options that are available.  Which Jeff Sullivan points out in this post.  According to Sullivan, the flexibility does not extend just to positions, but to various other permutations and combinations, including the possibility of future trades of Gattis, trades of other players, and so forth.  With a very secretive Astros front office, who knows whether this trade exists as a one-off, or whether it is part of a Padres-style rebuild, where multiple prospects are combined to mail off to rebuilding teams in exchange for Major League pieces.

Anyhow, before we get too wordy, lets look at the pieces coming the way of the Astros.  As mentioned above, James Hoyt is an older righty reliever with a fastball-slider combination.  He finished 2014 in AAA Gwinnett in the International League with a 5.46 ERA over 24 appearances and 28 innings, sporting a 2.43 K/BB ratio.  He was the most hittable in those 28 innings in AAA than before in his career by a long shot (12.2 H/9, next highest 8.2 in independant ball in 2011), and was also the most homer-prone (1.3 HR/9), again the highest of his career (1.0 HR/9, again in independent ball in 2011).  

In between, he has been pretty decent for an older prospect - he finished 2013 in AA Mississippi for the first time, throwing 32.2 innings with a 2.48 ERA, 2.54 K/BB, 4.7 H/9 and 0.3 HR/9.  Pretty decent figures - possibly prone to regression one would think - but then he backed that up with a better AA campaign in the early part of 2014: 1.14 ERA in 31.2IP, 4.3 K/BB, 5.4 H/9, 0.3 HR/9.  His career K/9 is 11.7 against a 4.4 BB/9 (but that includes independent ball and the Mexican Leagues), with his AA figures the most impressive from a ratio perspective (10.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9).  These rates have been remarkably consistent across all levels.

But, of course, the prize of this deal is Evan Gattis, who is 28 and stands 6-4.  His major league career triple-slash is a robust .253/.304/.487, and given his unusual path to the majors, it could be argued that he has not yet reached his ceiling.  This argument would be advanced on the basis that he was working on ski-lifts rather than taking baseball hacks in cages for a few years, and therefore has seen less in the way of repetitions than most players his age.  

Gattis possesses mild platoon splits (.241/.297/.469 against righties versus .295/.328/.548 against lefties), and interesting has played better at the Ted than on the road (.828 OPS versus .759).  He also seems to hit better prior to the All Star Break (.888 first half OPS versus .675 second half), so again there is potential for improvement there.  Time behind the dish will not help that much, but I doubt that the Astros plan to stash him there unless it is an emergency.  

So I would think that the Astros see Gattis at worthy of acquiring not only because of his current play, but also because of what he may become if things all break right.  His talent with the bat is undeniable, and if there is a controllable and available player in the Majors right now that sending away two legit prospects and a lottery ticket is worth a flier on, then Gattis is likely the guy.

But the major reason that I like this trade is what it represents.  This is another sign that the Astros have moved on from the talent acquisition phase of the rebuild to the talent accumulation phase of the rebuild.  This is now about trading multiple guys for talent - like they did with Fowler last year.  Contrast this to the Red Sox, who have multiple useful slightly-above-replacement-level players, but nowhere to stash them all.  They only have room for three outfielders, after all, and by my count, they have six or seven of them all likely to be needing at-bats in the upcoming season.

Finally, remember the ZiPS projection for the Astros in 2015??  There is one donut sitting there in left field, right beside Robbie Grossman's name.  Well, scratch that out and put whatever projection you think Gattis will be worth this year.  ZiPS says 2, Steamer says 1.2, but I am happy to take the "over" on both of those.  Mostly, because neither Steamer nor ZiPS have seen an Evan Gattis before, and they are likely underselling him on the basis of his late arrival to professional baseball, and his likely move out from behind the plate.  

Over the next few days, unless one of the other AC writers beats be to it, I may examine the guys going to Atlanta.  But I also think that (Not Hank) covers that one really well, so I doubt I will add much insight to what he has already said.  Which was: Folty seems hittable but has tools, Ruiz has hit but scouts see potential for problems, and Thurman looks like a throw-in at this point.

Feel free to discuss further below.