Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jed's Back... In Oakland.

File this one under absolutely shocking, for me.  The Astros traded Jed Lowrie for the second time, and to the Athletics for the second time.  This occurs around two-and-one-half weeks short of the one year anniversary of Lowrie signing with Houston on a sweetheart free-agent deal that was meant to last three or four years, and a week or so after the Astros traded another utility-player / middle infielder away for what I thought was an underwhelming return.

(As an aside, this is the third "Jed's Back" article on Astros County.  The first is linked to above.  Here is the second.)

The Astros managed quite the haul for Jed last time they traded him to the A's.  Perhaps the haul wasn't tremendous, but the three players that the Astros got for Lowrie all remain with the organisation, and all look to have some serious upside.  Carter remains an enigma at times, as does Brad Peacock, but both of them have shown signs of putting it all together for stretches.  Max Stassi could certainly combine with either Jason Castro or Hank Conger in donning the Tools of Ignorance next year, or he could be the starting catcher for the Astros in 2017.  While the Lowrie Trade First Edition has not been a runaway win for the Astros, it at least remains intriguing, and it was a clear win to the Astros.

So what does the Lowrie Trade Second Edition Look like for the Astros.  What's that, you say??  An A-ball pitcher??  A reliever??  Frick!!  Frick-on-a-stick!!!

Man, this looks like quite the steal for the A's.  I think Jed Lowrie is underrated... and I am not the only one.  This Fangraphs article isn't quite sure what to make of Lowrie, and probably finds in more questions than it answers.  Lowrie may be a good defender... or he may not.  He may be work a lone WAR-point, or may be worth two.  His salary my be a low-grade steal, or outright theft.  Whatevs.

The bigger question for me is more around what the fudge the Astros are thinking in trading Jed Lowrie for a AA-reliever - moreso one who was drafted in the 22nd round, out of college.  I thought Lowrie had some serious value - more than what McCurry looks like at first glance - plus was signed for most of the rest of his useful baseball life for a team-friendly contract, which has the potential to turn into an outright steal.  The option year in 2018 seems like a bargain at six million (with a one million buyout), ill health be damned.

I may be missing something here, and if you disagree, please tell me why in the comments.  I thought Villar - at 24 - still had some serious room to grow, and could have developed into a switch-hitting shortstop with power and plate discipline, and the defensive chops to remain at the position.  Lowrie is less pretty defensively, but he has an excellent bat when he is hot, as evidenced by his team leading triple slash line of .300/.432/.567 through April.  Lowrie was nearly singlehandedly responsible for the Astros' offence throughout April, but he took the next three months off after he had an operation to reattach the collateral ligament in his right thumb, which was injured during a slide to the plate during an early away sweep of the Padres.  Health has certainly been his problem over the years.

If Villar brought back a middling pitching prospect, then Lowrie was exchanged for an even less heralded return.  Brandon McCurry was a 22nd round draft pick of the A's out of college in 2014.  He pitched in Hi-A and AA last year.  He is a righty, throws in the low 90's, and possesses a nasty curve, apparently.  He isn't nothing, but at first glance, he is certainly underwhelming.

That said, McCurry's numbers in the two levels that he traversed in 2015 are pretty darn good.  But this article isn't about McCurry and his dashboard stats.  This article is about underwhelming returns for major-league calibre shortstops - one young and yet to hit his ceiling, and one veteran guy - both with potentially good bats and both with positional flexibility.  Something that I would value highly if I were putting together a major-league roster.

Which leads us to a discussion about the depth the Astros have on the infield.  The middle infield positions are sewn up, with Correa and Altuve not going anywhere.  We know the Astros have crowded corners - Luis Valbuena, Matt Duffy, Chris Carter and Jon Singleton are all on the 40-man, and all have power and varying contact and plate discipline abilities.  They are all very much corner infielders defensively, and no one wants to see any of them in the outfield or up the middle.  Nolan Fontana was conspicuously added to the 40-man not long before the deadline - he is very much unproven, but his addition to the roster takes on more weight with the Lowrie trade.  But Marwin González - long a favourite of the Astros fans and front office - is the biggest winner from these trades - both the guys on the depth chart challenging his super-utility position are gone.   Lowrie probably has a better bat than González, Villar has a flashier glove and more speed, but the Astros have opted to stick with Marwin.  Interesting move.

But just because you have depth in one area of the diamond, it doesn't mean that you should sell for pennies in the dollar.  Neither Villar nor Lowrie brought back top-10 prospects from two relatively barren farm systems.  Both guys they brought back could be described as having high floors, but conversely also probably have low ceilings.  At least that is what is suggested by a quick analysis of their tools.  Neither prospect has anything in terms of name recognition.  I would classify both trades as strong from the perspectives of the Astros' trading partners, at least in the short term.  In both trades, the Astros have taken on considerably more risk.  The chances that Villar and Lowrie have been exchanged for nothing is higher than I would feel comfortable with if I were to make these trades.

There are a bunch of important aspects of the Lowrie trade that I may be ignoring, however.  Firstly, there is a salary angle to it all.  Lowrie is guaranteed $15MM for the next two years - $7.5MM in 2016 and $6.5MM in 2017, with either a $1MM buyout or a $6MM option for 2018.  That salary isn't crippling, but it is significant, and perhaps the Astros have another use for it, hence the need to free it up.  Secondly, the Astros free up a 40-man slot.  It is significant that neither prospect brought back in the Villar and Lowrie trades need to be added to the 40-man for another two years.  They will like that with the Rule 5 squeeze entering its second year.  Thirdly, it is possible that the Astros traded Lowrie out of respect - they weren't able to offer him much playing time, or any playing time they were going to offer was of the multiple-position variety, and perhaps Lowrie wasn't comfortable with either of those options.  So a conversation was had along the lines of where Jed may wish to live, and a deal was struck accordingly.  There are no indications in any of the articles that this was the case, but the Astros front office is famously tight-lipped, so I not sure we would get to hear if this was a consideration, anyhow.  There may be other aspects that I am missing, but for now, I feel a little puzzled about the returns, and I welcome learned input in the comments.

Later on, I will take a look at Cy Sneed and Brendan McCurry - there are some clear parallels between the two of them after all - but for now, this is all about the Astros trading two of my favourite switch-hitting middle-infielders.  These were both guys that I saw a role for in the future.  Both of these trades seem curious and risky, and both have involved trading legit big league talent away.  Both of these trades could turn to custard by the end of the season, too.  But both could be considered small- to moderate-wins by the end of 2018.

I hope Jeff Luhnow knows what he is doing.  Time, as always, will tell.