Thursday, December 10, 2015

Update and Opinion on the Ken Giles Trade

So the Astros eventually get their closer of the future - a cost controlled guy who cannot become a free agent until after 2020, who has done stuff in the major-leagues already that not many guys have done.  He possesses a triple-digit arm, and more importantly, he knows how to use it to generate strikeouts.  It is not hard to see him further improving over the next few years.  Ken Giles may just have become the best reliever in the AL West, especially with the recent departure of Carson Smith (who headed to the Red Sox in what many pundits consider a lopsided trade).

The Constable has done a brilliant job of quickly profiling Mr Giles, so I am not going to try to add to that at all.  I will, however, provide an update, a quick profile of those lost to the organisation, and an opinion.  The trade looks like (at the time of writing):

Ken Giles to Houston in exchange for pitchers Vince Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer and Thomas Eshelman and outfielder Derek Fisher.

Firstly, this drops the number on the 40-man roster by one, to 36.  This may be significant, partly because Brad Peacock and Scotty Feldman will be looking to be activated off the 60-day DL prior to the start of the season, partly because free agents may be in play, and partly because of the upcoming Rule 5 draft.  The Astros need a lefty-reliever - Kevin Chapman may the the only guy still on the 40-man who fits that profile - so perhaps they have a plan to nab someone as a LOOGY in the Rule 5 (Cesar Vargas or Luis Lugo, anyone?).  If that is the case, then the Astros have enough room to take a Rule 5 pick, add Peacock and Feldman, and promote Reed, and still not exceed 40 players.

This isn't to say that the 'stros will not get gouged in the Rule 5 again - it is too late to add protect players now - but the 40-man squeeze as the season starts will certainly become less of a factor, thanks partly to trade activity, and partly to the recent DFA's.

Vincent Velasquez is the main piece of this trade - if he ain't in, this trade doesn't get done.  He is a 23 year old right-handed starter taken in the second round of the 2010 draft.  He has a big arm, with nice offspeed stuff.  He has fought a variety of injuries - resulting in TJS amongst other procedures - managing only 365 innings in a six-year professional career.  He threw just under 300 innings in the minors, with an ERA of 3.28. a WHIP of 1.134 and a 10.8 K/9 versus a 3.1 BB/9.  In the majors (all in 2015), he threw 55-and-two-thirds, with an ERA of 4.37, a FIP of 3.46, a WHIP of 1.275, and near identical strikeout (9.4/9) and walk (3.4/9) rates.  He looks like a lock the be a mid-rotation starter this year of the Phillies want to push him, but there is a significant chance he continues his development at AAA.

But - and there is always a but - Velasquez has struggled with injuries.  He threw only 88 innings last year.  Astros County is a sabermetically-leaning site, and the number-nerds tell us that pitcher injuries increase by some-significant-percent-number-thingy if you throw significantly more than 40 frames more than the year before.  I doubt that applies properly in Velasquez's case for his artificially-low 2015 number, but it does seem fair to say that he is 2 years away from being a 200-inning per year pitcher.  As the Constable recently pointed out, if the Astros want to contend now, they don't have the luxury of slowly bringing Velasquez along.

Brett Oberholtzer will be familiar to most Astros fans.  He was acquired in the Michael Bourn trade, and has thrown parts of 3 major-league seasons for the Astros.  Obie's best year was in 2013, when he threw to an ERA+ of 147 over 71-and-two-thirds frames.  But his ERA+'s in 2014 and 2015 have been below average - 88 and 91 respectively.  An important feature when discussing Obie's bio is when he officially Lost His Mind and managed to make the most hated player in baseball look like a sympathetic figure for a day or so.  Anyhow, Obie was a battler in 2013, but he has strangely struggled in 2014 and 2015, so this trade was always on the cards for him.  Unless he turns into Dallas Keuchel 2.0 - and there aren't many signs of that - this loss should not hurt.

Derek Fisher is a lefty hitting outfielder / DH who the Astros drafted with a first-round supplementary pick in 2014.  He is 22, and in his short pro career, has sliced through the short-season leagues.  He ended 2015 in Hi-A, so his big step is still ahead of him.  A Hi-A line of .262/.354/.471 at the friendly confines of Lancaster wasn't stunning, but he was 18 months young for the league.  But at this point, he is mostly projection, and if his power doesn't come around, he offers little extra value in the form of baserunning and defence.  He might be someone, and he might not.

The last of the four players is Thomas Eshelman, who was the Astros' second round draftee this year.  One handsome and intelligent AC reader compared him to Kirk Saarloos - solid pitchability but limited stuff - while another thought he was like Kent Emanuel.  He was drafted out of Cal State, and he finished the season with six-and-one-third innings at Quad Cities.  He isn't nothing, but he is a long way away, and not the worst throw in for either party.

Many Astros fans will be breathing a sigh of relief that it is Eshelman heading to Philly, rather than Michael Feliz or Akeem Bostick.

Time for the opinion part of the article.  I have read a lot about baseball for the last 15-plus years, and it has been interesting how opinions have evolved over that time.  Relievers have historically been discussed in the sabermetric community with some distain - their year-to-year variability was always cited as reasons why large commitments to relievers were a bad idea, and there was the thought that you could build a solid bullpen with some drafting, some luck, and some savvy waiver-wire pickups.

Throughout the latter part of the steroid era, I am sure that this belief was well-founded.  Steroids have the ability to help middle-relief guys at least as much as position players.  Because steroids are mostly about recovery from muscle fatigue (along with assisting with strength and training), middle relievers who were effective at a steroid-assisted 96-mph and who could pitch most days would have benefitted hugely.  Steroids also extended the careers of a lot of players, too, so the number of guys pitching effectively into their late 30's was much higher when I had my Baseball Prospectus subscriptions prior to 2007.  Because of the laws of supply and demand, middle relievers were an easily available commodity.  Some of those middle relievers successfully transitioned into late-inning relievers, adding to the options there, too.  For this reason, the sabermetric community probably undervalued them.

Over the last five or so years, significant alterations in how bullpens are put together have occurred.  The better control of performance enhancers has probably resulted in lesser talent falling by the wayside, allowing for the elite guys to shine again.  Enhancements in training and biomechanics along with improved pitching philosophies have probably helped.  Offence - in general - has declined as well, for a number of reasons that aren't well understood.

So bullpens have changed, and the elite talent has again been concentrated.  Ken Giles - at least for the last couple of years - has shown himself to be one of those elite talents.  His numbers match up with a number of dominant relievers - Dellin Betances is his leading similarity score of all time, and Bruce Sutter is his leading similarity score through the age of 24.  If he continues along this trajectory, then the hope is that he continues to perform at a similar level until his free-agency pay day.

Astros fans who remember 2003 and 2004 should recall what a dominant bullpen looked like.  If you don't remember those days, ask a Royals fan what life has been like over the last two years.  The Royals 'pen has been so good that they have been able to under-spend on the starting pitching market, cobbling together a good-enough rotation in combination with a freaky, contact-driven offence.  Bullpens matter, and all-encompassing statistics like WAR tend to underestimate them.

This trade also continues the concentration of talent that the Astros have been engaging in for the last year or two.  The Astros need elite talent at a number of positions to consistently win.  The existing elite talent has been mostly the product of good scouting and development (Jose Altuve and George Springer), high draft picks (Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers) and trades (Carlos G√≥mez).  Ken Giles is potentially an elite talent who pitches in a role the Astros have elected to prioritise this offseason.  He has the goods to be a top-10 reliever in baseball for the remainder of this decade.

The price was steep, but not staggeringly so.  With the caveat that it is often not a great idea to trade for ANY reliever, giving up a young, injury-prone starter, another starter who has experienced moderate and infrequent success in the major leagues, a boom-or-bust bat, and a middling arm who is a long way from contributing in exchange for five years of control seems like a reasonable price to pay for me.  Add in the benefits in terms of the 40-man, with the potential to consider players in the Rule 5 or free-agency, and overall, I think this is a solid trade for the Astros.

And if you are doubting, Astros fans, remember the Hunter Pence trade.  For years, Astros fans sat smugly and recalled the time when Ed Wade fleeced his ex-employer for four players in exchange for the terminally-restless gamer, Hunter Pence.  Well, the Phillies went on to make the postseason (but not advance past the division series), and the players that the Astros got back are either scuffling in the minor leagues (Jon Singleton), are scuffling in Miami (Jarred Cosart), became waiver-bait (Josh Zeid) or were cashed in as trade chips for other high-value talent (Domingo Santana).  If you think the Ken Giles trade is lopsided for the Phillies, look what the Pence heist has turned in to (although I still think that trade was a clear win for the Astros).

Overall, I like this trade, and I think the Constable does too.  This continues the trend of concentrating talent, which I think is a necessary and exciting step.  I like how the Astros are set up for 2016 - this trade deepens the bullpen significantly, while not really detracting from the starting-pitcher ranks at all.  Quality prospects are exciting the Astros system, but none seem to be irreplaceable.

Now, all Ken Giles needs to do is stay healthy and effective, and we got ourselves a solid trade.