Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jeff Luhnow: A Retrospective (Part 4)

This is the fourth part of an ongoing series where I do my best to recap and grade each of Jeff Luhnow's major decisions since taking over the Astros in December 2011. (part 1part 2, part 3)

December 11, 2014
Delino DeShields drafted by the Texas Rangers in the rule 5 draft.

Taken with the 8th overall pick in 2010, DeShields used his blazing speed to steal 101 bases in his first full professional season. As a 21-year-old, he hit just .236/.330/.360 at Double-A while many reports surfaced of character issues and attitude problems. The Astros left him off of their 40-man roster in favor of infielder Ronald Torreyes who they would designate for assignment months later.
At just 22, Deshields became the Rangers everyday centerfielder, hitting .261/.344/.374. He finished seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting, but was worth just 1.1 WAR due to his negative defensive value. He was optioned to Triple-A in 2016.

This is a move that Luhnow take a lot of heat for, and I understand that, but I don’t think it’s as bad as everyone thinks. There was simply nowhere for Deshields to play at the major league level with the Astros. Maybe they could have gotten something in return if they had protected him and traded him, but you have to remember he was coming off a really bad year at Double-A. I’m sure Luhnow tested the waters and couldn’t find a trade partner. You can’t keep everybody.

Grade: C

December 12, 2014
Signed Luke Gregerson as a free agent.

At 3yrs/$18.5M, Gregerson has been serviceable for the Astros. He saved 31 games for the club in 2015 with a 3.10 ERA and retained the closer’s role in 2016 even after the acquisition of Ken Giles (more on that later).

Grade: B

December 12, 2014
Signed Pat Neshek as a free agent.

After an incredible All-Star season with the Cardinals, the side-arming righty signed a 2yr/$12.5M contract with the Astros. He hasn’t come close to matching his 1.87 ERA with St. Louis, but has been still given Houston value.

Grade: C+

December 15, 2014
Signed Jed Lowrie as a free agent.

After finally proving he could handle a two seasons without injury, Lowrie rejoined the Astros on a 3yr/$23M deal that was presumably designed to give the Astros the option not to promote Carlos Correa before they or he was ready. Or, that was the plan. Lowrie played in just 69 games during yet another injury-riddled season.

He did help keep Correa in the minors until his Super 2 date passed, though.

Grade: C

January 14, 2015
Traded Rio Ruiz, Andrew Thurman, and Mike Foltynewicz to the Atlanta Braves. Received James Hoyt and Evan Gattis.

Folty had an arm to dream on, routinely touching triple digits as a starter. The strikeouts never materialized in the way one would expect such a lively arm to produce – just 7.8 K/9 in his minor league career. He started 15 games for the Braves in 2015 winning four with a 5.71 ERA. He is still being shuttled between Triple-A and the big leagues with Atlanta, but the former first round pick is still just 24 years old.

Andrew Thurman was taken by the Astros in the second round of the 2013 draft. The right-hander has yet to impress in the minors, with a 4.79 ERA across four seasons. He has yet to get above Double-A.

Rio Ruiz, seen by some as the third baseman of the future when he was taken in the 4th round of the 2012 draft, fell behind Colin Moran on the depth chart and was thus expendable. After .293/.387/.436 campaign as a 20-year-old in High-A, Ruiz fell off drastically with the Braves. At Double-A in 2015, he hit just .229 with 5 home runs. He’s gotten off to a better start at Triple-A in 2016 and is still just 22, but some of the shine has come off of his prospect status.

After playing independent ball for a few years, the Braves took a flyer on Hoyt and signed him as a minor-league free agent. After posting a 3.49 ERA in Triple-A for the Astros in 2015, he nearly made the Opening Day roster out of Spring Training in 2016. He is currently the closer at Triple-A Fresno but will almost certainly see big league action in 2016.

El Oso Blanco comes with an even more improbable backstory. Gattis was once committed to Texas A&M out of high school but battled a number of demons and wound up, among other things, as a janitor. After pulling himself together, the Braves signed him as a minor league free agent. He made his debut at 26 and had a breakout season in 2014 with a 126 OPS+ while serving as the Braves catcher. In 2015, he occupied the Astros DH position and hit .246/.285/.463 with a team-leading 27 home runs and 88 runs batted in. He was recently optioned to work on his catching skills again and will now serve as the Astros backup catcher and designated hitter. He will not be a free agent until 2019.

This trade is still too fresh to judge accurately, as a lot of it depends on whether Ruiz and Folty pan out into legitimate major leaguers. If Gattis can provide defensive value behind the plate and continue to hit at a bit above league average, he will serve his purpose with the Astros.

Grade: B-

January 19, 2015
Trade Dexter Fowler to the Chicago Cubs. Received Dan Straily and Luis Valbuena.

With center field occupied by Marisnick and just one year left before he hit free agency, Fowler was an expendable asset. In 2015, he hit .250/.346/.411 and a career-high 17 home runs for the Cubs. He went from being the worst defensive center fielder in baseball to one of the worst, which gave him a 2.2 WAR for the season.

Straily appeared in 4 games with the Astros in 2015 and was designated for assignment before the 2016 season and eventually traded for Erik Kratz. 

After watching Matt Dominguez hit .215 at third base in 2014 and Colin Moran still needing some seasoning, the Astros needed a third baseman for the 2015 season. Valbuena was coming off of a season where he hit .249 with 33 doubles and still had two years of service time – just enough to stall Moran. He gave the Astros probably more than what they thought they would get, hitting a career-high 25 homeruns and accruing 2.2 WAR, which if you are keeping score at home is exactly the same as Fowler.

Filled a positional need and paid Valbuena $5 million less.

Grade: B+

January 20, 2015
Signed Colby Rasmus as a free agent.

After being granted free agency by the Blue Jays following a down year, Rasmus signed a 1yr/$8M deal with the man who drafted him in the first round back in 2005 with the Cardinals. The Astros got more than they bargained for as Rasmus hit 25 home runs on his way to a 2.6 WAR season – not to mention his playoff heroics.

Grade: A+

January 21, 2015
Traded Carlos Corporan to the Texas Rangers. Received Akeem Bostick.

Corporan played parts of four seasons with the Astros as the backup catcher. In 198 games he hit .224/.285/.349. He was worth exactly 1.5 WAR over those four seasons. With the Rangers in 2015 he hit .178 before losing most of season to injuries. The 32-year-old is currently with the Rays Triple-A affiliate.

Bostick was the Rangers 2nd round draft pick in 2013. The 6’ 6” right-hander had a 5.18 ERA at A-ball when he was traded. In 2015, he had a 1.50 ERA at the Astros A-ball affiliate before moving up to High-A Lancaster. At 21 and still two years younger than the average opponent, Bostick began the 2016 season back in Lancaster.

With Castro, Conger, and Gattis on the roster, the writing was on the wall for Corporan. He probably would have been designated for assignment, but somehow Luhnow got an interesting prospect. Even if Bostick never makes it to the big leagues, it was way better than nothing.

Grade: B+

July 23, 2015
Traded Daniel Mengden and Jacob Nottingham to the Oakland Athletics. Received Scott Kazmir.

Thrust into the middle of a pennant race at least a year earlier than expected, Luhnow sprung into “win-now” mode. Kazmir was in the last year of his contract but had a 2.38 ERA in 18 games with the A’s. The Astros made runs at other starting pitchers at the deadline but ended up making a deal for Kazmir – who they were concerned may wear down as the season went on as he had done in the past. In 13 games with the Astros, he was 2-6 with a 4.17 ERA.

Mengden was the Astros 4th round pick in the 2014 draft. After dominating the Midwest League to the tune of a 1.16 ERA in 10 games, he was promoted to High-A where he allowed 29 runs in 49.2 innings when he was traded. Armed with a deadly slider and a killer mustache, Mengden has opened the 2016 season on an absolute tear. Through 43 innings at Double- and Triple-A, he has given up just three runs while striking out 43.

After being drafted in the 6th round of the 2013 draft, Nottingham struggled in his first two professional seasons before breaking out in a big way in 2015 when he hit .316/.372/.505. The A’s traded him to the Brewers after the 2015 season and he is hitting .225 through 31 games at Double-A.
I’d be willing to bet Luhnow thought Nottingham was playing way above his true potential, but it is always hard to give up a catching prospect that can hit (though whether he can stay at catcher remains to be seen). Mengden, on the other hand, may really hurt.

Grade: C-

July 30, 2015
Traded Josh Hader, Brett Phillips, Adrian Houser, and Domingo Santana to the Milwaukee Brewers. Received Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers and cash.

Oh boy.

After being named the Astros minor league pitcher of the year, the 21-year-old Hader had a 3.17 ERA against guys four years older than him at Double-A when he was traded. He entered the season as the Brewers No. 4 prospect and has not disappointed – allowing just four runs in 40.2 innings while striking out 54 at Double-A.

In 2014, the Astros named Phillips their minor league hitter of the year after he hit .310/.375/.529 with 17 home runs across two levels of competition as a 20-year-old. When he was traded, he was hitting .321 at Double-A. The center fielder entered the 2016 season as a top 100 prospect.

Houser was taken in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft by the Astros but has yet to reach that potential in the minors. The 23-year-old has a 4.43 ERA through six seasons. He pitched in two innings with the Brewers last year but opened the 2016 season at Double-A.

Domingo Santana, a toolsy outfielder, made his major league debut at 21 in 2014 after hitting .296/.384/.474 with 16 home runs at Triple-A. He played in 14 games with the Astros in 2015, hitting .256 but striking out in 17 of his 42 plate appearances. But at Triple-A, Santana had a .320 average with 16 home runs in just 75 games when he was traded. He made the Brewers Opening Day roster in 2016 and has been tabbed by many as a breakout candidate this year. He is still just 23.

Mike Fiers pitched better as an Astro than Scott Kazmir did, posting a 3.32 ERA in 10 games that included the first no-hitter in Minute Maid Park history. Team-controlled until 2020, Fiers was acquired to give the Astros pitching depth for the next few years while prospects developed. He has been pretty much exactly the Astros hoped he would be when they acquired him. An innings eater at the back of the rotation.

Carlos Gomez has been….not the player that the Astros thought they were getting. 
After two straight All-Star seasons with above-average offense and stellar center field defense – including a 2013 season that saw him produce an astounding 8.5 WAR – Gomez hit just .255/.314/.409 in 2015 with the Brewers and Astros. In 2016, he has been one of the five worst regular position players in baseball. He will be a free agent this offseason.

If Gomez had even performed at his career average, this would have been a decent trade. A hefty price, sure, but Gomez was one of the best players in baseball for two years. As it stands, even if none of the prospects the Astros traded make the majors this has been a loss – that’s how bad Gomez has been. But if any of Hader, Santana, or Phillips reach their potential, we could be talking about this trade for a long, long time.

Grade: F--