Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016 Astros Trade Deadline: Review of the 2015 Trade Deadline Trades

Trade Deadlines are always interesting, moreso for a team like the Astros.  The Astros have a solid big-league product in 2016, with a potential superstar core that is projected to improve with age and experience.  They have solid right-handed power hitters in defensively important positions, some decent accessory players, and a solid bullpen.  The starting pitching has been much been better over the last two months, which co-incides with their league-best record since May 24.  They lack a glaring weakness (aside from, perhaps, lefty relief) with which to recruit to, and have a farm system that is well set up to replace the players they will lose in Free Agency this year, with the exception of the catching corps.  That is, unless readers believe that Evan Gattis is an everyday player, or Max Stassi, who continues to spin his wheels at AAA (.210/.268/.420) is big-league ready.

History can be a pretty useful guide when predicting what the Astros may do at the 2016 trade deadline.  We don't have a lot of history to go on, because the Astros have been good for exactly one season under the leadership of the current front office, but their work in 2015 is interesting, and does warrant a mention.

If we rewind to the 2015 season, the corresponding time last year was one where the Astros had ridden an early-season hot streak to a big division lead and were slowly getting reeled in by the Ramgers.  They had the clear need for an outfield bat, but not necessarily in CF as Colby Rasmus and George Springer could fake it in there without looking too bad.  The Astros possessed enough infield options to ride the hot hand, with interesting guys like MarGo, Chris Carter, Jonathan Villar and Jed Lowrie (who had recently returned from the DL around this time) all able to rotate through multiple positions.  Lefty relief was not a problem, as Tony Sipp was in the midst of a great season (1.99 ERA, 2.93 FIP).  Starting pitching depth was a clear area of need, because the Astros had to rely on luminaries such as Roberto Hernandez and Brett Oberholtzer through the first two months of the season - at least until Lance McCullers arrived and settled in.  Scott Feldman's health is never something to bank on, so the Astros clearly needed some assistance in the rotation.

So the Astros made two trades to address these needs:

  • July 23: Scott Kazmir was acquired from the Oakland Athletics.  RHP Daniel Mengden and C/DH Jacob Nottingham went to the A's in return.  Kazmir was to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season.
  • July 30: Carlos Gómez and Mike Fiers were acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers.  CF Brett Phillips, OF Domingo Santana, LHP Josh Hader and RHP Adrian Houser were traded to the Brewers in return.  Gómez is due to become a free agent at the end of the 2016 season, whereas Mike Fiers cannot become a free agent until after the 2019 season.
In terms of what the Astros acquired, analysis of this is pretty simple.  Scott Kazmir provided the Astros with just over 73 innings of 4.17 ERA ball, running a 5.19 FIP in the process.  This was in contrast to his 110-odd Oakland innings earlier in 2015, which had resulted in an ERA of 2.38 and a FIP of 3.16.  Kazmir was worth 0.0 bWAR or a 0.1fWAR with the Astros, while having posted a 3.3 bWAR or a 2.3 fWAR in 2015 prior to the trade.

Kazmir's value, however, was perhaps not entirely able to be summed up by season-long stats.  He started his time with the Astros with some phenomenal baseball.  His first two Astros starts involved shutouts - 7 innings in a win against the Royals on July 24 then seven-and-two-thirds against the Angels on July 30 - both allowing only three hits.  After lurching toward the end of the season with some less notable performances, Kazmir then managed a solid postseason start against the Royals in which he allowed three earned runs over five-and-one-third.  Middle relief lost that game (ALDS, Game 2) for the Astros, as they were unable to clean up the mess that Kazmir had left before he was pulled.  Different decision making would have perhaps led to a different outcome, but I recall being madder at A.J. Hinch, Josh Fields and Tony Sipp than Scotty K.

Mike Fiers was much better after his trade than Scott Kazmir, albeit in fewer innings.  He threw just over 62 frames of 3.32 ERA / 4.39 FIP ball, including a memorable August 21 no-hitter against the Dodgers.  Fire's post-trade effort was worth an even-1 in terms of bWAR and 0.6 in fWAR parlance.  Despite this, Fiers didn't get nominated for a postseason start, throwing only one inning in relief in the postseason to cap his 2015 season (he allowed a run in that frame).

Fiers, of course, remains a Houston Astro, and will do until 2019 if the Astros wish.  He has struggled a little this season, throwing just under 100 innings with an ERA of 4.75 and a FIP of 4.79.  To the eye, he has looked like a league-average pitcher who occasionally gets lit up.  The Astros management don't seem to give him much rope when he does get in trouble, so he has had three games this season where he has been hooked before the end of the fourth inning, allowing seven, four and six runs respectively (including the Michael Feliz walk-a-thon in Oakland this last week).

Which brings us to Carlos Gómez.  Sigh.  When I wrote about Gómez prior to the season, I thought that he had a high floor and a potentially a very high ceiling, noting his monster 2013 season (.284/.356/.477 with elite defence).  Many analysts were happy to ignore his struggles in 2015 (where he posted .242/.288/.383 as an Astro, resulting in a bWAR of 0.7 and an fWAR of 0.9) on the basis of injuries.  Despite these injuries, Gómez had a decent postseason: .267/.267/.667 with two home runs.  His intercostal injury meant that he did not start games 1 and 2 of the ALDS.

Strictly speaking, this article should be about the 2015 post-trade value, so perhaps we should finish there by stating that Gómez provided some decent value despite playing time limited by difficult-to-heal injuries.  But 2016 is also happening, and when the Astros gave up Phillips et al, it was because Carlos Gómez was also expected to be something in 2016, as well.  For example, I imagine the Astros would have been factoring a future qualifying offer into the trade decision when they made it.

Well, 2016 has been unkind to Carlos Gómez, who is in the midst of posting the worst season of his career.  His current slash-line sits at .211/.276/.327, and as all reasonable Astros fans know - who have watched his wild swishes and helmet falling off on multiple occasions - Gómez has been less than good.  bWAR and fWAR are in agreement: Gómez has been below replacement level to the tune of -0.3 Wins.  But as A.J. Hinch is probably sick of saying - a productive Carlos Gómez helps this lineup immensely - so he will be given an opportunity to work it all out.

This is only looking at the players that the Astros acquired.  The performance of the players traded away is an article by itself - perhaps the subject of some offseason work by your loyal and hardworking AC staff.  Stay tuned.

What does this analysis of the 2015 Trade Deadline mean??  Well, I guess there are different interpretations for different people, but I would think that the following points should be mostly accepted as truisms (drawing on information from the market this year):
  • Buyers are probably - on the whole - going to get hosed in trade negotiations.  Multiple prospects for attainable players (most of which usually have something about them that makes then available) is normally going to result in the buying team getting pounded in the long run.
  • Timing is everything.  Flags fly forever and all of that, and I am pretty sure that the Royals would be happy with the moves they made last year despite being hobbled in the starting pitching ranks this year because of those trades.
  • Minor leaguers often need a season or two to settle in.  Contending teams often don't have the time to throw them into the big leagues and let them sort their performance out.  They need performance now, and often have to pay for it.  The Brewers have been patient with Villar this year, or Santana last year, but the Astros arguably didn't have that luxury.  Whilst I would love to see some Astros Rookies getting time in September or October, I would probably feel pretty nervous in the event that they were asked to play a meaningful role.
  • This year, it seems that there are few genuine rental players, but most of the blockbusters will be trades aimed at 2016, as well as 2017 and 2018.  Trades for Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Chris Archer would be examples of this trend, which the Ramgers also managed last year in the Cole Hamels trade.  This would be in contrast to say, a trade for Aroldis Chapman, or Scott Kazmir last year, both of whom would get to play two or three months for their new clubs before hitting free agency.  Our rivals across the state seem in a good position to make a trade for a controllable starter, but it will cost them a bevy of premium prospects or young MLB talent if a trade such as this goes ahead.
For 50-odd weeks of the year, I would like nothing more than to work in the Front Office of the Astros.  For the next week, I am glad that I am not there.  Trades are hard, the buying team is likely to give up more talent than they receive, and a late-season slump may make it all for naught.  Best of luck to the Front Office for this one, but my pick is that pick up either a lefty reliever, or a top of the rotation starter who is controlled for a few years (while kissing goodbye to Alex Bregman and Francis Marte).