Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Astros' Trading Deadline

Trade deadlines are almost the same every year.  So much speculation in the week prior, with feverish checking of mlbtraderumors.com on an hourly basis while awake.  Dreaming on the big names.  Crossing fingers and hoping the rest of the division doesn't load up on the best players*.

* - more on this frikking point later on...

Nothing happens for a while.  Then a manic deadline day sees contracts whizzing all over the map, with one or two teams normally making multiple trades while juggling multiple moving parts (like the Blue Jays).  It is impressive how all of this gets done, frankly, and teams must be serious geared up to check medicals, calculate contracts, and quickly isolate players from opposing farm systems that they want. The logistics around it are probably quite impressive.

If you wanted a headlining, block-busting trade for the 2016 edition of the Astros, it was not a good day for you.  It would have been great to pry Chris Sale from the White Sox for an exorbitant price, or Matt Moore from the Rays for a lesser, but still eye-watering, price.  Judging by the comments on Astros County, many of you want an upgrade at catcher.  Or CF.  Preferably both, I think.

The Astros did none of that, but in reality, I think they made some solid, yet subtle, progress.  The main take-home point is that they cleared two more spots on the 40-man roster - something which they have quietly been doing since the 2015 season ended - sending out established vets for those that they can control without adding to the 40-man for a while.  Scotty Feldman and Josh Fields were the victims, sent to Toronto and Los Angeles respectively, and some seriously young players who we probably will hear nothing more about for the next three years were brought back as return.  Feldman will get a chance to start in Toronto, and he has a relatively fresh arm.  Fields will continue to try and rebuild his 2016, but he is a live arm with a hammer curve who is worth taking a chance on, as much for 2017 and 2018 as this year.

Subtracting Fields and Feldman most clearly has an immediate effect on the pitching.  Feldman has been solid in mop-up duty after losing his starting gig when Lance McCullers' shoulder improved.  His immediate spot will appear to go to Joe Musgrove, but that may just be cover for Fister's parental leave.  I imagine that the Astros will be interested in giving James Hoyt a shot at a 'pen role before getting too deep into August.  Hoyt has a 1.65 ERA at Fresno, which includes 26 hits and 17 walks against 83 strikeouts in 49 innings.  Read those numbers again - and note that they translate to a K/BB ratio of 4.88.  And if Musgrove gets a start for two, he may get the opportunity to "Wally Pip" Mike Fiers.  Which would perhaps have a similar impact to a trade.  Perhaps.

Not trading for a big piece has a different, more hidden effect.  It has already been pointed out that the Astros have a solid core of young RHH in José Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer.  Altuve is incredible, and keeps doing superhuman things that Rob Dibble thinks are impossible.  Correa is putting up historic numbers at a premium defensive position for his age.  Springer is finally healthy, and his combination of plate discipline and power seems to be covering for his swing-and-miss at this point.  Also a very valuable player, and yet to reach arbitration.

But the three of them are not enough to carry the Astros on their own.  Don't believe me??  I suggest that you look at the month of April.  The Astros went 7-17.  In April, José Altuve had a 1.011 OPS and a 176 sOPS+ (76% better than the league average OPS), George Springer had an .804 OPS / 121 sOPS+ and Carlos Correa managed an OPS of .830 with an sOPS+ of 125.  Not the worst for the top three of the batting order (as they were at the time) - one superstar performance and two solidly above-average performances.  But they were surrounded by Luis Valbuena (.540 OPS / 53 sOPS+), Carlos Gómez (.610 OPS / 67 OPS+), Evan Gattis (.657 OPS / 80 OPS+) and Jason Castro (.511 OPS / 44 OPS+).  Only a hot Colby Rasmus (.979 OPS / 168 OPS+) assisted them, but he has cratered since then, recording perhaps the worst offensive month for the 2016 Astros in July (.306 OPS / -17 OPS+).

So Springer, Altuve and Correa can't get it done on their own.  They rely heavily on role players around them, especially the left-handed hitters sprinkled throughout the lineup.  It is those potential future role-players who would be on the trading block for a significant upgrade.  Obviously, in any good-sized trade, teams would ask for Alex Bregman, who has nothing left to prove in the minors.  Despite his awful start (.036/.100/.036), Bregman is a safe prospect with the athleticism to play anywhere on the diamond, and I wonder whether he will be given a look in CF next year.  What the Astros will be also hoping for is for a couple of of A.J. Reed, Jon Singleton, Colin Moran, Teoscar Hernandez, Tony Kemp, Derek Fisher, Garrett Stubbs or J.D Davis to step up and complement the core of Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Springer, who are all around until at least 2019.  The all-important potential supporting pieces would have been the price of adding a significant ML piece via trade.  Or someone risker, with a higher ceiling, like Francis Martes.

Truthfully, the Astros also don't have one glaring hole they need to plug to improve.  They have a bunch of holes.  Their starting rotation at the moment is "Lance McCullers and pray for rain", and McCullers is only a couple of fastballs-to-the-backstop away from an 8-walk nightmare of an outing.  Both corner infield positions have been of concern for most of the season.  The Astros' LF makes me wish for Carlos Lee.  I know, not good.  And Carlos Gómez has been awful, and a testament to the difficult in trading prospects for established, high ceiling players.  Catcher is probably the most maligned position in the AC comments section, but truthfully, I wasn't even going to mention it.  Castro is good defensively, and Gattis seems to be doing ok.  No amount of trading was going to give the Astros enough to plug all of these holes out without also acquiring another farm system to deal from.  So they have, and will always have, a fairly unbalanced 2016 team.

So I like the Astros' lack of moves.  I also think that it sends a message to the team.  This roster got itself into the current AL West mess with slow first six-weeks of the season.  It is also capable of getting itself out of the mess - they have been one of the top teams in baseball since late-May.  They are certainly capable of putting it all together, and aren't so far back of the Ramgers that serial sweeps for the rest of the season wouldn't give the Astros a handy lead.  They are close enough if they are good enough, to borrow a term from elsewhere in sports.

And speaking of the Ramgers, I promised to comment on their acquisitions as part of this article.  Truthfully, they made some solid acquisitions today, bring in a handy, solid professional bat in the form of Carlos Beltran, and a top catcher in the form of Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress.  My quick take is this: Beltran and Lucroy have unimpressive seasons in their rear-view mirrors, so they could be great, or they could be awful.  Jeffress probably does the most to immediately help the Ramgers - they desperately need assistance for their overworked 'pen, which still possesses considerable collapse potential.

But man, the price they paid was steep.  Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate are described as legitimate prospects, and they may be safer prospects that Joey Gallo, who has career-crippling swing-and-miss to go with immense power.  Like 'em or hate 'em, the Ramgers have made some great decisions over the years, and they certainly possess the prospect capital to make trades like these.  I don't think the Astros were in that position, and I don't think the Astros should have made the same decisions.

So personally, I like the Astros' deadline moves.  They moved a couple of guys off the 40-man, which gives them flexibility to promote from within.  Their core will be together for another few years, and it is worth developing around that core.  Giving guys like Alex Bregman and whatever young first baseman du jour they choose to promote a look at a pennant race is a good idea.  And the Astros are good enough to go deep into the postseason with their current roster, if they all put it together.