Friday, November 18, 2016

There is a new Sheriff in Town (and the Astros also signed Josh Reddick)

If the Astros make the playoffs in 2017, then it is very possible that 17 November 2016 could be an important date when considering why.  This was the day that the Astros traded for veteran lefty catcher Brian McCann, and signed Josh Reddick for a reported 4 years and 52-million.  This is a lot of action for one day, so fair warning: this post may get a little long.

This offseason, I have already looked at the Astros and their right-handed hitter heavy lineup.  (As an aside, the Constable must have only read the title, and assumed that it was an attempt to reassure y'all).  Anyhow, the basic premise of the argument was that the Astros could conceivably run out an opening-day lineup of right-handed hitters, and while that is probably less of a problem than an entire lineup of lefty-hitters, some hitters to redress the balance were most likely going to be sought.

The other interesting aspect of the Astros' offseason was the identified need for a veteran in the clubhouse.  I guess that, heading into the 2016 season, the Astros would have been thinking that Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis may have been the veteran guys.  Well, Rasmus left the team early in slightly mysterious circumstances after a couple of DL-stints which obviously affected his performance significantly and Gattis probably had his hands full, needing to work on his catching more as the season progressed.  Regardless, by the end of the season, clubhouse leadership has been mentioned in dispatches as being an area of need.

Brian McCann certainly seems to have ideas on how the game should be played, and whether this amounts to clubhouse leadership should probably be considered a seperate matter (and certainly not one that I am qualified to comment on).  Regardless, McCann has demonstrated some serious abilities with both the glove and the bat over the course of his career.  McCann has played parts of 11 seasons in the major-leagues, and has been an All-Star seven times, and a Silver Slugger six times.  It is fair to say that he has had a successful career.

McCann carries a career line of .266/.340/.459, along with a 9.3% walk-rate against a 15.3% strikeout rate.  Compare that to Jason Castro's career line of .232/.309/.390, with a 9.5% BB-percentage and a 27.4% K-percentage, and it is easy to see why the Astros probably think they have managed to acquire a decent upgrade.

There are three issues that spring to mind for me, however.  Firstly, this does not account for defensive differences, which may be in the Astros' favour according to Fangraphs' relatively basic defensive rating system, but most likely not for too much longer.  Brian McCann has seemingly consistently been working around 10-ish runs above average on defense (on Fangraphs), with Castro perhaps rated as a little work (closer to six-ish runs above average).

Baseball-Reference sees it differently, with Castro consistently rated as defensively better than McCann, and with McCann coming off the worst defensive year of his career.  I wonder whether the Astros are simply going to punt behind-the-dish D for a power-hitting platoon, which will most likely represent a nice change for the Astros fans.

This kind of alludes to the second issue that comes to mind: Jason Castro will play 2017 as a 30 year-old, whereas Brian McCann will play 2017 at the age of 33.  McCann, arguably, finds himself in the midst of a significant age-related decline - 33 year-old career catchers don't tend to age that well aside from during the steroid era, and there is already some evidence of age-related decline.  As an example, McCann's strikeout-rate has steadily increased from 14% to 20% over the last three years.  It will be interesting to see whether this continues.

Finally, the Astros will have to pay McCann a significant amount of money: $11.5MM over the next two seasons, and perhaps $15MM in 2019, if his team option vests.  McCann would need to meet three conditions for that option to vest: 1000 total plate appearances in 2017 and 2018, catch 90 games in 2018, and not finish 2018 on the DL.  If he manages that, then the Astros will be playing a 35 year-old career catcher a chuck of money for what is likely to be the least valuable year of a long contract.  This does not represent a crippling amount of money for the Astros, however, and does not preclude them spending more money as early as this offseason.

The other cost in this trade is the prospect capital.  The Astros traded two live arms in the lower-minors (which are the riskiest of prospects) to acquire McCann.  Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman move from Lancaster and Greeneville respectively to new locations in the Yankee system.  Most analysts seem to rate Abreu as the better prospect by virtue of his easy mid-90's gas and a four-pitch repertoire, but Guzman can pump his high-octane stuff well into triple digits.  Both seem destined to become power relievers if they eventually make the major-leagues, but this will not look like a good deal if one of them puts it all together.

Truthfully, the Yankees did well to clear a roster spot, save a bit of cash, and unblock a positional blockade while sending out someone who had disappointed with a .235/.313/.418 triple-slash in the first three years of a large contract that locked up an elite up-the-middle player.  The return of two live arms probably feels like a bit of a haul for them at this stage.  And the Astros did well to acquire a veteran with some defensive value who can balance out the lineup.  Plus Garrett Stubbs is probably still a couple of years away, so McCann's acquisition arguably covers the gap until then.

But you know who didn't cost any prospect capital - either in the form of trades or lost draft picks??  Yep, Josh Reddick.  Reddick, by virtue of his mid-season trade from the A's to the Dodgers, was ineligible to receive a qualifying offer.  The Astros are rumoured to have signed him to a 4/52 contract, pending a physical.

Reddick, as a corner outfielder who bats from the left side, seems like a good bet to directly replace Colby Rasmus.  Rasmus occasionally appeared in CF, which Reddick nearly certainly won't.  Depending on where the Astros play Springer - and with Tal's Hill gone, it may be CF - Reddick seems destined to play either RF (if Springer is in CF) or LF.  Reddick may also be destined for a platoon role, sharing time with Handsome Jake in some kind of modified alignment on the days that Jake plays.  That may allow the Astros to play an all-right outfield that has Teoscar Hernández or Yuri Gurriel in it as well.

Josh Reddick was one of a number of lefty outfield bats that were available to the Astros this offseason.  Switch-hitters Carlos Beltrán, Dexter Fowler and Coco Crisp are all free-agents, and interesting lefty-only hitting options Michael Saunders, John Jay and Brandon Moss (although he may be more of a first-baseman at this point) were also available and unencumbered by qualifying offers.  The Rockies have four lefty-hitting outfielders that the Astros nearly undoubtedly kicked the tyres on, and other potentially available names like Adam Eaton and Ender Inciarte would have required more prospect capital than most would have felt comfortable dealing to pry loose from their teams.  So the Astros struck early for a solid, consistent lefty-outfielder, with the main drawback perhaps the only the length of the contract.

A direct comparison between Reddick and Rasmus seems in order, given how Reddick essentially appears to take Rasmus' spot.  Reddick is a career .255/.316/.430 hitter with a walk-rate of around 8% and a strikeout rate of 17%.  He has been a consistently and solidly average player for the length of his career, posting an fWAR between 2.0 and 4.5 in five of the last six years (mostly closer to the 2.0 mark).  Rasmus is a career .241/.311/.434 hitter with a roughly-equivalent BB-percentage just under 9%, but a significantly higher strikeout rate of 26.4%.  Rasmus has also been quite inconsistent - he had great years in 2010 with the Cardinals and 2013 with the Blue Jays (fWARs of 4 and 5.1 respectively), but with each of those teams, his tenures seemed to end in controversy, partly because each of those years was followed with an awful season (fWAR's of 0.5 and 0.9 respectively).

Looking at the above triple-slashes, it seems that the career lines of Rasmus and Reddick are very similar.  Fangraphs' Steamer predicts a significant career divergence from here.  Steamer thinks the departing Rasmus is a .223/.299/.402 player (an overall 87 wRC+), compared to the arriving Reddick, who is slated for a .271/.337/.451 line, or a 109 wRC+.  The projection systems like Reddick's consistency and peripherals more, and most likely, so too do the Astros.

One area that Reddick is frighteningly similar to Rasmus is around platoon problems.  Reddick has no real business facing lefties, thanks to a career triple-slash of .218/.280/.360.  Rasmus has managed a weirdly similar career line of .212/.291/.364.  Both players need to have an available RHH outfield partner for late-game situations, one would imagine.  I wouldn't be surprised if Reddick is used relatively strictly as the fat-side of a fairly tightly-run platoon.

These moves will surely have other minor ramifications throughout the Astros organisation, one would think.  It seems that Rasmus will definitely not be back, but I doubted that that would occur regardless, particularly given the odd nature of his departure.  It is unclear what effect of the likely Reddick signing will have on a possible DH signing - I would not think that a Carlos Beltrán short-term contract would be ruled out with a Reddick signing, as it looks like there is still room to add another player.  McCann's acquisition means that Jason Castro will definitely not return, sending large sections of the Astros fan base into feverish celebration.  The market for Castro seems fairly brisk at the moment, and I had been wondering about writing an article about whether Castro could or should have been offered a QO, but I was stopped by the fear that Astros Twitter may have melted down.  While it seems like Max Stassi is the big loser here, it is possible that the Astros carry three catchers if they choose not to add a DH.  This is because Gattis and McCann would most likely spend a significant portion of non-catching time at DH, and if they were to have to don the Tools of Ignorance, then the DH would be lost for the remainder of the game - perhaps not a massive issue, but one that A.J. Hinch encountered a few times in 2016.  To Tyler White dusts off his old catching gear as a possibly third catcher come first baseman.  McCann has also played some first base, so it is possible that he could move into a modified time-share with Tyler White and Evan Gattis, the three of them covering 1B and C in some combination.  Finally, it is also possible that the Astros trade for or sign a first baseman on a short contract, because, well... what I said above.  McCann and Reddick represent big, significant additions, but I don't think they reduce the Astros' flexibility to the point where they can't pull off any other additions.

All in all, a solid day for the Astros for a bunch of reasons.  Lefty bats were going to be an issue this offseason, and they have gone some way to address those issues.  No crippling prospect losses in trades.  No lost draft picks.  Both players are solid performers - consistently better than the guys they replaced.  Overall, a solid day.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.