Friday, December 23, 2016

The Case for Jose Quintana

So here we are – 3 days until Christmas, 14 days since the end of the Winter Meetings, and seemingly forever since the Astros made a meaningful move. Of course Houston has been among the most active of all teams this off-season, but we got spoiled when they struck early and often. Since news dropped on December 3 that prodigal playoff monster Carlos Beltran finally re-signed after 12 years away, we’ve seen Chris Sale go to the Red Sox, Aroldis Chapman go to the Yanks, Rich Hill (and Justin Turner) (and Kenley Jansen) return to the Dodgers, and just tonight, Edwin Encarnacion go to the Indians. Barring unexpected moves, the Astros appear basically set on the position player side; the one area that still remains largely unaddressed is pitching.

According to reports, the Astros were in on Chris Sale before Boston swooped in to offer the #1 prospect in baseball. Reports also said that the White Sox demanded Alex Bregman for Sale, and Jeff Luhnow flat refused. Kudos, Luhnow – Sale is a special talent, but Bregman could be even more. I’m not sure that the 2017 Astros would be better with Sale and without Bregman; certainly not after 2019, when Sale becomes a free agent and Bregman still has three years of control left. Before the Sale trade, FanGraphs projected the 2017 Astros to be the class of the American League, just ahead of the Red Sox. That was before.

Sale-to-Boston happened on December 6, and almost immediately after that deal was done, rumors began swirling that Houston had shifted their focus to Jose Quintana. The next day, FanGraphs rightly noted that Quintana would not and should not come cheap, but by that evening, MLB.com’s Phil Rogers said on MLB Network that the Astros and White Sox were “far down the line” on a Quintana trade. Then… nothing. On December 10, Peter Gammons tweeted that the White Sox had asked for Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker, and Joe Musgrove in exchange. Brian McTaggart’s unscientific Twitter poll concluded that 2/3 of Astros fans agreed with Jeff Luhnow (apparently) saying no to that deal too. Last week, leistomania93 over at The Crawfish Boxes did an excellent job breaking down that potential trade, concluding that Luhnow was justified if he indeed said no. This week, another FanGraphs post suggested that the Astros may not need Quintana at all. But respectfully, I disagree.

With the disclaimer that my views do not necessarily reflect the views of Astros County or its affiliates, I have been not at all quiet on Twitter about my desire to see Jose Quintana in an Astros uniform next season. One of my three remaining readers responded that Houston should not be interested in such a “second rate pitcher” anyway. FanGraphs already did some of this in their first link above, but consider the following chart:

2016 MLB Pitching WAR Leaders
According to that, by WAR, Jose Quintana was one of the top 10 pitchers in all of baseball last season. And this:

2013-2016 MLB Pitching WAR Leaders
Even better, Quintana has the 7th best cumulative WAR among all pitchers over the last four years. Also note that he’s tied with Sale and Clayton Kershaw as the youngest arms on that list. Any team would love to have any one of those 15 names, but with Sale now moved, none of them are available – save for Quintana. An 18.1 WAR total works out to an average of 4.5 WAR per season. To give this an Astro-centric context, these are the top 30 individual seasons by any pitcher in Houston franchise history:

1962-2016 Houston Individual Season Pitching WAR Leaders
So an average year from Quintana would rank among the 30 best individual seasons ever for a franchise that traditionally prides itself on pitching. And he’s already done that consistently over a four-year span. Look at that list again and note how many other names appear at least four times. Here’s a hint – there are two:

Roy Oswalt
Shane Reynolds

Reynolds was the anchor of the rotation for the Astros’ blue & gold playoff teams in the ‘90s. Roy Oswalt served the same role for their most successful postseason runs in ’04 & ’05. Dallas Keuchel is the guy currently on the payroll who can hopefully have that same success, but even he has only crossed the 4.0 WAR threshold once. There’s no question that adding a guy like Quintana would make the current rotation – and the corresponding playoff chances – significantly better.

Of course there’s a cost involved. Contractually, that’s a non-issue for Quintana; he’s under club control for $38 million over four years, and that is crazy stupid cheap for good pitching. From that 2013-2016 chart above, four names recently hit free agency: Max Scherzer, David Price, Jon Lester, and Zack Greinke. Lester is the cheapest of those, signed for only $25.83 million/year, but the other three all commanded $30 million/year or more. If you’re hoping to hold out until Kershaw or Price are available for nothing but money following the 2018 season, then you’re also hoping to win a bidding war against 29 other teams that will certainly start well above a $30 million AAV floor.

The cost is prospects, and I can’t do better than TCB’s analysis putting an estimated dollar value to that cost. If the required package is indeed Martes/Tucker/Musgrove, then TCB’s math calculates that trio as worth $15 million more in surplus value than Quintana alone. Technically Chicago “wins” the trade if that holds, but that’s a huge if. Quintana’s performance was estimated low, at about 4.1 WAR per year; if he outperforms that standard, then his value goes up. All three prospects are projected to be solid major leaguers, but if even one of them falters, then the prospect package value goes way down. It’s worth considering that Quintana’s value also takes up only one roster spot, leaving two spots open that could more than make up for the value the other two prospects might have added.

If the Astros keep their prospects, in a best-case scenario, either Martes or Musgrove becomes Quintana. Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? Maybe not. Note that in 55 years of history, the Astros franchise has produced exactly two pitchers who have produced like Quintana has so far. Odds are exceedingly low that both young arms will match up to his standard, and it’s honestly very likely that neither will. That leaves Kyle Tucker, the wildest wild card in the deal. Tucker is just 19 years old, and 18 months removed from being the 5th overall pick in the 2015 Draft – the final high-pick prize from Houston’s rebuilding effort. Maybe he becomes Bryce Harper, and if traded, Jeff Luhnow looks like an idiot. Or maybe he gets hurt, or becomes nothing at all, and Luhnow was smart to sell high.

In a worst-case scenario, if the Astros made this trade, this trio could end up looking like another trio Houston once traded for a star lefty: John Halama, Freddy Garcia, and Carlos Guillen. Two of those guys became multiyear All-Stars. All three had solid MLB careers. And in return, all the Astros received was two months of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. This deal would be different, in that at least barring injury, Houston would be assured of four years of Quintana. But the need for it and the reason for it are much the same.

In the second FanGraphs link above, the argument is made that the Astros don’t really need Quintana, because their rotation could be good enough as it is. But on deeper examination, the argument doesn’t seem to hold up. Dave Cameron tries to draw parallels between Quintana and Collin McHugh, but the stat selection is cherry picked, and McHugh’s best year is barely equal to Quintana’s worst. Then Cameron seems to argue that McHugh is too good to be pushed to a 4th starter role, but never has a club with World Series aspirations complained of too much good pitching. More tellingly, the key quote from Cameron’s article is something we already know to be false: “There are contending teams with thin rotations, susceptible to injury or underperformance, but the Astros really aren’t one of those teams.” Actually, yeah… yes they are. We saw the rotation succumb to both injuries and underperformance in 2016, while the offense stayed basically the same, and the Astros missed the playoffs entirely as a result. Luhnow said, had he known the injuries would occur, that he would have approached the trade deadline differently in order to add more depth. I LOVE Collin McHugh; I love his fire in responding when Evan Drellich suggested that Boston’s new rotation far outclassed Houston’s. I sincerely hope that Luhnow does not trade McHugh, whether he adds Quintana or not. But more depth is exactly what the Astros rotation needs.

My final point in support of a Quintana trade is less stats or science based, and more historical. It’s been suggested that Luhnow could just hold his cards for now and wait until the July trade deadline, to see what other arms might be available then. But recognize this: of the Astros’ 10 postseason teams, 7 made the playoffs by 1.5 games or less. Four more times, the Astros missed a playoff spot by 1.5 games or less – five, if you count the ’94 strike year when the season halted with Houston half a game back. Wins in April mean just as much as wins in August and September, so if you have the opportunity to start the season with a fully loaded rotation, then I believe you take it.

Based on postseason success (which is ultimately what matters), Houston’s two greatest seasons were in ’04 and ’05. From my untrained, armchair perspective, what they lacked in ’04 was one more arm – if only Andy Pettitte hadn’t been hurt. In ’05, they had the arms, but they lacked one more bat – if only Beltran had re-signed, or they had picked up their option on Jeff Kent. The Astros seemed to have moved to the head of the pack this winter, but then Boston added Sale. Cleveland just added Encarnacion, and FanGraphs now predicts the Astros behind both of them for 2017. Does Houston have to respond? No. Is it possible they make the World Series with their team as it is today? Yes. But the best teams often need one step more to separate themselves from the pack.

Luhnow’s plan all along was to help the Astros get good and stay good for a long time. Developing good prospects is a big part of that. But having prospects to trade when you have big league holes to fill is a key part of that too. Windows can close sooner than expected, nothing is guaranteed, and when a chance is right in front of you, wisdom says you should grab it. Maybe Kyle Tucker could help the Astros win in 2020 – but there will be time to add more prospects before then. Houston has an immediate opportunity, and Jose Quintana can help them win – right, immediately, now.

2 comments:

Lackey said...

I disagree with your conclusion, but this is a reasonable argument on the whole.

However, the one point I really take issue with is your assertion that if only one of Tucker, Martes, or Musgrove fail, then Chicago no longer wins the deal. That's true, but that exposes a flaw in how people often think about prospects-for-major-leaguers trades. First, the projections represent the 50% outcome. It's possible--though unlikely--for one of those three to become better players than Quintana alone. Or, maybe one of them fails--but the other two achieve their 75% outcomes. Second, and I think Cameron hits this in his article, I think--maybe Quintana fails. MLB players are always referred to as "proven," but their performance is generally much less stable than people think. Maybe Quintana gets injured. Maybe his fastball declines faster than is typical and he doesn't adapt. Maybe he can't adjust to a new park. There's no certainty in Quintana either (more, I'll grant you).

Finally, while of course the Astros will get other good prospects in the future, there's still an opportunity cost loss by cashing them in now, particularly if you're "losing" the deal in value terms. Trading Tucker, Martes, or Musgrove now means you can't later. And, Tucker, in particular, might very well be a top 5 prospect in all baseball. Selling now could (would likely?) be selling low.

In general, I'm not a fan of teams "losing" the deal because the timing is right. Baseball's a weird sport. Teams fail when you don't expect and contend unexpectedly. I think teams are much better off generally making value transactions and coming out ahead long-term.

Cockroach said...

You're absolutely right that Quintana is no sure thing either. And you're absolutely right that even if one of the prospects flames out, the other two could still be good enough to be worth more than Quintana. There are no sure things no matter which path you choose, so it all becomes a matter of evaluating risk and deciding which risk you would rather take.

I feel like Quintana may be a one-in-a-decade chance, because pitchers with his combination of age, contract, and consistency just don't become available very often. When they do, it's usually as a free agent, but then you're looking at a $200 million minimum contract which handcuffs you for the future in being able to acquire other talent. I referenced the Randy Johnson trade regarding the prospects, but that's a bad comparison based on Houston's return: Johnson was a rental. Quintana is himself a long-term asset (four years), which you're giving up other potential long-term assets to get. I wouldn't give up this trio of prospects for a shorter term deal, but Quintana doesn't just help you win in 2017. He (hopefully) helps you win through 2020, and you'll still have time to restock the farm system and build a stronger team around him because you're not handcuffed by a killer $30 million/year contract.

Teams DO fail unexpectedly, and I think that's why Jeff Luhnow should make this deal now. Kyle Tucker could become Mike Trout (unlikely, though would be nice), but there's no guarantee that the Astros' window will still be open by the time that Tucker is ready to contribute at a high level. The window is open now, and I think the extra three years of Quintana does a lot to help offset the risk of trading prospects and make this more than merely a "win now" move. To trade or not to trade - both sides have a legitimate case. I just don't want to see the Astros fall one game short or one player short again, and then the opportunity is gone.