Tuesday, August 1, 2017

On the Astros' Trade Deadline

As you would have heard by now, the Astros are a bunch of incompetent hacks who know nothing about baseball.  They worship prospects, and as such, greedily wouldn't trade any of them to another organisation to acquire the 2017 version of 1998 Randy Johnson.  Useless!

Tyler sums it up nicely:

And the Constable, as always, has a wonderful #hawttake:

And so while there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth last night on Astros Twitter, some much-loved analysts had some nuanced, more balanced takes:

Most of the concern seemed to be principally around how three quality starting pitchers shifted teams in the weeks prior to the trade deadline.  Yu Darvish went to the Dodgers, Sonny Gray to the Yankees and José Quintana to the Cubs.  At times, the Astros have been linked to all of them - well, definitely the latter two, although Quintana was mostly in the offseason.  It is possible the Astros and the Rangers would have hooked up on a Darvish trade had the price been right (remember Carlos Corporan for Akeem Bostick), but it was mostly speculation on the part of the pundits that had the Astros interested in the pending FA from South Grapevine.

The Astros made one move, and it was a pretty reasonable one in my opinion.  They acquired Francisco Liriano and cash from the Jays, in exchange for Nori Aoki and Teoscar Hernandez.  In doing so, they cleared the way for Derek Fisher - who has impressed over the course of 2017 - to play everyday (or something approaching that), and freed up a 40-man spot.  Hernandez could be good, but he was not the Astros' top outfield prospect by any stretch (or even in the top 4).  They also have 38 (by my count) on the 40-man roster, with a couple of guys that would be good candidates to be released / clear waivers (looking at you, Tony Sipp).  So that offers them some flexibility to get some cheap innings eaters before the end of the season.

So... Liriano.  I think it was no secret that the Astros were in on pretty much every relief lefty with some velocity on the trade market.  Justin Wilson and Zach Britton were the main prizes at this deadline.  Wilson went to the Cubs a few days ago (along with pending FA Alex Avila) for a couple of top prospects.  Britton stayed put, with a number to tweets referring to the ever-increasing prices for him, or referencing Jeff Luhnow saying that they got 90% of the way to getting a deal done, but other teams just wanted too much.  Plus, the Orioles had a very strange deadline - sort of acquiring two middling players but neither buying, nor selling, nor addressing their obvious problems with starting pitching.  Extremely odd.

Fangraphs likes the Liriano acquisition... as long as he isn't being used as a starting pitcher.  Travis Sawchik makes a great point in this article - Liriano is death on lefties, but is being murdered by righties.  Also, his stuff may play up a little in a shorter role, so perhaps he can be trusted with an inning where there are two lefties projected to bat in the inning in a close game.  Or perhaps he is just a LOOGY.  Regardless, I think this was a nice pivot by the Front Office by eschewing costly lefty relievers and thinking outside the box.  I like it, and there is no way the prospect cost was too great, or crippling for future Astros teams.

I guess I principally wanted to make some points about the Dodgers, Yankees and Cubs.  First up, lets talk about the Dodgers, who had a quintessential Dodgers day.  The Dodgers have an awesome amount of financial resources, a strong farm system, and a great team with what looks like a core of young and mid-career star players.  What they have done over the last few years is spend big to amass significant depth, ignoring injury risk.  Their rotation has been - in recent years, Clayton Kershaw followed by whomever is healthy and has a pulse.  Could be Scott Kazmir, could be Rich Hill, could be Brandon McCarthy.  They seem to have had a clear plan to throw big money at often-injured starters, and use their depth to mix and match depending on who is available.

Well, the Dodgers did it again, volume-wise, at this deadline  They acquired not only Yu Darvish, but also bullpen lefties Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani.  And if that isn't enough for you, they also signed FA lefty Tommy Layne.  In return, they gave up Scott Van Slyke, Hendrik Clementina, Oneil Cruz, Angel German, Willie Calhoun, A.J. Alexy and Brendon Davis - or, according to Fangraphs' preseason prospects, a major-leaguer, their #6 prospect, and four "notable mentions".  One potential big-time prospect dealt by LA for a top-flight starter for two months, a lefty who lost his closing job, and a struggling lefty swingman / starter.  Nice work, but these deals seem to be mostly about volume and continuing the "throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks" philosophy.

The Yankees and Cubs are a different story.  They acquired solid starting pitchers with a few years of control in exchange for decent prospect hauls.  The White Sox did well, getting one solid blue-chipper and a second good prospect, whereas the A's took on ceiling, but injury-risk.

But the Cubs and Yankees have two things in common.  Thing one: they are in dogfights for their divisions, and there is no guarantee that they will even make their respective postseasons.  Thing two: check out their 2017 rotations and how long the starters near the top are signed for...

Jon Lester - signed through 2020
Jake Arrieta - FA this offseason
John Lackey - FA this offseason
Kyle Hendricks - controllable through 2021
Eddie Bulter - controllable through 2022

Also: Mike Montgomery - controllable through 2022, but no one wants him starting regularly

Luis Severino - controllable through 2023
Masahiro Tanaka - signed through 2020, but opt-out option this year
Michael Pineda - signed through 2018, but unlikely to pitch before then because of injury
Jordan Montgomery - controllable through 2023
CC Sabathia - FA this offseason

So both teams face losing some top-of-the-rotation starters to free agency (or injury) for next year.  And the pending free agents on the above lists have struggled this season, too, so this is not a simple case of re-signing what you are losing.  The Yankees also may lose Tanaka to an opt-out, and given that the starting pitching FA class is not a strong one, Tanaka may want to use it for another shot at free agency.  Also, neither of these teams would want to approach the offseason with a clear need that could easily be exploited by a Scott Boras-like agent, as they are both teams known to pay well when needed.  Both teams could have anticipated being fleeced this offseason if they had to sign two starting pitchers, and no one wants to be in that position, as you either spend too much, or sign someone for too long.  Either way, it sucks.

At this juncture, lets (i) note that the Astros are NOT in a division dogfight in 2017 and are nearly certain to make the playoffs and (ii) look at the 2017 Astros rotation going forward:
Dallas Keuchel - controllable through 2019
Lance McCullers Jr - controllable through 2022
Collin McHugh - controllable through 2020
Charlie Morton - controllable through 2018
Mike Fiers - controllable through 2020

Joe Musgrove - controllable through 2023
Brad Peacock - controllable through 2021
Francis Martes - controllable through 2023

So the Astros have 8 starting pitching options next year, all of whom are controllable for at least two years.  This group of Astros starters have proven that they can prevent runs in line with the top rotations in baseball when healthy, despite being relatively unheralded and unsexy.  Or: this is a quietly good set of arms backed up by a great offense.  So I would argue that this was not the time to add a controllable starter to the Astros, because of a mix of their effectiveness and their contract status.  Particularly if it was going to cost a Forrest Whitley, a Franklin Perez or a J.B. Bukauskas.  And the other teams would come sniffing around, knowing that you probably had to cut a good arm lose next year.

Hey, I get that the Astros are a bit of a mess at the moment - like, in the last two weeks or so.  It isn't pretty watching them scramble with their pitching.  They can't seem to get a starter deep into the game, their key 'pen arms are either hurt, ineffective, or being rested for the postseason, and they don't have reliable lefty relief (until, perhaps, now).  Tyler White just threw an inning for goodness sake, and Nori Aoki did the same earlier in the season.  Francis Martes has just been lit up twice in a row after looking dominant for a while.  But the Opening Day Astros roster - you know, the team that leads the AL by 10.5 games - had two players who were Free Agents at the end of 2017.  One of them is 40 year-old Carlos Beltrán, the other just got traded to the Blue Jays.

This team isn't going going to be broken up at the end of this year.  All their key pieces are returning next year.  And the year after that.  And, mostly, the year after that.  This includes their pitching, who are a plenty solid group of starters.  The Astros' situation is quite unlike the situation that the Cubs and the Yankees are in, who face losing their number 2 and 3 starters in the offseason.  This simply wasn't the time to add a controllable starting pitcher, particularly one with a significant injury risk.

My next project will be to discuss options for playoff rotations, because I also think there are ways around that for the Astros.  Until then, thanks for reading.