Should the Astros Lock Up Wandy?

Wandy Rodriguez pitched a seven inning gem yesterday afternoon, striking out nine and walking only one while giving up one earned run.  He is under team control through 2011, but the team may make a decision on whether they want to trade him, let him depart in free agency after next year, or give him an extension before then.

With Brett Myers now under long-term contract, the Astros have helped solidify the starting rotation for the next few years.  But if baseball has taught teams like the Milwaukee Brewers anything, it's that top of the rotation starters are hard to find and critical to a team's success.  Wandy Rodriguez performed like that kind of pitcher last season, and even in limited action in 2008.  He had a rough start this year, but since the end of June, he's been performing like that pitcher again.  But can he be counted on to be a frontline starter in the future, and do the Astros have enough need for him that locking him up would be a good idea?

Wandy is 31 years old, in the prime of his career.  When he's on, he possesses impeccable fastball command and one of the best curveballs in the game; true swing-and-miss stuff from the lefthanded side.  As a finesse pitcher without high velocity or a diverse pitch repertoire, though, he's prone to getting blown up when his fastball location isn't there or his curve isn't breaking.  On the other hand, as some of his pitching lines lately have demonstrated, when they are both working, he is truly dominant.

As for whether the Astros need him?  They do have some pitching prospects in the minor leagues, including one of the best in baseball, Jordan Lyles.  But as the saying goes, "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect", meaning that injuries and erratic performance are so common among young pitchers that you can never fully rely on a prospect no matter how good he appears to be.

With that in mind, would a moderate extension for Wandy Rodriguez--if he were amenable to the idea--be a good idea to bridge the gap between the team's rotation now and the rotation of the future?

The question of age

But wait a second, you might say.  Wandy is 31.  Do we really want to lock up a player in his early thirties?  What if he falls off a cliff?  This is a fair point, but it's important to keep in mind that pitchers, especially finesse lefthanders, age very differently from position players.

For whatever reason, left handed pitchers seem to have a tendency to peak later in their careers than righthanders.  There are numerous examples in the game today; Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte, Ted Lilly, Jamie Moyer--the  list goes on.  It seems a common occurrence for finesse lefties to have the best seasons of their careers in their thirties.  Maybe it's because their soft-tossing game, so dependent on pitchability and secondary stuff, is more skill-based than your typical major league starting pitcher.  It takes a long time to hone their craft, and the physical strength to generate velocity isn't as important to them as their ability to command their pitches.

So I'm not convinced at all that--at least for the next few years--Wandy's age will have a significant effect on his performance itself.  More concerning is the tendency for pitchers to be injured more often as they enter the later seasons of their career.  It's something to weigh and keep in mind when considering the possibility of handing him an extension.

Is Wandy really back to his 2009 form?

After his terrible start to the season, it would be understandable to be worried that Wandy actually had fallen off a cliff.  There were even fans on websites like MLB.com and the Houston Chronicle's calling for him to be released or traded.

Then he put together a fantastic July and perhaps the best thirteen inning stretch of his career this month.

If you look at Wandy's splits by month, you'll see that in July and August, not only has Wandy been as good as he was in 2009, he's been better.  His 0.93 FIP in August so far is a jawdropping number which is obviously not anywhere close to being sustainable, but strongly suggests that he's righted the ship.

But what if his inconsistency comes back to haunt the Astros again?  It's true that it might.  Even if so, he's demonstrated the ability to correct the problem within the context of a single season; his FIP now stands at 3.68 for 2010, almost identical to his 2008 and 2009 numbers of 3.62 and 3.54 respectively.  A performance similar to that level would be a reasonable expectation moving forward, even if Wandy does have bouts of inconsistency along the way.  An FIP in the mid-3 range is the performance level of a good no. 2 starter, the kind of pitcher who is tough to give up.

Does Wandy have more value to the Astros than to anybody else?

Wandy's home/away splits have been significant throughout his entire career, and this season is no exception.  On the road, he has performed more like a back of the rotation starter, with a career 4.44 FIP and 5.24 ERA.  But at home, Wandy is an ace.  His career ERA at Minute Maid Park (3.52) is surprisingly low, given that he spent much of his career viewed as a fifth starter type.  His career home FIP is a litle higher than his ERA, at 3.83, but still much better than his FIP on the road.

Since 2008, he's been even better at home.  As I mentioned, he's been performing like an ace when in Houston.  His 2.08 ERA at Minute Maid Park last season was spectacular.  His 2.99 mark in 2008 and his 3.00 mark this year are also significantly lower than his road numbers.

This is something other teams will be looking at in trade talks and when considering signing Wandy out of free agency.  Essentially, Wandy's market value is lower than his value to the Astros.  By how much?  It's hard to say how much other general managers prioritize splits like this, especially without knowing the cause for the strangely lopsided numbers.  One possible explanation has been mentioned by Jim Deshaies a number of times during TV broadcasts; maybe Wandy is somehow good at inducing fly balls to center field, which in Minute Maid Park is cavernous, and with Michael Bourn patrolling its confines, a pretty safe place for a pitcher to work.

I don't know whether there is any truth to this idea.  Maybe Wandy likes a friendly crowd.  Maybe he's just more comfortable on the mound in Houston.  Maybe it's simply random variation and will regress moving forward.  But the perception that Wandy is better in Minute Maid Park will certainly have at least some effect on his market value, lowering his cost in free agency and reducing what the Astros can get back in return in a trade.

Why should the Astros retain Wandy while rebuilding?

There is one simple question which does have a significant impact on whether keeping Wandy around, even for next season, is a good idea: How soon will the Astros be competitive?  It's very unlikely that the Astros will contend next season, as so many things would have to go right for that to occur.  Even 2012 might be questionable, although shooting for .500 may be an attainable goal at that point.

So should the Astros even bother locking up a pitcher in his early thirties, no matter how good he is and how much more value he has to Houston than to another team?  Maybe.

For one thing, the team does have a chance--not a good chance, but a chance--of being competitive earlier than 2013.  Having a pitcher like Wandy would be very important to any postseason run in 2012, since the Astros will never be an elite offensive team the way they are currently constructed.  Losing him to free agency or trade would significantly weaken the starting rotation.

There is also value in putting your best team on the field even in a rebuilding season.  Maintaining fan interest is important to a club's revenue stream.

Beyond that, there is real baseball value to having a 200 inning starting pitcher in the rotation.  The Astros have a number of good young bullpen arms who should be on the team next year and after, like Wilton Lopez, Mark Melancon, Sammy Gervacio, Alberto Arias, Daniel Meszaros, Fernando Abad, and others.  These are commodities with value, value which could be damaged if they are overused to the point of injury.

How much would it cost to lock up Wandy?

This is an important question, and a complicated one to answer.  For one thing, it would cost the players the Astros could obtain in trading him.  One comparable trade from this year's deadline jumps to mind: The White Sox obtaining Edwin Jackson in exchange for Daniel Hudson.  Hudson is an MLB-ready starting pitcher with middle rotation upside and a floor as a back of the rotation starter.

If that's the kind of return the Astros could get for Wandy, a trade would be worth considering, at least.  On the one hand, a pitcher like Hudson is cost-controlled and could be inexpensive and productive for a number of years.  On the other hand, is that really what the Astros need to be competitive?  With J.A. Happ, Felipe Paulino, and Bud Norris, they already have three young pitchers who profile similarly, as well as Jordan Lyles on the way with his middle rotation floor and no. 2 upside.  The kinds of players the Astros need are impact pieces, top of the rotation starters and middle order bats.

One year of Wandy Rodriguez would not bring that back, except perhaps in the form of a very risky prospect who is far from being Major League ready.  Also keep in mind that extending Wandy does not necessarily mean he can't be traded; if he proves he's capable of producing value above his contract, he would still have trade value, perhaps even more trade value at the deadline next year or the year after, since he wouldn't just be a single-season rental.

Then there is the issue of the length and cost of his contract.  Perhaps the contract Brett Myers received is a good benchmark.  Myers has never performed as well as Wandy at his peak, but he is also younger and having a better year.  Myers' contract pays him $7M in 2011, $11M in 2012, and a $10M club option for 2013 with a $3M buyout.  Would Wandy be happy with that contract?  Could he get more on the open market?  It's hard to say, but it seems like he would have to at least consider it.

In Summary

I was in favor of trading away Wandy Rodriguez if he increased his stock back to his 2009 level.  Now that he's doing so, I find that I'm not so certain.  I think I would want a true impact player or a prospect who is a good bet to become one in order to trade him in the offseason.

If the Astros were to give him an extension now or at any time prior to the arbitration deadline in the offseason, I would be okay with that, as long as the contract isn't too expensive or too long.

What do you think?  Would you rather trade away the last player from the 2005 World Series team, or would you like to see him remain an Astro for a few more years?

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