With the trade deadline still over a month away, talks haven't seemed to heat up yet between the Astros and other clubs, despite a rumor here and a rumor here. Of course, the Astros tend to play trades very close to the vest, so there's always the possibility we won't hear about imminent moves until just before they occur.
It appears right now that the Astros will go into the deadline with all indicators pointing toward "sell". Will they look to tear down most of the team and rebuild? Probably not, whether it's the best course of action or not. Astros owner Drayton McLane will see visions of an even emptier ballpark and a long reign of failure along the lines of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and those will be enough to deter him from holding a fire sale and fully committing to a rebuilding effort.
Still, it has to have crossed his mind. "How much worse could we possibly play?" he must be thinking. Further complicating matters, one of his biggest stars, Roy Oswalt, is publicly and frequently discussing his desire to be traded. Lance Berkman is also on the record as being willing to waive his no trade clause for a contender.
We have to consider the possibility of a limited rebuilding effort . Not a "fire sale", perhaps, but a "reload", as the Astros move a few players not likely to contribute after 2011 and focus on 2012 and beyond. With that in mind, who might be traded, and to where? Which players are untouchable or untradeable?
A Coin Flip
Roy Oswalt. The Astros almost have to trade Oswalt at this point, if only because he won't shut up about it; it's bad press, and McLane hates bad press. Keep in mind, however, that they don't have to trade him at the deadline this season--a trade might not happen until next off-season. Two significant obstacles stand in the way of finding a trade partner to take Roy: One, he has a lot of money remaining on his contract, and most teams are hesitant to take back so much salary in the middle of the season. Two, the Astros will want good prospects in return for one of their star players, and teams may not be willing to part with them unless the Astros pay some of Oswalt's salary. It remains to see whether a middle ground can be found between the Astros and another team prior to deadline.
Most likely candidates: Everybody and nobody. No clear frontrunner has emerged, but there are a number of potential suitors balking at Oswalt's cost. Rumored possibilities include the Mets, Dodgers, Rangers, Yankees, Twins, Tigers, and Nationals.
Brett Myers. Myers presents a classic sell high opportunity. He's performing well above his career levels right now, on a team-friendly contract which expires after this season. He has a mutual option, but is unlikely to pick up his half of the deal, so he will depart for free agency after this year. If the Astros can get decent prospects in return for him, he'd be a good player to trade at the deadline.
Most likely candidates: Any National League contender. Adding Myers should be attractive to many teams, so if the Astros are willing to trade him, it's just a matter of finding the highest bidder. American League teams tend to be cautious of National League starters without great stuff, so they're less likely to be interested.
A Roll of the Dice
Lance Berkman. Since Berkman isn't performing well this season and is in his mid-30s, teams will be wary of giving up too much for him. If he can improve his numbers by the deadline, some teams might be interested, particularly American League teams in need of a DH, but the Astros may demand a steep price in return for giving up their biggest star. The combination of these factors makes it unlikely that Berkman will be traded, though it's certainly possible.
Most likely candidates: The Yankees. They reportedly already have interest in Berkman, and have been scouting him as a trade candidate.
Jeff Keppinger. Another sell high candidate, Keppinger is having a solid year as a starting second baseman. His defense has improved, he's hitting well, and he's on an inexpensive contract. As a bonus, he's under team control through 2012. There are a couple of problems: One, the Astros don't have a clear replacement available, unless they are sold on Geoff Blum or Oswaldo Navarro as second basemen. Two, there haven't been any clubs clearly on the market for a starting second or third baseman, which is where his greatest value lies.
Most likely candidates: The Rangers. They've been looking for a right-handed bat for their bench all season, and it needs to be an inexpensive player (check) who can play multiple positions (check). They are rumored to have interest in Mike Lowell or Conor Jackson, but they might be jump at the opportunity if the Astros made Keppinger available.
Wandy Rodriguez. It's looking more and more like the Astros should have sold high on Wandy when they had the chance, because he's having a terrible season. He would be a stronger trade candidate were he performing better, but right now, his stock is down. His contract isn't too expensive, and he's under team control through 2011, so if he can rebound significantly before the trade deadline, he could become a trade candidate. Right now, it's not looking very likely.
Most likely candidates: Nobody, if he doesn't rebound. If he does, his stock will be similar to Brett Myers' and he could interest any National League contender.
A Long Shot
Hunter Pence. After a terrible performance at the beginning of the season, Pence has been rebuilding his stock with a resurgent May and June. His value is still down, so it wouldn't be a good idea to trade him unless he returns to his career norms by the deadline. Even more importantly, he's a young, inexpensive fan favorite under team control for years to come. It is very unlikely that he will be traded this year.
Most likely candidates: Anybody in need of outfield help. The Red Sox and their ailing outfield jump to mind.
Michael Bourn. As one of the few center fielders in the game today who can excel at patrolling Minute Maid Park's sprawling center field, it would be very difficult to part with Bourn. Further standing in the way: He's a favorite of General Manager Ed Wade's, a fan favorite, and is an inexpensive player under team control through 2012. A trade could be in the cards for Bourn down the road when outfield prospects like Jay Austin are ready for the majors, but I don't think it will happen this year.
Most likely candidates: The Padres and their spacious outfield jump to mind; they've struggled to find reliable production in center field, and they would probably be very attracted to an inexpensive, productive player like Bourn.
Matt Lindstrom. As a young, inexpensive closer under team control, Lindstrom seems more likely to be a building block moving forward than to be traded. Wade is unlikely to be interested in trading his newfound reliever, and in truth there isn't a big market for a closer right now.
Most likely candidates: The market for closers has fallen of late, as the teams who have struggled the most closing out games have fallen out of contention. Contenders are always looking for relief help at the deadline, but at the moment I can't think of a team who would be desperate enough to give up the prospects necessary to pry Lindstrom away.
Other low-probability players: Pedro Feliz (fallen off a cliff, nobody needs a third baseman), Humberto Quintero (the Astros like him as a backup catcher), Geoff Blum (veteran presence), Jason Michaels/Cory Sullivan (little value), Brandon Lyon (bad contract).
You'd Get Better Odds Playing the Lottery
Carlos Lee. The very definition of "untradeable", Lee is aging, out of shape, and underperforming at the plate. He's also owed almost $50M through 2012. On top of all of that, he has an ironclad no trade clause and will not waive it due to ranching interests in the Houston area. Sorry, guys, we're stuck with him.