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What The Astros Need If The Rookies Can Play

The Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline is July 31st, one month away.  There are decisions to be made in the coming weeks regarding what to pursue on the trade market; whether or not an acceptable deal for players like Roy Oswalt, Brett Myers, or Lance Berkman can be reached, the Astros will need to decide what they want in return to pull the trigger on a trade for any of those players.

With rookies Jason Castro, Chris Johnson, and Jason Bourgeois all performing well in the early going, the intriguing possibility exists that by the end of this year, they could be a lock to fill their respective positions next season.  Does this play into the team's trade plans, and how?

Castro is all but guaranteed to be the starting catcher for the Astros in 2011, but the roles of the other two players are up in the air.  As a lesser prospect, Johnson has more to prove over the rest of the season.  Still, if he continues apace over the course of July, it would seem a shame to trade for an MLB-ready third baseman when we may already have one.

As for Jason Bourgeois, he's not a prospect, and it's doubtful that any decisions will be structured around his abilities.  Still, I like what I see from him enough that if a great deal were reached involving Pence or Bourn, I wouldn't be upset with giving him a shot to start in the outfield.  It's also possible that Carlos Lee could move to first base, opening up a position in the outfield for competition next spring training (which would be between Bourgeois and several other players).  Regardless, Bourgeois' defense, speed, and ability at the plate make him seem like an ideal fourth outfielder, and he seems virtually a lock to continue at least in that role for the Astros next season.

If all of these three players do look likely to continue in their current roles next season around the July 31st deadline, what types of players should the Astros focus on getting back to help next season and in the future?

Shortstop.  While Castro and Johnson might have the ability to start at their positions on many teams, Tommy Manzella almost assuredly does not.  He's a stopgap player, and after his early season performance, he would have been out of a job in most organizations, consigned to a career in the upper minors.  Since 2011 is likely a rebuilding year, giving him another chance wouldn't hurt (he's shown a pattern of struggling in his first stop at a level throughout his minor league career), but it's not the ideal solution, and he certainly wouldn't stand in the way of a better player obtained via trade.  What are some possible shortstop trade targets for the Astros?

  • Yunel Escobar, Braves (MLB).  Having been a very good shortstop over the course of his short major league career, it is unlikely that the Braves would trade Escobar, but there have been rumors that they are unhappy with him and might be willing to move him.  It might require a piece like Hunter Pence to get this deal done, or perhaps a three-way trade which sends another shortstop (Stephen Drew, perhaps?) to Atlanta.
  • Reid Brignac, Rays (MLB).  The Rays' shortstop situation is in question, since Jason Bartlett has not performed up to his career levels this season.  However, if they would like a good player to shore up another position for a playoff push, Brignac would be one of their best pieces to obtain one.  If the Astros were willing to eat Oswalt's contract, the Rays might be interested in him to anchor the top of their rotation, but a corner bat like Berkman or Pence would probably draw more interest.
  • Ian Desmond/Danny Espinosa, Nationals (MLB/AA).  Although the Nationals are no longer contenders in the NL East, they are still rumored to be after players who can help them over the next couple of years.  They could use another top of the rotation starter and a corner outfielder.  Desmond projects to be average or slightly above as a shortstop, while Danny Espinosa has a higher ceiling, but needs a little more time in the minors.
  • Wilmer Flores, Mets (A+).  The Mets are rumored to be willing to include Flores in a deal for Cliff Lee, so if that falls through, they might be convinced to package him in a deal for Oswalt.  There are some questions about whether he can stick at shortstop as he matures, and he won't be MLB-ready until 2012 or later, but Flores is an excellent prospect.
  • Dee Gordon, Dodgers (AA).  Gordon may or may not be untouchable in a trade for a player like Roy Oswalt, but the Astros should certainly try to get him if the Dodgers are willing to deal.  The speedy shortstop was promoted aggressively to AA this season and has performed respectably there after skipping A+.  He profiles as an Elvis Andrus-type player at the next level.  The problem is, as usual, that the Dodgers may not be able to take on payroll in a deadline trade; if the Astros are willing to eat a large portion of Oswalt's contract, that would make a deal with them seem much more likely.

Starting Pitcher.  While the Astros' starting rotation has been a relative strength this season, next year it could be much weaker.  It is possible that both Roy Oswalt and Brett Myers could be playing for different teams in 2011.  Felipe Paulino is virtually a lock to be part of the 2011 rotation, if healthy, but Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez have brought up serious questions about their ability to perform in that role moving forward.  Even if all three stay healthy and eat enough innings to save the bullpen, that still leaves two openings to be filled.

Prospects like Jordan Lyles and Dallas Keuchel may contribute at some point in the 2011 season, but neither of them is likely to be with the big league club opening day, and they may not arrive until as late as September.  With that in mind, getting back a good young starter close to (or in) the Majors would be ideal in any trade involving Myers or Oswalt.  Almost every organization has at least one such player, so I will focus only on some of the most likely or most interesting ones.  I can't hope to cover all of the interesting possibilities, so feel free to point out more in the comments section if you like.

  • Martin Perez/Tanner Scheppers, Rangers (AA/AAA). Rangers fans hate that either of these players could be included in a trade for Roy Oswalt, but even they acknowledge that it's a possibility, if the Astros eat some of Oswalt's contract, which is almost a necessity because of the Rangers' financial situation.  Both players have electric stuff and top of the rotation potential.  Perez, like Jordan Lyles, is only 19, and will not be ready for the majors until at least the middle of next season.  He is, however, the better of the two prospects, because Scheppers has some significant injury risks attached to him.
  • Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (AAA).  Having posted excellent numbers everywhere he's gone, Hellickson is one of the best pitching prospects in baseball despite stuff which is, while above average, not a plus.  He has otherworldly pitchability... and no home on the Rays' big league club, where he is logjammed.  The Rays don't like taking on big contracts, so the Astros would either have to eat salary (in trading a player like Lance Berkman), or send a productive cost-controlled player (like Pence) to get him back in a trade.  Even then, it may not be possible.
  • John Ely, Dodgers (MLB).  Not an elite prospect by any means, Ely does not have great stuff, but has produced good results in his rookie season.  His minor league track record is solid but unspectacular.  It is unlikely that he will be better than a no. 3 or no. 4 starter going forward, but he could be a useful innings eater in that role.  He would not be the only big piece involved in a trade with the Dodgers, but might be included as part of the package.
  • Mike Minor/Julio Teheran/Randall Delgado/Arodys Vizcaino, Braves (AA/A+).  As usual, the Braves have a whole swarm of great pitching prospects.  They're looking to win now, but don't exactly have any openings in their starting rotation, so Roy Oswalt might be out of the question, unless there is an injury, or perhaps the Astros take back a bad contract like Derek Lowe's in return for getting superior prospects.  Alternatively, Hunter Pence could draw some interest in Atlanta.  Mike Minor is the only one of these prospects likely to pitch in the Majors in 2011, so he would likely be Houston's foremost target, but might be untouchable.
  • Kyle Gibson, Twins (AA).  The Twins could be one of the teams on the market for Roy Oswalt or Brett Myers if they strike out on Cliff Lee.  Their most intriguing pitching prospect is Gibson, who has some injury concerns, but good stuff and pitchability, and is performing well in his first pro season, having split time between A+ and AA.

Second Base.  Jeff Keppinger has performed decently as the starting second baseman this year, but his struggles against right-handed pitching continue, and his defense is questionable up the middle.  He's on track to be about a win above replacement, which is not good enough to start on most teams, but would be a serviceable stopgap for next season, at his price.  Still, if the Astros can get back an upgrade in a trade, it would be worth considering.  I won't discuss the shortstop prospects listed above again; all of them could probably play second base, so keep them in mind for that role.

  • Todd Frazier, Reds (AAA).  In the thick of the NL Central race, the Reds will almost certainly hunt for upgrades in the next month.  The question is, are the Astros willing to deal with them?  A player like Roy Oswalt or Brett Myers might interest them quite a bit, but intra-division trades are notoriously difficult to pull off.  If the two parties do decide to deal, Todd Frazier could be one possibility from the Reds' system.  Frazier's versatility is attractive, and he has the bat to play very well at second base, although his 2010 season has so far been somewhat disappointing.
  • Brock Bond, Giants (AAA).  Bond is not a top prospect, probably because his best tool is his ability to draw a walk and get on base (career .418 OBP in the minors), but that's exactly what appeals to me about him.  He's exactly the kind of undervalued player who could become the next Ben Zobrist.  He's having another good season at AAA, and if the Astros could sneak him away from the Giants, I'd be thrilled.

What other positions do you think the Astros should focus on filling, if any?  Would you like to see them try to pick up a first baseman, or are you happy with some combination of Lance Berkman (if still in the organization), Carlos Lee, and Koby Clemens?  Or perhaps you think Chris Johnson would play better at first base, and would like to focus on obtaining a third baseman after all?