The fact of the matter is that there is no asset a GM would hold on to regardless of the return; in the immortal words of the Million Dollar Man, "everybody's got a price!" Players really only become "untouchable" when their GM values them more than the return the other 29 teams are willing to part with in exchange.
For a rebuilding club like the Astros, the answer is usually to deal old for young, expensive for cheap, established for prospective, and make no mistake; the Astros are rebuilding.
Boy are they rebuilding.
Rebuilding is serious business down here in the Bayou City.
The last two seasons have seen the Astros and GM Jeff Luhnow employ the Mythbusters method of rebuilding at the Major League level; lots of C-4 and hoping a solution presents itself somewhere in the ensuing rubble (and, like with the TV show, a good deal of behind-the-scenes analysis).
A completely reliable, absolutely-not-made-up source recently confirmed that Luhnow attempted to swing a deal for Giancarlo Stanton that would have sent the Marlins Jose Altuve, Jim Crane, Orbit, half the grounds crew, four popcorn vendors and a pair of clubhouse attendants to be named later.
Saying that anything not tied down has been dealt to other teams doesn't do justice to Luhnow's willingness to get out a knife and cut the rope if he thinks he can obtain positive value in a deal. So in reality, no player is immovable.
Likewise, no player on the current roster is really a "must-deal" in the truest sense; for that to be the case, said player would have to have detrimental value to the club, either by providing little to no current and/or future value while taking up a roster spot, or, well, something a little more serious than that.
There's nearly always value, however small, to be had by keeping a given asset, even if for the sake of simply fleshing out the Triple-A roster, so the question really becomes "is the current and/or future value of this asset likely less than what another team is willing to pay for it?"
In those cases, rather than simply being open to dealing the asset, a GM may actively seek and desire to do so, and given Luhnow's analytics-focused, sometimes nearly cold-blooded approach (not that that's a bad thing), you can bet a player will be on the move if he feels the answer to that question is "yes."
With all this said, the task at hand is especially difficult given the Astros' current situation; due to the annihilative nature of the rebuilding plan that has been implemented in Houston, there are few, if any, players in place who really qualify as "must get rid of," as the lack of established talent, specifically of the old and/or expensive variety, means that most of the players are cheap prospects and recent promotions who you wouldn't usually want to cut bait on, and who could potentially provide some level of value in the future.
Likewise, the roster being largely bereft of established talent means inherently that there are few, if any, players who are really good enough to be considered "untouchable" cornerstone talents whose loss would severely hurt the organization if not for the sake of a massive return package.
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1) The Astros MUST KEEP second baseman Jose Altuve
If you had asked me just a few months ago, Altuve might have been listed as low as number three below. However, given the Astros' decision to move top prospect Delino DeShields Jr. back to the outfield, the depth in the minor league system at second base has taken a heavy hit, and losing Altuve as well, at this point, would create a big vacuum there that might not be filled effectively for years. There's also the fact that Altuve saw a big drop off in performance in 2013, managing an empty .283/.316/.363 at the plate.
However, those in Houston who followed the team closely will remember that he dealt with some nagging injuries during the early and mid parts of the season, as well as a death in the family, but tore it up in September with a .357/.378/.461 batting line when he ostensibly finally felt 100%.
To sell on Altuve now would likely be to sell low, and for that reason if no other, it would be best to hang on to him for at least one more year. The extension he signed in mid-August is extremely club-friendly as well; Altuve is set to make less than $12 million total over the next four seasons, and a pair of affordable club options follow in 2018 and 2019.
Also, on account of his reaching the Majors at age 21, he has a full four years to go before he hits the 27-28 age range that is thought to generally be the peak performance years for most players. While he's never likely to be a true star player in terms of stark performance value, there's little doubt that he's the emotional heart and soul of the franchise right now.
Dealing him for anything less than a king's ransom would send the wrong message to both fans and, perhaps more importantly, other players; ‘Houston is not the place to be if you want stability and a good team atmosphere.' While the Astros' new analytics-based direction is a welcome step in the right direction, it's important to also make sure that they don't lose sight of the undeniable human elements in play and further alienate the fans and players they have left.
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2) The Astros SHOULD KEEP catcher Jason Castro
The Astros offense was bad last season. They finished 28th of 30 teams in OPS (674), and led the known universe in team strikeouts with 1,535, and new all-time record for a team in a single season. Yes, that team led all of baseball history in failing to give yourself a chance for a base hit. You think that's bad? Now deal one of only two hitters on your team to finish the year with an above-average OPS+ (130 for Castro and 112 for Chris Carter) and see what you have.
What's more is that Castro is an established backstop who works hard with all the young pitchers on the roster; with largely-shaky defense behind them as it is, ripping away their familiar battery mate as well is less than a stellar plan. This was also Castro's first season of relatively good health; nagging freak injuries torpedoed the first few seasons of his career, and with his legs finally under him and strong again, he broke out to become one of the best catchers in all of baseball. The best may be yet to come as he continues to see Major League pitching and make adjustments.
There's also the very practical consideration that, with the team coming off three straight 100 loss seasons and a bitter, brutal carriage dispute keeping the games blacked out on TV for 40% of the Houston area, dealing the only real star-level player, performance-wise, of note on the roster could be a devastating P.R. nightmare with an already disenfranchised and distraught fanbase. However, he's not quite as popular and well-know as Altuve, and given his more advanced age and previous injury concerns (knee injuries for a catcher are certainly a red flag), the Astros should be willing to listen if a very strong offer comes across the table.
3) The Astros should be NEUTRAL about first baseman Chris Carter
Oh those three true outcome guys. Carter, as previously mentioned, fanned enough for Jim Crane to shut off the Minute Maid Park A/C for a few innings each game, but he also showed real 30 home run power, an increasingly-rare commodity in the current environment. Carter also won't be a free agent until following the 2018 season, at which point he'll be leaning on 33 years of age and likely starting to decline anyway. The questions with Carter are twofold; is there room left for him to improve, and does he have a future with this club?
He's shown some natural hitting ability in the past, but it wasn't apparent in 2013 as he continually flailed at breaking balls down and away. Even if he doesn't improve, he'll have some value as a guy who walks and hits bombs, but he's a defensive liability anywhere other than in the dugout, and that really kills any chance he has of being an average starting Major Leaguer (2.0 WAR or better) if he doesn't see a significant uptick in offensive consistency. Some are optimistic that there's more left in the tank, and with fewer than 1,000 Big League plate appearances to his name, he's certainly not a completely known quantity.
More pertinent, perhaps, is whether he's really a future piece for the Astros or merely a stopgap. The last few months, as with Altuve, have given him something of a boost in his internal organizational stock, as the game's best first base prospect, Jonathan Singleton, came back from his drug suspension out of shape and struggled mightily at Triple-A. Whereas at this time last year many were expecting Singleton to be the most likely candidate for Opening Day first basemen come 2014, the future of the position is much less certain now. And, of course, there is always the DH spot were Carter to really take off offensively and prove himself worthy of being exclusively a hitter.
In the end, his loss might be a bump in the road in the short term and, barring a notable improvement that guys with his contact problems normally don't see, probably wouldn't be a concern for the future as well. Given that, the Astros should be fully open to dealing him if the right offer is presented, but with Singleton's issues, the lack of power bats available at reasonable prices and the tiny glimmer of hope that better performance may be in the cards, they also shouldn't be seeking out a deal specifically to rid themselves of Carter.
4) The Astros SHOULD TRADE pitcher Jarred Cosart
Wait, what? A guy covering the most extensively-rebuilding team in recent history is advocating dealing a fire-balling former top prospect just sixty innings into his career who posted an ERA south of 2.00 in his first ten starts? Yes! Admittedly, this should be taken, in part, as a sign of just how few players the Astros have that really qualify as guys that should or need to be traded; most of the players on the roster either fall into the group of prospects with upside that they don't have a great deal of incentive to trade, or those who are so out-and-out bad that they don't really have trade value. Cosart certainly falls into the former category, but I need to choose someone and, actually, there's a strong case to be made for moving him.
First of all, yeah, that ERA? Not happening again. Cosart has dominant stuff, but rarely dominates with it, and in fact managed a measly 4.95 strikeouts per nine innings during his debut season. What's more, he's been plagued his entire career with some rather severe command issues, mostly caused by messy mechanics that no one seems capable of fixing, and walked 5.25 batters per nine innings at the same time.
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Folks, having a negative strikeout-to-walk ratio is a bad sign. While there's significant hope that the strikeout rate will climb in the future, he's almost certainly always going to walk more than his fair share of batters. Good stuff but rarely looks dominant? Good but not elite strikeout ability? Troublesome walk rate? Hey, that sounds like Bud Norris, the pitcher the Astros just dealt to the Orioles this past July. Honestly, if Cosart sticks around in the rotation as long and effectively as Norris did, you probably have to consider him as a solid win in terms of prospect development, but suffice it to say that for a kid that wields 98+ MPH heat and a hammer curve when he's right, he'd be falling well short of his ceiling.
And that ceiling is the main reason it might be best to ship him off now; surely some other GM out there sees the stuff and the age and contract control and wants to dream on him. If the Astros feel like his upside as a starter is limited by the command issues, why not deal him for someone they're higher on and let another team worry about whether or not Cosart needs to move to the bullpen? Most reports out there peg him as a number two or three starter at best anyway, so is the chance that he figures out the strike zone well enough to be a mid-rotation starter enough of a reason to hold on to him and risk him not even being able to stick as a starter, which would deeply damage his value? Throw in some potential attitude issues, and the man who nearly threw a no-hitter in his debut against the Rays seems a lot less untouchable than you might think.
5) The Astros MUST GET RID OF center fielder Brandon Barnes
It kind of hurts to say that, honestly. I actually like Barnes; the man is a human highlight reel in center field. Yeah, was that enough to pique your interest? Good; hopefully it was for other teams' general managers and scouts as well. To be clear, Barnes doesn't need to be traded because he's hampering the payroll, or because he's a clubhouse cancer, or anything of the sort. He is, like Cosart, partially here because the team's current roster situation means there's no obvious answer. If the Astros don't deal him, they'll be far from crippled by choosing to hang on to him. Why should he go then? Because he might bring back a prospect, and at this time next year, he almost certainly will not.
Barnes played the outfield for over 1,000 innings this year, most of them in center, and the few people who were actually able to watch the Astros games on TV and chose to spend three hours of their day in agony fell in love with his glove. What they didn't love was the stick; Barnes hit just .240/.289/.346 over his 136 games for the ‘Stros, which was actually, sadly, an improvement from 2012.
The man simply can't hit the ball effectively (well, usually). Like a large portion of the Astros roster, the guy strikes out a lot. He actually does have some power and base running ability; if he were to put it together, you'd have an elite defense center fielder with double-digit home run power and stolen base ability, which is a rare and valuable package.
But only those living in a fantasy land ever envision him as actually reaching that potential. The fact is that he's never, even in the minors, shown the ability to his consistently without the aid of a massive and unsustainable BABIP, and to expect him to fix that now, against Major League hitters, at the age of 27 (he'll be 28 in mid May) is simply unrealistic.
The point is that he had as much exposure as he'll ever get this year, with starting consistently and being on highlight reels with his glove. His stock likely is at it's very peak right now, and with Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes needing time and star prospect George Springer likely mere months from lacing up cleats in the Show for the first time, Barnes' chance for consistent playing time appears to have been this year.
It's possible the Astros could nab a decent mid-level prospect to further their rebuild from some GM who likes the glove and wants to take a lottery ticket on the pop and speed, and considering likelihood that, at this time next year, he'll be more of a dime-a-dozen fourth outfielder at best, the Astros should be actively seeking such a trade partner.