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Astros' Cosart Trade Explored in Detail

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With a week of hindsight and thoughtful contemplation, CRPerry13 finally unleashes his analysis of the trade that sent Astros' starter Cosart to the Marlins.

Mike Ehrmann

Last Thursday, the Astros traded starting pitcher Jarred Cosart, Utility player Enrique Hernandez, and AAA corner outfielder Austin Wates to the Miami Marlins.  In return, they received Center Fielder Jake Marisnick, A+/AA Third Baseman Colin Moran, the 35th-ish pick in next season’s Rule 4 draft, and 18-year-old pitcher Frances Martes.  I was unavailable to comment on the trade much when it happened, but I was able to peruse the detailed coverage here at The Crawfish Boxes, as well as our readerships’ reaction both in the comments sections of those articles and on Twitter.  Given the benefit of a week to think about the trade, plus a little extra time to dig into statistical details, I hereby submit the following post for consideration.

Cosart, Hernandez, and Wates are all major-league-quality players, and that is nothing to sneeze at.  With the recent fan interest in the minor leagues, it has become common to dismiss the value of a solid major league regular or backup compared to a dreamy-ceiling’d twenty-year-old in A-ball.  From that standpoint, the Marlins definitely absorbed the least risk in this deal, as two of the players have already survived the transition to The Show, a transition that a majority of professional ball players cannot make, and Wates a safe bet to succeed as a backup-outfielder-slash-pinch-hitter.

Cosart

Cosart was the cornerstone of this deal, but we may have already seen his ceiling.  Starting pitchers with 10% walk rates (or worse, if you look at his career stats) don't historically become top-of-rotation players.  Since 2010, here is the complete list of starting pitchers who have posted walk rates higher than 10%:

  • Jonathan Sanchez
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka
  • Edinson Volquez
  • Carlos Zambrano
  • Matt Moore
  • Lucas Harrell
  • Hector Santiago
  • Ubaldo Jimenez
  • J.A. Happ
  • Francisco Liriano
  • Ricky Romero
  • James McDonald
  • Tyler Chatwood
  • Felix Doubront.

If you played Fantasy Baseball during the past few seasons, you know who all of those guys are.  They probably spent time on somebody’s roster in your league, but they all probably spent more time in the Free Agent pool, unwanted because of their unreliability to provide much more than a spot-start against a weak offense.  Not exactly a who’s-who list of excellent pitching.

That's not to say Cosart can't improve -- in fact, that's surely what the Marlins are banking on.  He has a fastball that ranks among baseball’s fastest, and generates ground balls at a rate that makes ground crews pull out their hair.  But Cosart has never commanded the strike zone well, and that's not often a skill that drastically improves with experience;at least not enough to make him more than he already is:  a decent back-of-rotation starter.  Some pitchers get by with poor command, but they make up for it by striking batters out.  Nolan Ryan was famous for pitching wild, but he also K’d a quarter of the batters he faced, leading to a fantastic K-BB% of 13%.  Cosart doesn’t eliminate the damage from his walked batters with strikeouts at all.  His K-BB% is 3%, and last year it was negative.  Essentially, the only way I see Cosart becoming more than an innings-eating 4th starter is if he learns the art of the strikeout.  Can he?  I doubt it.  The major leagues aren’t exactly rife with pitchers who have completely reinvented themselves without sacrificing something that they already do well.

What made Cosart easy to trade for the Astros (intentionally ignoring any rumors of him being the source of disgruntled anonymous quotes given to the Chronicle) is that his current and expected future performance is immediately replaceable.  Steamer’s rest-of-season projections for Cosart feature a 4.43 ERA over 9 more starts.  Here are some projections for his possible replacements that are currently listed on the Astros’ 40-man roster:

  • Brad Peacock: 4.73 ERA
  • Jake Buchanan: 4.17 ERA
  • Paul Clemens: 4.85 ERA (Please…no….)
  • Mike Foltynewicz: 4.08 ERA (but we know he’ll be in relief)
  • David Martinez: 4.32 ERA
  • Rudy Owens: 4.74 ERA
  • Alex White: 4.81 ERA
  • Asher Wojciechowski: 4.08 ERA (Oliver projections)

Keeping in mind that projection systems should all be taken with some salt, and that a lot of times projections aren’t updated to reflect in-season development of a player, and that we’re talking about the 5th-starter position, it’s pretty easy to see how losing Cosart does not exactly concern the Astros overmuch.  Take Peacock for example.  Pretending that both guys pitch exactly to their Steamer projections, is Peacock's 4.73 ERA really so much worse than 4.43 that the Astros should have turned up their noses to this trade?  0.30 ERA difference amounts to Peacock allowing 3 more earned runs than Cosart over the next 90 innings pitched.  Irrelevant.  During that time, Marisnick will probably save more runs than that with his outfield defense compared to Fowler.

Hernandez

I love Enrique Hernandez.  I was planning to write an article about him, which I now shall not.  Hernandez is a good defender at multiple positions.  He had an incredible year at the plate at three levels of the Astros organization.  He might be the next Ben Zobrist.

But he probably won’t.  Hernandez hit a very impressive .280/.344/.415 in his first 25 MLB games, numbers that were supported by his peripherals and BABIP.  Reportedly, Hernandez made a change to his swing to add more loft after the 2013 season, and this is credited for him finding offense for the first time in his career.

Personally, I think Hernandez’ production (114 wRC+) is almost sustainable, and that he will be a good player for a while.  But the Astros were right in not over-valuing him in this trade, just as the Marlins were right wanting him.  One thing I wonder is if Kíke can continue to walk at a 9% clip; reaching base via the walk has been a significant contributor to his offensive value this season in the bigs.  In the minors, he walked at only a 7% clip, and that number was boosted by a 12% rate in 2011 in Lexington that he never came close to repeating.  With a more expected-level walk rate, Kíke’s ceiling looks more comparable to Jeff Keppinger than it does to Zobrist.  But Keppinger has been a very useful player for several teams (including the Astros!), and as I said above, the value in that should not be understated.

That said, Kíke really had no future with the Astros, not with higher-ceiling’d guys moving upward through the farm in droves.  Marisnick's defense alone is enough to push him from the outfield, and Kíke has no chance of unseating Jose Altuve from his natural position, much less Tony Kemp or Nolan Fontana.  Shortstop is locked down by a small stable of surprisingly good performers and hot prospects:  Marwin Gonzalez, Gregorio Petit, Jonathan Villar (whom GM Jeff Luhnow said Thursday will get a lot of time at the spot moving forward), and ultimately Carlos Correa.  Kíke (sadly, in my opinion, though for good reasons) just has no place on the Astros’ everyday lineup, and his value as a trade piece was greater than his value as a backup.

Wates

Like many of you, I wanted to see Wates get a shot with the 2014 Astros.  But Wates is, and has always been, an empty batting average.  He’s a sub-par defender incapable of playing center field, he has no power to speak of, not even doubles power, and he’s almost two years older than his best comparable player on the Astros’ roster, L.J. Hoes.  I like to imagine, in my naiveté, that the Astros included Austin Wates in this deal because they want to see him get a shot too – just not on their own club, where he would have provided the same value as a power-less Marc Krauss.

Marisnick

I’m a well-documented "results" guy, and as such I am not as high on Marisnick as some of my scouting-oriented brethren.  But while my initial reaction was less than enthused about his addition, the benefit of time and reading some other smart folks’ work has led me to see why the Astros wanted him.

Make no mistake, Marisnick was not a throw-in on "the Moran deal".  By all measurement methods available to the public, Dexter Fowler has struggled to play even below-average center field defense, as he had for much of his career.  When he was acquired by the Astros, some speculators wondered if his defensive metrics were suppressed by the size of the Coors Field outfield in Colorado, which is larger than the Denver airport.  Alas, seamheads.com grades him as costing the Astros 18 runs in center this season because of his limited range.  But Fowler’s excellent on-base skills make him one of the most valuable additions to an Astros lineup since Miguel Tejada.  Fowler’s speed should play up in Left Field, and following in the footsteps of other average-CFs-turned-good-LFs (Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, Brett Gardner, Juan Pierre), that negative should turn into a positive in his new position, increasing the already high value provided by his bat.

Marisnick allows that to happen.  Outfield defense, a current weakness on the 2014 Astros, becomes a strength, helping out the pitching staff.  Moving Fowler to Left Field not only enhances his own defensive value in a vacuum, but playing next to good-instinct speedsters Marisnick and Springer conceivably also creates a situation where Fowler will need to cover less ground, and thus minimize the defensive penalty due to his range.  In other words, a minus immediately becomes a plus.

Have the Astros downgraded the offense by doing so?  If Robbie Grossman has anything to say about it, then yes.  But one can immediately conceive of ways to keep Grossman in the lineup, particularly with Jon Singleton struggling at first and Chris Carter’s ability to play the position.  With days off (which both Fowler and Springer will need, given their leg injuries) and creative use of the DH position, all four outfielders, Singleton, and Carter can still have full-time gigs.

But Marisnick is potentially oh-so-much more than a defensive specialist.  He’s the youngest regular on the club, save Singleton, and was featured on three Baseball America Top 100’s (2012-2014) for good reason.  He doesn’t walk much, and has some room to improve in the strikeout department, but that improvement is conceivable with some coaching and repetition at pitch recognition and plate discipline, something the Astros are improving at as an organization.  Marisnick had an 80% contact rate in the minor leagues – better than all of the current Astros save Altuve and Gonzalez – and that is reason to expect improvement rather than simply hoping for it.  Like everything else in this trade, Marisnick is a lottery ticket, but one with a reasonable expectation of a good return.  His ceiling could be Dexter Fowler with more power, or Colby Rasmus with more speed.  Desmond Jennings.  Shane Victorino.  Starling Marte.  Gerardo Parra.  You get the idea.  He might not get there.  But he very well could.

Moran

Reportedly, the Astros were seriously considering drafting Moran with the 1-1 pick in 2013, the draft in which they instead picked 2017 Cy-Young winner Mark Appel.  A year later, the Astros have both players.  Reports on Moran’s defense at 3rd are mixed between "average" and "pretty good", which is praising with faint damn.  He won’t be a liability at the position for sure.

Moran has always hit, and probably always will.  He’s the prototypical "future batting champ" guy that scouts like to talk about every so often.  But he was only an average offensive producer in the High-A Florida State League this season, leading some to label him…well, not a bust, but disappointing.  Some people think his power (.112 career ISO) will never develop.

But the FSL has always suppressed power numbers just as the CAL league has inflated them, so Moran’s 5 HR and 21 doubles in 89 games need to be viewed through that lens.  Odds are against him becoming more than a 20-HR-per-season threat, but I doubt anybody will complain if he’s hitting .320/.400/.420 at 3rd base in 2017.  Imagine 2011 & 2013 Eric Hosmer, only at 3rd base.  Yes, please.

But wait, there’s more.  Upon his arrival at the Astros, outfielder Alex Presley was surprised and reportedly pleased when his new club asked him to tweak his swing a tiny bit to increase the launch angle of his batted balls, which was contrary to what he had been told to do in the past.  The results increased Presley’s fly ball rate by almost 10%.  With a HR/FB rate that stayed constant, that meant that more of his batted balls would leave the park than they had during his career, on average.  As noted above, Hernandez also tweaked his swing based on the Astros' coaching, and those results helped him go from non-prospect to a key element of this trade from both clubs' perspectives.

If the Astros are able to successfully apply that philosophy to Colin Moran (whose contact rate in Jupiter was a better-than-Altuve’s 92%) to generate more fly balls without significantly changing his swing, the power that scouts hinted might be possible could appear, and Moran would be a truly fearsome hitter that will recall a left-handed Chipper Jones or Adrian Beltre.

Compensation Pick

When the Astros picked up the Orioles' compensation pick in the Bud Norris trade, it was an afterthought in the minds of most fans, even here at TCB where the die-hards reside.  With that pick, the Astros chose Derek Fisher, the outfielder from University of Virginia.  In but 24 games at Low-A (he only played one game in Rookie ball), the 20-year-old has hit .359/.449/.424 for a wRC+ of 158, which ties for 7th in the NYP League among all batters with at least 100 plate appearances*.

*Amusing anecdote:  Fisher is tied with teammate Ryan Bottger, and they both trail former teammate A.J. Reed, who sits 2nd in the league in wRC+.

Using the methodology described by Chris St. John at Beyond the Boxscore in using BB%, K%, and Age to predict the success rates of minor leaguers, Fisher is a High-BB, Avg-K guy in his small sample.  As such, he has a better-than-average likelihood of becoming a productive major leaguer.  Caveat:  St. John’s research is based on extremely small samples, and as such should be viewed as "interesting" rather than "predictive".  Still, Fisher has both scouts and stats on his side, as well as historical high success rates of college batters chosen in the Top 50.

The Astros will have the 35th pick in next season’s draft at worst after acquiring it from the Marlins.  Given the Astros’ recent successes in the draft and, under Luhnow, the Cardinal’s successes of the past decade-and-a-half, it is reasonable to hope/expect that whoever the Astros take with the draft will have a good chance of at least surpassing the value of Wates or Hernandez during his career, and possibly Cosart’s as well.

Martes

I won't pretend to be an expert at scouting teenage International Free Agent pitchers in the GCL, but I will say that reports on Martes seem more promising than the usual "good stuff but no control" comments that relegate almost all Rookie League pitchers to professional obscurity.  There's something here the Astros like a lot -- probably his 97 mph fastball -- and the fact that he was asked for in this trade makes him an intriguing player in and of itself.  Martes is the player here least likely to sniff the upper minors, much less the majors, but in a trade that didn't need Martes to be a good one for the Astros, his inclusion is just a little bit of cream on the top.

Conclusion

In all, this trade makes a lot of sense for both teams.  The Marlins receive guaranteed production without risk, and the Astros receive a lot of projectable talent with high floors and better-than-usual chance at star-level ceilings.  The difference in returns lies with those ceilings.  While Cosart, Herandez, and Wates have likely peaked, the players received by the Astros have more to dream on.  From an Astros’ perspective, nobody they traded is irreplaceable even in the short-term, and therefore it was a trade that cannot hurt them, even if Cosart or Hernandez turn All-Star.  Finally, to my mind, the most likely scenario is that in the long run, the Astros received players who will have a larger impact on the club than those they parted with.