Considering how rough the past few years have been, it's rather surprising that Astros fans have complained as much as they have on Twitter with a record that is double-digit games over .500. However, after losing back-to-back series to the Orioles and the White Sox, the complaints have arisen, which is pretty crazy since many Astros fans were gunning for a .500 record entering the season
Astros writers and fans would agree, no matter the level of panic, that Houston can upgrade. How the Astros should upgrade, and to what level is the question. Barring a disaster of a June, the Astros will likely be in the race come the All-Star break and potentially when the trade deadline rolls around.
Houston's front office has remained very disciplined in its rebuilding of the Astros major league roster and minor league depth, so of course there will be some hesitation to mortgage some of the future to try to win in 2015. No matter what happens for the rest of 2015, Houston is undoubtedly built to succeed at a high level for the rest of this decade, but the chances don't come every year to make a run at a division title.
This week's Starting Nine:
What player is a potential trade target for Houston, and what is a reasonable price for the Astros to pay for said player?
I'm out on all the Cole Hamels scuttlebutt. I don't believe in the future value of his contract, and I don't like the probable cost in prospects. Rather, I think starting pitchers who are older, buried on depth charts, or buried on bad teams are reasonable targets.
The guy I'd be most interested in is all three: Oakland's Jesse Chavez, a 31-year-old veteran who currently has a 2.44 ERA after posting a 3.45 ERA last season in his first year as a starting pitcher. He bounced a round a lot until he joined the Athletics, and he started the year as a reliever. Injuries forced him into the rotation, but once A.J. Griffin, Drew Pomeranz, and Jarrod Parker return from the DL, Chavez, despite his performance, figures to be the odd man out solely due to his age and a need to give younger guys reps. The A's (in last place right now, by a lot) seem likely to trade Chavez and/or Scott Kazmir, neither of whom figure prominently into their future beyond 2015, and the Astros should get in on that. The requested return? Who knows, considering it's the A's. Maybe a Low-A wild card prospect that tickles GM Billy Beane's fancy. Maybe a major league player that the Astros cringe to give up. It's hard to say. A fair value is probably a Top-20 prospect and some cash, but not Top-5 one.
I've thought long and hard on this one. For a while I really wanted to say a bat, specifically a third baseman, but there are just too many issues there. If they hadn't signed Lowrie there would be an obvious spot, but with Lowrie and Correa going to be needing a spot within the next 2-3 months, that's no good. Altuve at second, duh, Tucker and Rasmus are already fighting over LF, Marisnick has a long leash thanks to his defense and hot April, and Springer is going nowhere. If you finally give up on either Gattis or Carter, there's Singleton, and Castro has shown improvement and is still good with the glove, which is more important. So what do you do? Then pen should be left alone, but even if you think Gregerson is too wobbly for closing, Fields sure as heck looks as good as any closer on the market, and it won't cost you a good prospect to swap him into that role.
So it has to be a starter. Here's the thing; the free agent market this off-season is loaded with starting pitching. You have your two superstars, Zimmermann and Price, and add Greinke to that list if he opts out. Then you have some really fine options who are more like #2s or very good #3s in Fister, Kazmir, Latos and Masterson (and maybe Buchholz if the Red Sox don't pick up his option, or trade him first). There's also Cliff Lee, who was still just as good before his injury, but is old. Point is, do the Astros want to give up prospects for, say, Cole Hamels and be tied to his contract, or just wait until the off-season and pick their own guy from the crop and keep said prospects?
But they also want to make a splash and go for it, and they probably should. So...my suggestion is Jeff Samardzija, as a few rumors have suggested. He's both a significant upgrade, isn't tied to a long and expensive deal, and has a solid track record of health. The fact that there's no club control of him should also lower his price a bit; the Astros probably wouldn't want to part with Appel, but if the White Sox think they're out of it and know Samardzija is gone after this year anyway, Domingo Santana and Tony Kemp could look like a pretty tempting package to them, and the Astros will likely never feel much pain from their loss (look at second and the outfield right now and tell me how much playing time they're going to get in this organization over the next five years). And heck, who knows; maybe Samardzija falls in love with the city and organization and we have a leg up in negotiations to resign him.
It's a tough decision, for some of the reasons stated by Brian. Because there is so much parity in both leagues, I think teams will wait until the end (i.e., July) to decide whether they are buyers or sellers. That makes it hard to guess at the players who will be available. Obviously Hamels is available, but I think the cost will be too high in prospects, and financially (a good chance he won't be worth his contract in two years). Hamels would help the Astros—but I just don't think it's feasible. It's also possible that the Astros will have found internal options by July (whether Straily, Feliz, Velazquez, Shirley, etc.). However, if a starting pitcher is needed, I would lean toward less expensive (in terms of prospect return) options. Maybe Harang in Philadelphia, as an example. Matt Garza and Lohse are older, once successful starting pitchers in Milwaukee who should be available as rentals. They have underperformed, but maybe they have something left for a pennant race. Based on FIP, Lohse is probably a better shot than Garza. Looking at the Brewers, Mike Fiers might be an option who still has a four years of team control. He has underperformed his FIP by a very large margin. He currently has a K/9 of 11.0 and a BB/9 of 3.0. The Brewers can use some mid-level prospects, and Fiers at age 30 is no longer "young." Unless something unexpected pops up on the horizon, I doubt that there will be batting matches for the Astros.
I agree with what Clack said. I don't want them to go after a frontline pitcher, but if they can get a buy-low guy such as Harang, maybe Fiers, I could get behind it.
The only trade I want to see is Villar and Correa swapping teams.
Bonus additions from Brian Stevenson
I went big with Samardzija, so I'll throw out a couple of more cost-friendly options. The Mets could be looking to move Dillon Gee and Jon NIese. For Gee, his numbers have a sort of Feldman vibe to them (good walk rate, almost a 60% GB rate) and he's under 30, making only $5 million this year with a year of arbitration left next year, but he's currently on the DL and that's kind of been the story of his career. Niese is a hair younger and hasn't had the same injury history that Gee has. Similar profile though; good control, groundballs, a career 3.69 xFIP. He's a little more expensive ($7 million this year, $9 million next year) but might be better and healthier. His current ERA is a little misleading and could be a good project for Strom. Niese especially could be an upgrade over Roberto Hernandez. With him and both Oberholtzer and Feldman healthy, you'd have a five man rotation with each member capable of sub-4.00 ERAs.