The MLB trade deadline is fun for fans because they can concoct scenarios in which their team can fill roster holes to propel the club into the postseason and beyond. This season, with the Astros stunningly in reach of a playoff spot, even if it's a shot at the 1-game play-in that comes with the new Wild Card format, the fans are able to talk about acquiring major league players instead of trading them away for the first time in almost a decade.
And how tempting it is. Some of the names bandied about internet message boards include:
Cole Hamels (31 Y/O starting pitcher with at least $73.5M remaining on his contract)
Scott Kazmir (Currently-injured 31 Y/O SP on an expiring contract)
Johnny Cueto (29 YO SP with a contract option for 2016)
Sonny Gray (25 YO SP not even in arbitration that the A's have no incentive to trade)
Joey Votto (32 YO 1B with 8 years left on his $225M contract)
Justin Upton (28 YO RF on an expiring contract)
Setting aside whether or not some of the clubs will actually be sellers at the deadline (and I have my doubts, of the Reds in particular), each of these players would come with a certain cost in prospects, even the rentals. Deadline deals even for stars with expiring or almost-expiring contracts can get pretty expensive, and this season is a seller's market because the second wild card increased the number of teams that perceive themselves to be in contention at the All Star break.
So presumably, acquiring Hamels or Votto (stars amidst long contract who project to continue greatness for a few more years at least), would be a damaging dent in the Astros' farm depth. Even acquiring an ace-level rental like Cueto or Upton would be painful.
Would dealing for a star to push for the 2015 playoffs be harmful to the Astros' #Process? Everybody hoped/aimed for a record "better than .500" this season, including Astros' owner Jim Crane. Oh, they all made the right noises about how contention was the goal, but after a 70-92 finish last season, "above .500" was a realistic goal. But now the Astros find themselves in the playoff hunt, legitimately. They are on pace for an 87-75 record, a 17-game improvement over 2014.
Shouldn't we the fans and the Astros be thrilled with that without compromising the long-term plan by dealing away actual MLB prospects like Tony Kemp, Mark Appel, and the like?
An alternate viable option is to allow Jake Marisnick, Preston Tucker, Jon Singleton, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, and Vincent Velasquez to use 2015 to mature. The Astros can go into 2016 with that strong homegrown core that they keep talking about, that grew together during a very positive year without much roster disruption, and with the steadying and positive influences of veterans like Chris Carter, Evan Gattis, and Luis Valbuena. Then next season, the Astros can A) sign a free agent or two of the caliber of David Price or Justin Upton, and B) bring up even more rookies like Appel, Kemp, A.J. Reed, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Domingo Santana and others, who might have otherwise been traded away in a too-soon deadline deal to reach the 2015 playoffs.
I don't suggest the Astros shouldn't make any moves at all. Bolstering the rotation would be nice, as would some veteran outfield depth. The Astros can still push for a 2015 playoff spot without making any drastic changes. But is 2015 really the year to be trading good prospects for MLB rentals or bloated contracts? Wouldn't that be better in 2016, when the Astros are presumably better-positioned for a deep playoff run?
Because the Astros 2015 roster, as successful as it has been, is still shaky and warty. It's pretty clear that Carter, Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, and even Evan Gattis are not long-term solutions at their positions, and very possibly neither are good but un-elite youngsters like Preston Tucker and Jake Marisnick (as much as it pains one writer to suggest it). Trading prospects could decrease system depth at those positions and lock the Astros into keeping those guys around for the long haul -- at least until somebody else internally ready or they can pull off another trade, further depleting depth. Adding Votto would make us feel better because Chris Carter and his streaky bat will be removed from the 2015 first base situation, but it would probably come at the cost of positional depth elsewhere. The Reds would not take Carter at all in trade, and they almost certainly wouldn't consider Singleton a cornerstone of that deal.
And as far as that goes, do we really want a Votto or a Hamels? Votto has eight years left on his $225M contract, and is turning 32 before the end of this season. His contract is very Vernon Wells-ish. The Astros would be married to Votto for almost a decade, for better or for worse. If Reed continues to develop or Singleton blossoms as Votto enters the decline phase of his career? Too bad. His contract is an anchor. A 2015 playoff push isn't worth that.
The Astros' best option is to remain nimble and stay the path to 2016 domination (and beyond!). If they can shore up their rotation or depth at the 2015 trade deadline without parting with players who realistically figure to contribute to their near future and long-term future, they should. But if they can't do that, then the Astros and fans should nonetheless be satisfied or downright ecstatic over a winning season and 15-to-20-win improvement over 2014 that shows that the #Process is working. Any trade for a star or superstar, even on an expiring contract, should be viewed as taboo, unless the trading partner requests a package consisting entirely of players the Astros see minimal future value in. Which probably won't happen.