Thursday evening just before the first pitch was thrown, the Astros announced that they had executed a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers in advance of the 2015 trade deadline. Moving south in the deal were center fielder Carlos Gomez, right handed pitcher Mike Fiers, and an international bonus slot. In return, the Astros sent minor leaguers CF Brett Phillips, outfielder Domingo Santana, and two starting pitchers, LHP Josh Hader and RHP Adrian Houser.
This trade was mildly surprising for a few reasons, though it had been widely reported that the Astros were actively searching both offense and pitching help in advance of their first real playoff run since 2006. Most of the rumors had the Astros mixed in discussions over new Blue Jay David Price and any number of players from the San Diego Padres. The actual trade with the Brewers though, was little discussed or predicted by the media.
The backdrop was weirder than just the Astros' sudden activity with a team other than the Padres or Tigers. Yesterday, the media (both of the professional and social variety) went bonkers when Milwaukee traded Gomez to the New York Mets in exchange for SP Zack Wheeler and shortstop Wilmer Flores. Flores even shed tears on-field as he said goodbye to his teammates. It was a done deal, said several legitimate reporters and sources within the organizations.
Two hours later, Mets GM Sandy Alderson bizarrely and adamantly claimed that the deal had not happened, and never would. The Mets blamed Gomez' alleged injured hip (no matter that he's been an active player showing no signs of injury). The Brewers blamed the Mets' terrible finances. Scott Boras, Gomez' agent, was vocally outraged over the situation.
What is clear is that the Mets players, at least, were informed of the trade, or else why would Flores have been crying and hugging his teammates last night? Was he feeling over-emotional over the team's loss to the San Diego Padres?* So the trade definitely happened no matter what the Mets claim. Predictably, the New York media gleefully pounded the Yankees' little one-legged stepsister over their handling of the entire affair.
*Incidentally, the Padres were awesome last night. Noting the media frenzy over the trade deadline, Pads manager trolled the baseball world by removing Justin Upton and Matt Kemp from the game to fuel ridiculous #HugWatch trade rumors. Then he admitted it. That is one of the most awesome things that has happened this season.
The Astros apparently decided that the Mets' loss over Gomez was their potential gain, and were able to put a deal together the very next evening, expressing no concern over the phantom injury. Ironic, since the Astros have shown a ready willingness in the recent past to avoid players with interesting medicals.
What the Astros lost...
Some very good prospects head to the Brewers in this trade, which was headlined by MLB #39 overall prospect Phillips. Earlier today, Brooks described in detail the players that the Astros gave up in the deal.
Brett Maverick Phillips
From an Astros perspective, the big sting is losing Phillips, a legitimate 5-tool Center Fielder who won the hearts of Astros fans by shellacking high-A over the past two seasons with 19 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 490 plate appearances (wRC+ 160). At only 21 years old, he has the talent to become a Carlos Beltran clone if he manages to hit his ceiling. Like all prospects though, Phillips is a work in progress, and so (despite the fond dreams of many a fan) that ceiling is still far enough away to put stardom in reasonable doubt.
This season, in Double A, Phillips has continued his strong hitting, with a line of .321/.372/.463 for a 133 wRC+. This is a fantastic showing for a player young for his level, and reason for excitement. However, his home run power has disappeared (so far), calling to memory that Phillips played two full seasons as a professional before hitting his first home run. Many players have gone through the thin dry air of Lancaster and displayed power that did not translate to the rest of their careers, and it is a possibility that Phillips is another so-called high desert mirage.
That's not to say Brewers fans should expect a slap-happy hitter in Phillips. The power potential is there, and he will hit home runs as he continues to fill out. But 10 to 15 homers seems more likely than the 20+ dreamed about during his stint in the Hangar. Additionally, while Phillips has great speed, he hasn't shown himself to be a base stealing burner in the minor leagues, and he has struggled to take walks this season. None of this is cause for concern, but rather these factors illustrate that while Phillips is deservedly a highly-touted prospect, he is still a couple years away from his MLB debut, and prospect success rates are what they are.
But Phillips was a fan favorite among Astros faithful, and high hopes had been hung about his neck. His loss stings.
The next biggest loss in the trade was LF/RF Santana, MLB.com's #87 prospect. Realistically, Santana had very little opportunity to succeed with the Astros' big league club. His natural position, RF, is manned by a budding superstar in George Springer, and LF by Preston Tucker, who is impressing in his rookie season (and according to Morgan Ensberg on Twitter, will hit 50 home runs in his prime, which I for one would love to see). Additionally, GM Jeff Luhnow has publicly expressed reluctance to continue to populate the lineup with all-or-nothing type hitters.
And despite prodigious power and an above-average ability to take walks, the all-or-nothing approach is the biggest knock on Santana, and the one that many think will prevent him from becoming an average major leaguer. Among Triple-A batters with at least 200 plate appearances (a sample of 139), Santana's 67% contact rate ranks 137th. On pitches inside the strike zone, his 72% contact rate is tied for dead last.
Santana mashes home runs. But during his minor league career, he has struck out in three of every ten plate appearances. For those keeping track at home, that rate is worse than Chris Carter's was when he was in the minors. In an admittedly small sample in the majors (20 games), Santana struck out in over half of his plate appearances. He will be one of those players who will be incredibly frustrating and incredibly joyful to watch...depending on the day.
But the big point is this: for the Astros - Santana had no place on this roster. He was log-jammed behind players who project to be more consistent (or just plain better, in Springer's case), and he had nothing left to prove at Fresno. Good for him, he should have plenty of opportunities in Milwaukee. The star power is there. But the bust potential is high.
After coming to the Astros from the Orioles in the Bud Norris trade, Hader made waves by cruising through the launch pad at Lancaster, boasting a 2.70 ERA in the most unfriendly pitching environment in professional baseball. That boosted his status from "interesting lefty" to "really interesting lefty." Debaters debate whether Hader's future lies in the rotation or as a lefty specialist in the bullpen, but the Astros saw him as a starting pitcher for the time being, and it makes sense that the Brewers will give him every opportunity to continue in that role.
Behind the scenes, Hader has been more inconsistent than his run prevention stats show. His Lancaster ERA was not supported by his FIP, which has hovered around 4.00 since joining the Astros' organization. He's not particularly bad but not particularly good at limiting walks, but minor leaguers have been baffled by his pitching motion, and so he generates plenty of strikeouts.
Houser has been a frustrating prospect, as his results never matched his stuff. As the 69th overall pick in the 2011 draft, big things were expected of the righty. But his career ERA sits at 4.30 after five minor league seasons, he only just cracked Double A, and his strikeout rate has declined while his walk rate has climbed.
At one point, Houser was considered among the Astros best 10 prospects. But now, he looks like a project pitcher who could do with a scenery change. Regardless, he must be protected on the 40-man roster this off-season or else the Astros would have exposed him to the Rule 5 draft. The Brewers will almost certainly protect him after making him a cog in this trade.
Why losing these guys is okay for the Astros
There's no good or easy way to lose a prospect like Phillips. But CF is a surprisingly deep position in the Astros' system, with now Gomez, Jake Marisnick behind him, Springer able to play center in a pinch, and then solid prospects Andrew Aplin (who Ensberg also thinks will be a hall of famer or something...I love me some Ensberg, he's a great follow on Twitter if you don't already), 2014 supplemental first-round pick Derek Fisher, and TCB favorite Jason Martin. It hurts, but Phillip's loss is one the Astros' system can bear. As noted above, the Astros had no place for Santana, and he was a logical player to be traded.
The Astros can also easily stand the loss of Hader and Houser, two decent pitching prospects. As with the trade of Nick Tropeano during the off-season and Daniel Mengden last week, Houston managed to pull off a major trade while leaving their elite cadre of pitching prospects unscathed. They still retain controversial first-overall pick Mark Appel, they still have young major league starters and top-of-rotation potentials Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez. They still retain intriguing and high-ceiling minor league starters Michael Feliz, Frances Martes, and Joe Musgrove, not to mention a stable of strong middle-to-back of rotation types like Asher Wojciechowski, Brad Peacock, Dan Straily, Aaron West, and many others that the TCB staff is high on (see our midseason Top 30).
Nobody will pretend that these four guys are not good prospects. They very much are, and all four are capable of reaching their star-level ceilings. But this is a loss the Astros' system could stomach. With a little bit of antacid.
What the Astros gained...
The Astros received two very strong major league players, and they did it without disrupting what seems to be an extremely positive clubhouse atmosphere by trading away other big leaguers.
Gomez, 29, is perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball, a gold glove winner, and a two-time All-Star. The Astros already boasted a top-flight defensive wizard in center in Marisnick, but Marisnick has slumped horribly at the plate, batting .192/.225/.294 since May 1st. His defense can no longer overshadow his fetid offense, which during the past three months has been 60% worse than an average major league batter.
Gomez fixes that by providing Marisnick-level defense (or better, depending on who you ask), coupled with a better than average bat. Gomez broke out in 2012 with the Brewers after failing miserably with the Twins, where he'd been a part of the trade that sent Johan Santana to New York. From 2012 to 2014, Gomez batted .277/.336/.483 with 66 home runs and 111 stolen bases (123 wRC+).
During this season, he hasn't performed quite so well, though his 107 wRC+ would rank 5th-best on the 2015 Astros among players with more than 200 plate appearances. It's possible that Gomez has sustained a tiny bit of bad luck on balls in play though, as his BABIP sits about 20 points lower than it has during the previous two season. ZiPS agrees and projects .272/.334/.465 the rest of the way (119 wRC+)
All those numbers aside, Gomez is a logical player to take over hitting first or second for the Astros. He hasn't stolen nearly as many bases this season, and that may be related to the (clean, but worth noting) MRI he had done on his hip earlier this year, the same hip that the Mets expressed concerned over on Wednesday evening. However, that may also be due to the Brewers' cautious game plan, as they rank 20th overall in stolen bases this season, thirty thieved bags behind the Astros, who are currently ranked 3rd. It's reasonable to assume that Gomez will get the "green light" from his new coaching staff far more frequently than he did in Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, the media hints that Gomez has a ... unique personality. Okay, to be honest, rumors have gone so far as to calling him a bad guy, and this has definitely colored the opinions of some Astros fans, including a handful of TCB writers. But the fans who know him best, particularly one writer from TCB's sister site Brew Crew Ball, say quite the opposite.
During the past few years, the Astros have had (and traded away) a couple of "bad guys". I can't say those trades hurt the hearts of anybody on TCB's staff, or those fans who dug deeper than the box score. So I am hopeful that the rumors on Gomez' personality being a negative influence are wildly overblown based on a couple of isolated incidents. Until proven otherwise, I'll elect to think the best of him. He has cute kids, too.
The best part of this acquisition for the Astros is that Gomez is not a half-season rental, the usual type of trade made this time of year. His contract expires after the 2016 season, during which he will be paid $9M, a pittance for a player who has amassed 18 WAR during the past three seasons. Barring another trade, Gomez figures to be a productive fixture at the top of the Astros 2016 lineup.
International Bonus Pool Money
You don't really want to read about this do you? The money is worth approximately $280,000, to be spent during the international free agent signing period. This is a good thing. But it's hard to say what this will lead to, as the IFA market is such a crap-shoot. But the international market can unearth hidden diamonds, as evidenced by Jose Altuve, signed as an IFA by the Astros in 2007.
Fiers, 30, is an interesting player in that he's not young, he's only semi-established, and in that he has more than three years of team control left on his contract. He was a 22nd round pick in 2009 and battled his way through the minor leagues before reaching the majors at the not-so-tender age of 26. Since then, his career line consists of a 3.66 ERA in 71 games (56 starts) while striking out more than a batter per inning and limiting walks to less than three per nine innings.
Coming into the season, the Steamer projection system identified Fiers as a breakout candidate based on his ridiculous ending to the 2014 season, during which he posted a 2.09 ERA in ten starts. He hasn't become a star, but he has met reasonable expectations with his 3.89 ERA (3.79 FIP) in 21 starts this season.
Fiers projects to continue being a solid mid-rotation starter who will have occasional bursts of greatness as he did at the end of 2014. He's a fly ball pitcher, which will play well in Minute Maid's spacious center and right fields, but home runs will probably be a part of his game. However, he has been slightly unlucky on home runs this season (HR/FB over 10%, which is high for an extreme fly ball pitcher), and that plus his .316 BABIP indicate that there might be some positive regression in his near future. Astros fans should expect an ERA between 3.50 and 3.80 for the rest of the season, with a boatload of strikeouts and a better-than-average tendency to limit free base runners. His fly ball profile should also be benefited by a late-season outfield that will be among the most athletic in the major leagues, thereby boosting his best skill - making balls die in the outfield.
One caution that may limit his effectiveness is that Fiers has allowed the highest percentage of hard-hit balls among qualified pitchers this season. That seems a factor of being a fly ball pitcher (from a casual glace at the leader board, though I'm unaware of any correlation studies that have been made between the two stats), and his hard hit percentage is significantly higher than his career rates. In that sense, it's not necessarily bad, or even concerning, but it may be the factor that limits him from leveraging good command and strikeout numbers into a top of rotation type career.
But that's okay. With Keuchel, McCullers, and Scott Kazmir anchoring the rotation, plus a resurgent Collin McHugh and the typically solid Scott Feldman, Fiers is the back-of-rotation starting pitcher that should be be envied by most teams, and not the type of pitcher that one bemoans his shortcomings on a regular basis. He's a strong addition to the Astros' suddenly fearsome group of starters.
Fiers' acquisition feeds the theory that McCullers will soon be moved to the bullpen to preserve his arm. McCullers has pitched over 100 innings for the season, and realistically should only pitch 30-50 more before fans should worry about his health. He can remain in the majors pitching from the bullpen well into the playoffs, which would boost a strong but inconsistent bullpen while keeping him in the bigs when he'll be needed most.
As noted above, Fiers enters arbitration for the first time this winter, meaning he has three years of team control left. This helps the Astros in the obvious way - a strong starting pitcher for the forseeable future - but also gives them an excellent trade piece should some of the aforementioned pitching prospects force their way into the rotation the way McCullers and Velasquez have this season.
This trade is a clear and obvious win for both clubs -- the best kind of trade. Milwaukee gains four valuable and high-ceiling prospects, but prospects that the Astros could afford to lose despite the sting. The Astros gain four years of control for two strong and proven major league contributors that not only boost their 2015 championship hopes (yes, I said it), but also their odds to repeat their current success next season.