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The Astros outfielder that got away

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The new Astros regime hasn't made many mistakes with their roster. But they did make one, and it stings.

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

No, this is not another article about J.D. Martinez.  As we've covered numerous times, the decision to waive Martinez immediately before he began putting up All-Star numbers was defensible and a perfect example of, "Well...that's just baseball!"

I've been labeled a "Luhnow Truther" around here.  The official Crawfish Boxes Lexicon defines that as:

noun. Somebody who unabashedly supports and defends the Astros' 2011-2015 strip-mine rebuild plan.

That's me.  The description is apt.  To this point, I've found most of the Astros' moves since 2011 to be reasonable* ones that were at worst harmless additions in the interest of depth.

*well, except for the addition of Jerome Williams, which I didn't understand at all, and the acquisition of "Steve Wojciechowski," who MLB Trade Rumors names in their transaction tracker, but who I don't recall the Astros acquiring.  Trading for fictional players?  Not cool.

At risk of being accused of burying the lede, the Astros made a move last winter that I didn't like at all.  Before the Rule 5 draft, the Astros protected Ronald Torreyes on the 40-man roster instead of Delino DeShields, Jr.

The Rule 5 draft sort of works like an expansion draft, where teams can protect eligible players on their 40-man roster, and all players not protected may be drafted away by another club.  The draft's intention is to give opportunity to minor leaguers who have toiled away for five (or six) years but have not yet been placed on their parent club's 40-man.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, the decision for Torreyes over DeShields was a head-scratcher.  DeShields had the pedigree: son of a successful major leaguer;  drafted with the 8th overall pick in the first round of the 2010 draft; has a great smile; blazing speed with a hint of power.  Torreyes?  An international free agent signed by the Reds in 2010 who had a little bit of upside, but it was dim an far off.  Per this early article:

most see him as having a difficult time cracking the starting lineup on a regular basis. He's quite small and doesn't have much power, doesn't get on base a ton and doesn't have great speed.

By this season, Torreyes has been a member of five different major league organizations. DeShields yesterday hit his first major league home run with the Texas Rangers and is batting .266/.359/.390 with 19 steals during his rookie season.

The rationale

That's not to say that the decision to protect Torreyes over DeShields was inexplicable. Questions swarmed during DeShields' entire minor league tenure - about his work ethic and motivation, about his defense, about his hit tool.  His minor league strikeout rate was well over 20% by the time he was traded (comparable to Chris Carter's in the minor leagues if you need a reference point), and he didn't make enough contact for his high BABIP to give his batting average a chance to compensate for that shortcoming.

He had a couple great seasons in the minors (134 wRC+* at Quad Cities with 10 HR and 83 SB in 111 games and 133 wRC+ at Lancaster the next season).  But he also had a couple "meh" ones.  His first go-round at Quad Cities was the opposite of his career-year in 2012.  In 2011 he posted only a 78 wRC+ and there were strong thoughts that he would be a complete draft bust.  After Lancaster in the high minors, he was merely okay.  He walked a lot (as he has throughout his career), but did very little else besides steal second and sometimes third after he walked.  His batting average was a paltry .236.

And then he was gone. To the hated South Oklahoma Rangers.

*See below for explanation of wRC+

Torreyes, on the other hand, wasn't as bad as retrospect would have us think.  He doesn't strike out, like, at all.  He put up some decent seasons in the minor leagues also, though nothing like DeShields did.  And notably, he was an acquisition of this front office, unlike DeShields.  The Astros traded away international bonus slot money to acquire Torreyes from the club after a nice season for the Cubs' double A affiliate (112 wRC+).  With an above-average performance in the upper minors, Torreyes seemed a good bet to turn into a decent utility player for the Astros, and quickly.

That didn't materialize after a disappointing season at AAA, but "wanting to see more" may have been enough of a reason for the Astros to protect him over DeShields, not to mention his positional flexibility and a higher likelihood that he would be lost in the Rule 5 draft to another club looking for a cheap utility infielder than DeShields.  The Astros had their own precedent for this:  they had landed utility man Marwin Gonzalez during the 2011 Rule 5 draft --- the same Marwin who still plays for the club today, hitting .261/.299/.412 for a first-place team.

Even still, at the time, DeShields appeared in the eyes the fans a clearly superior player in almost every way.  Not that fans loved DeShields; they very much didn't.  Commenters and even some of the writers here voiced plenty of displeasure with him, citing the doubts listed above.  But universally, fans seemed to say, "Yes, but....Torreyes?"

Unfortunately...

Unfortunately for the Astros, who must put up with armchair GM-ing from those who can't separate hindsight from information available at the time, not to mention writers like me who casually disregard the issue in the interest of penning a provocative editorial, protecting Torreyes over DeShields has proven to be perhaps the worst and most indefensible move of the Luhnow Administration.

Torreyes flubbed out with the Astros.  After being Designated for Assignment (DFA = removed from the 40-man) to make room for outfielder Preston Tucker, the Astros traded him to the Blue Jays in exchange for a Player To Be Named Later or cash (probably cash, since there's been no announcement about a PTBNL). The Jays then traded him to the Dodgers after only 16 games in Double A.  Torreyes played well for the Dodgers' Double-A affiliate (a demotion, it should be noted), and is currently in Triple A, not doing very much.

DeShields though, has been on the Rangers' 25-man roster all season (as required under Rule 5), where he has maintained his excellent walk rate, not increased his strikeout rate from his minor league averages, and is generally doing everything expected of a major league lead-off hitter.

That's right.  DeShields, a Rule 5 pick, has managed what Rule 5 picks almost never do: secured not only a starter's role on a good team, but a top of the lineup starter's role.  And he has excelled.  Were it not for Astros' shortstop Carlos Correa, DeShields would have a strong argument to win the AL Rookie of the Year award.  He has posted a 105 wRC+, and in over 300 plate appearances boasts a strong .266/.359/.390 line.  He's stealing bases.  He's showing power (one home run, 15 doubles, 7 triples).  He's playing not-terrible center field defense. And he's doing it as a 22-year-old rookie Rule 5 pick.

Think what that line would look like for the Astros this year.  A .359 OBP and elite speed from the leadoff position.  The Astros certainly would not have traded for Carlos Gomez, and perhaps could have kept Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana for the future, or for other trades to fill a different area of need.

Not so fast...

Let's be realistic.  If the Astros had held on to DeShields, it is unlikely that he would even be in the major leagues right now.  Being thrust into a major league role with the Rangers when starting CF Leonys Martin kind of stunk (and then fractured his wrist--ouch!) may have been just the impetus that DeShields needed to prove the critics wrong and rise to the occasion.  With another season in the minor leagues, that motor may not have started.  But it may have.

There also was a low probability of DeShields being selected in the Rule 5 draft at all.  He hadn't played well at AA in 2014, and few clubs want to risk a 25-man roster spot on a guy who by rights should have been no more than a pinch runner for the big club.  Nobody expected DeShields to perform like he has this season, not even the Rangers.  But their gamble paid off and the Astros' gamble did not.

What is certain is that with a crowded outfield of George Springer, Colby Rasmus, Jake Marisnick, eventually Tucker, Evan Gattis on occasion, and even L.J. Hoes,  Robbie Grossman and Santana ahead of him on the depth chart, envisioning a situation where the Astros would give DeShields the type of playing time he's gotten in Arlington was difficult.  And that's not even mentioning another minor league center fielder who is excellent on defense, named Andrew Aplin, who had presumably passed DeShields on the depth chart.

So DeShields would likely be working his way through Triple A right now with the Astros, and there's no guarantee he'd be this successful.  Perhaps after five long years in the minors and getting hit in the face by a batted ball, DeShields needed a scenery change to have the type of season he's having now.  Perhaps.

Also DeShields, as well as he's playing right now, still does not project to be a star.  He has the same strikeout/defense woes that he's had his entire career.  He runs, but the power he showed in the minors hasn't appeared on the big stage yet.  He's done enough to ensure that he should have a long career in the major league with plenty of opportunities.  But he's not about to go all Ricky Henderson on major league baseball, or even Carlos Gomez.  He'll be good, but probably not great.

Still.  He might have been good-not-great for the Astros instead of for the Rangers.  Instead, the Astros wound up with some cash, acquired for a middle infielder who now looks like he might not even reach the major leagues. And the Astros will now face him several dozen times a season for the next five years, batting lead-off for their newly-minted bitter rival, the Rangers.

Bummer.

Further reading: Fangraphs published a great article about DeShields last week, with a fantasy slant.

wRC+: A measure of a player's total offense, including power, walks, speed, etc.  An "average" player at an organizational level has a wRC+ of 100.  A wRC+ of 150 means the batter is 50% better than league average, and a wRC+ of 50 means he his 50% worse.