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Astros 2016 Potential Trades Series: Second Base

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The Astros have a flat-out glut of talented players all jostling for major league position. How is this going to be handled going forward? Let's examine second base in part four of an eight-part series.

Jose Altuve has second base on lockdown in Houston...right?
Jose Altuve has second base on lockdown in Houston...right?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

While not heavily mentioned by MLB.com as particularly active this trade season, it seems exceedingly likely in spite of a rocky start to 2016 that the Astros are once again deadline buyers this season, and not just to address holes at the major league level...but possibly also to address mounting logjams at the upper minor league levels.

Welcome to part four of an eight-segment, position by position run down of the situation with the club, and then we'll examine possible (and perhaps even likely) outcomes of these situations near the end of the series. Here’s the schedule, so you know when to expect each article:

Pitching: Published April 25th, 2016
Catching:
Published April 26th, 2016
First Base: Published April 27th, 2016
Second Base: April 28th, 2016
Third Base: April 29th, 2016
Shortstop: May 2nd, 2016
Outfield: May 3rd, 2016
Conclusions Drawn: May 4th, 2016

Second Base

This is an easy one, right?  Tony Kemp, forever trade bait and never a bride, Nolan Fontana, Chan Moon, and a bunch of other minor league players (that most Astros fans pay very little attention to) play a distant second fiddle to the guy who has second base on the ultimate lock down on the Major League roster: Jose Altuve.  Right?

Cue the Morpheus meme.  "What if I told you..."

Author's Note: I'd better know Kung Fu, once I put this in writing with my name attached and try to walk around the city of Houston.  This is probably a good time to remind everyone that my opinion is my own, and in no way is necessarily endorsed by the Crawfish Boxes or my fellow writers, many of whom disagree strongly with my even mentioning this as an option.

Please know this going in: No one is advocating a trade of Jose Altuve, one of the best second basemen on the planet.  There are those, this writer included, who feel that at least discussing the possibility has some merit...and above all, keeping in mind that:

  • Keeping an open mind is a must.  No one is untouchable, period.  In the right deal (that's key...must be the right deal) anyone is a possibility.
  • Career-players with one team are mostly a thing of the past.
  • There is a big picture in play, not just 2016 or even 2017.
  • Baseball decisions like this are best made from a place of ration, detached completely from emotion.  Which is very, very difficult, especially with a player as likeable as Altuve is.

Okay, with those caveats all out of the way, the school of thought follows as such:

  1. Jose Altuve is only 25 right this second, and will be 26 in a couple weeks.  But when his current contract runs out, he will be 29, and that means he'll likely get a substantial pay increase in his next contract.  Even if he maintains his 2014-through-early-2016 production throughout the length of his next contract, the sheer volume of dollars renders his contract one with less surplus value than it has currently.  Ergo, less potential trade value down the road.  Which is not a surprise, really - it should probably be intuitive that a player will have less trade value when they're older and more expensive.
  2. Players traditionally start to lose a step around age 30 in the foot speed department.  It's not ironclad across the board (really, what data curve is without outliers?) of course, but that's the general trend.  So he will be coming into his next contract - one would assume it'd be a contract for a substantial amount of money and over several years, given his (likely) track record by that point - roughly at the front end of the time that aging curve starts to become relevant.  Note that it's not that he's imminently in danger of losing a step now, at (basically) age 26.  It's more that he's likely to lose a step early in his next contract.  Why is this relevant?  Jose Altuve has been successful in his career to date as a player who largely lives and dies on BABIP (batting average on balls in play, for those not familiar with the term) and a fair amount of that BABIP value has been on infield hits.  Consider, if you will, that from 2012 through 2015, Jose Altuve was second in all of baseball (behind Nori Aoki) among players with a minimum of 100 plate appearances in total number of infield hits with 114.  His relatively moderate 10.5% IFH% (infield hit percentage) in that time span is only tied for 75th in all of baseball as filtered by the same plate appearance parameters, mainly because he is indeed an excellent hitter who gets hits other ways, but losing a step still negatively affects his offensive output.  It also affects his value on the bases to an extent, and it affects his defense, which are both roughly adequate at the moment, all things considered, but certainly would not be helped by this particular regression.  There's more there, but this point is already belabored to the point of exhaustion, so let's move on.  Basically, the thinking among those few brave souls who will publicly admit to even considering this line of thought hinges on the common occurrence of players who fit this general offensive profile not aging terribly well...even considering a nod to Hall of Famers like Rod Carew.
  3. His current contract, which will likely not end until after the 2019 season.  It's arguably the most team-friendly contract in the sport, especially now with Salvador Perez getting a new deal from the Royals.  That can be a major selling point - along with a substantial number of other things - in the column in favor of keeping Altuve in Houston, clearly.  But it does increase his value to other teams, obviously, as well.  That length of control and the incredibly cheap AAV (annual average value) in the deal make him very desirable even before you consider his status as an excellent offensive player.
  4. The fact that the Astros currently have incredibly talented minor league players who can step in at the major league level either immediately (Tony Kemp) or very soon (Alex Bregman) and still provide value at the position allows the Astros to potentially trade Altuve as part of a deal to bring an elite player at another position to the club, deepening the overall talent pool of the 25-man roster.  For instance, if there was a scenario where the Dodgers lost veterans Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley and they were desperate to go outside their system for a replacement (just spitballing here, it's just an example) at second base that they could count on for the foreseeable future to pair with Corey Seager up the middle, would it not be worth considering (key word: considering) a trade if it was possible to make an impact move in the rotation with, say, Julio Urias coming to the Astros?  A trade of that size would be an unmitigated blockbuster on both sides, but both teams have made bold moves in the trade arena under respective current leadership.

Undoubtedly it would take a relative mint to pry Urias away from the Dodgers, but Jose Altuve is the kind of player - with the talent, chemistry, work ethic, and glowing contract situation/control - that could be the jewel of just such a deal.  And if Alex Bregman does prove to be the real deal and is able to play second, how much are the Astros really losing there?  From a pure on-field ability standpoint, that is - we all know the value Altuve has in the community and the locker room.  We're also all certainly concerned about how Carlos Correa might feel about such a move.  But from a cold, rational point of view, only considering the on-field impact, is there not value in parlaying a relative strength into a massive upgrade elsewhere while maintaining, if not a lateral move, then still very high-caliber talent at the second base position?

Also in this equation is Colin Moran, discussed tomorrow with the other third basemen, but germane to the point here as well...because Moran was drafted sixth overall and, since he's been healthy the last half of 2015 through today, looks to have the makings of a legitimate Major League future...which would lessen the need to have Alex Bregman on the left side of the infield.

There's ration in this point, it would seem, but certainly some holes to be exploited as well - doubtless, the holes will be discussed at length in the comments section.  That's ideal: we're here for discussion's sake.  It's a bold move, no matter how you slice it, and the reactions to such an idea will be predictably strong from both sides.

One thing that jumps out for the opposition to this long-shot trade scenario is Jose Altuve's current walk rate and improved patience at the plate.  It's not the first time in his career that Altuve has opened the season with a more measured, patient approach to hitting.  If he's maintaining this approach (he was sitting at a 10.3% walk rate in 2016 when the first keystroke of this article was entered on April 19th) into the dog days of summer, as opposed to abandoning the more patient approach and reverting to swinging early and often like he has in the past after starting off the season patiently, then it might be time to start considering a greater walk rate (and, ostensibly, a significantly higher on base percentage than the .353 he posted in 2015) as part of an even better overall player than he was in 2014 and 2015 - and he'd likely move firmly into the realm of "effectively untradeable", if he's not already there.

His power surge in 2015, which appears to have carried over into 2016 thus far with a team-leading five home runs in just thirteen games, has also been notable...as has his drastic WAR improvement in 2014 and 2015.  This season, he's already posted 1.1 fWAR (again, as of the first keystroke of this article) in just those thirteen games, which is roughly .084 fWAR per game.  Over the course of 162 games, that would put him on pace for a ridiculous, MVP caliber season not often seen in the sport, at 13.7 fWAR.

That number, and his gaudy 196 wRC+ thus far in 2016, are not likely to remain quite that high.  However, if he can make the jump from "very good four-win player" like he's been for two straight years to "elite seven-win player" in 2016 (and sustain that going forward as he hits his prime) it's very likely that he, once again, moves into the stratosphere of players you really can't afford to trade...assuming he's not already there, as I said.

Any trade that did involve Jose Altuve would almost assuredly happen over the offseason, so in the unlikely event that this is a route the front office bravely chooses to consider, we'll likely have the remainder of 2016 to see whether the incredibly positive early results remain so strong throughout the season before committing ourselves one way or another with regards to the idea.

Again, this isn't a call to trade one of the most popular players in the history of Houston sports.  It's a call to be open-minded and consider the possibilities - all of the possibilities - no matter how distasteful or unpopular they might seem on the surface.
Still with us?  Good!  Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part Five, examining the third base situation in Houston and its trade potential!