Jeff Luhnow’s masterful rebuild included several major-leaguer-for-prospects trades that accelerated the Astros turnaround, but has he been as successful in dealing as a winner? The aggressive GM has made a number of major deals in an effort to bolster the Astros’ playoff pushes, and has an AL Wild Card and AL West Championship to show for it, but the part these trades have played in that success is debatable. This is not a slight to Luhnow, it is much more difficult to negotiate from the contending position, as you are a participant in the bidding war rather than its beneficiary. Let’s take a look at the major deals that the Astros’ mastermind has pulled off from this side of the table:
2015: Astros trade Brett Phillips, Domingo Santana, Josh Hader and Adrian Houser to Milwaukee for Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers
Gomez has been both a star and a scrub in different parts of his career, and, unfortunately, for the vast majority of his Astros tenure, he was the latter. In 126 games with Houston, Gomez compiled a paltry 0.6 WAR. He got hot at times down the stretch in 2015 and helped the club in their successful Wild Card push, but the hefty price tag that he commanded was in large part because he was under team control through the 2016 season. After his dismal first half, in which he struck out in 31% of his plate appearances and hit just 5 home runs with a neutral defensive rating, the Astros decided to cut bait. Fiers has been the unlikely prize of the deal, providing up-and-down back of the rotation performance, while pitching like a middle of the rotation starter at times. Though he has frustrated fans with his inconsistency, it is impossible to deny that Fiers has been a solid contributor in the midst of the numerous rotation injuries the Astros have had to endure over the last few years.
In sum, the Astros came out with 3.1 WAR across two and a half seasons (roughly one season in Gomez’s case) in exchange for the four prospects they sent to Milwaukee. On the whole, the stock of the young guns the Brewers received has risen in that time, in particular that of Domingo Santana, who developed into a regular in 2017. The new, power-friendly baseballs were likely a factor in his ascent, one that the Astros couldn’t have foreseen, but his performance was in line with the tools that scouts have seen in Santana since he was a teenager. Brett Phillips has struggled with his contact since joining the Brewers system, but has continued to draw rave reviews for his glove, including with record breaking outfield throw velocity, and has the look of a Jake Marisnick-type contributor in the outfield even if he continues to struggle with whiffs. Josh Hader made a successful transition to the bullpen as a Major Leaguer in 2017, and has had success up to the Double-A level as a starter. He continues to be an enigmatic player due to inconsistent command, but at the very least has the look of a late-inning reliever if that is his long term role.
The Astros dealt from organizational strengths in this trade, which makes it more palatable. Santana and Phillips likely would not have roles with the current Astros club due to the strength of the team’s outfield, though Hader likely would have been a welcome addition to the bullpen. For this reason, I cannot be especially critical of this deal, as I don’t think the Astros roster or projected future lineup would look very different (if at all) had it not been made. Grade: C-.
2015: Astros trade Jacob Nottingham, Daniel Mengden to Oakland for Scott Kazmir
Unlike the deal for Gomez, this trade was a true rental for the Astros, as Kazmir was only under team control for the second half of 2015. As has been a pattern for Scott in the latter part of his career, he fell off precipitously in the second half. He managed just a 4.17 ERA for his hometown Astros after posting a 2.38 mark in Oakland, and his strikeout rate dipped by over 1.5 K/9. Peripheral statistics suggested he was lucky to keep his ERA as low as it was in Houston, and he left for the LA Dodgers in free agency following the year.
At the time, Nottingham was a hot prospect in Astros circles, as he was making a surprising amount of contact in the low minors given pre-draft scouting reports. His power hadn’t quite shown to the degree that many expected, but most thought it was on the way. Either the Astros had concerns about Nottingham, or knew how to get more out of his bat than other clubs have since, as he has failed to match that level of performance in either of the systems he’s had stops in after leaving Houston’s (he was traded from Oakland to Milwaukee in a later trade). Still 22, Nottingham has a bit more time to find his groove, but has no doubt seen his stock drop quite a bit since 2015 when this deal was made.
The player that it hurt more to lose, at least in my opinion, was former Aggies dynamo Daniel Mengden. As a draft pick there were really only medical knocks on the polished starter, and he reached the majors in late 2016, having mixed results. He’s shown some improvements in 2017, but has struggled to keep his strikeout totals at their previous levels. He recently threw a 2-hit, complete game shutout for the A’s, and at age 24 still has room to grow. I’ve always been higher than most on Mengden, but I still think he can develop into a steady #3 or 4 starter if he can miss bats and limit walks at the same time- so far in the majors, it has been one or the other. The Astros gave up a lot less in this trade than in the deal for Gomez, but got flat 0.0 WAR from Kazmir, and lost a young, cost-controlled arm in the process. Grade: C.
The two trades made by the Astros in 2017- Nori Aoki and Teoscar Hernandez for Francisco Liriano; Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers, PTBNL for Justin Verlander- have to receive incomplete grades at this point, particularly the Verlander deal in which all of the players shipped off by Houston still need significant seasoning before being major league ready, but they have the look of good deals for the Astros at this point. Verlander has excelled in his first few starts in a new uniform, including winning the clinching game yesterday, and comes with team control for two additional seasons. Likewise, Francisco Liriano initially struggled in his move to the bullpen, but has seemed to find his footing in recent outings and could be used in the playoffs due to his veteran mindset and premium velocity. Much like when they dealt Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips to Milwaukee, the Astros gave up two outfielders who did not have a path to playing time with the current big league club, and with Kyle Tucker fast approaching and Derek Fisher already having arrived, it was unlikely it would ever be there. In my opinion, 2017’s trades are a sign that Luhnow is getting more comfortable as a buyer, as evidenced by his willingness to take negotiations down to the waiver deadline to land Verlander. The Astros meteoric rise in the last three seasons necessitated a quick pivot in strategy for the GM, but with some bumps along the way, he has proven to be up to the challenge.