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Reviewing Astros Trades 2014-2018: Part I

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Let’s play what if. A look back at Astros trades as the team transitioned from rebuilding to contention. Part I, 2014-2015.

Introduction

It’s the off-season: no thrilling games, no heroic performances, no unexpected breakouts. How do we survive without baseball? Even the hot stove is just kinda warm right now. Perfect time to engage in a little useless but fun what if.

The following is a brief history of the Astros trades since 2014. This year is chosen because around that time the Astros were no longer classic “sellers,” trading aging veterans for long term prospects, but began trading for players that would help drive the team into contention in the near future.

Before I begin let me explain my methodology, such as it is. “Such as it is,” because I am not going to try to put an exact dollar value on the trades or come up with a number for who got more surplus value. Spreadsheets exist to do this, but in the end they still depend on subjective valuations, so I will grade each trade A-F, based mostly on which team’s acquired players contributed more wins, or will probably produce more wins in the case of traded prospects. Since that, too, is ultimately subjective, I will use both fWAR and bWAR whenever possible to diversify the data used. Taking the dollar value out of the equation simplifies the problem, and of course it’s how fans tend to look at trades, but I know it is a luxury no GM has. Nevertheless, simply put, my aim is to evaluate only how each trade made the Astros a better or worse team on the field, short term and long.

A few more caveats:

  1. There is an on-going philosophical debate as to whether a trade should be judged based on the values assigned to the players involved at the time of the trade, or by how the trade turned out in the end. After all, the future value of any player, especially prospects, is not a certainty, but based on probabilities. The break out of some players surprises even their new team. So, for example, if any ten prospects are judged to have only a 10% chance of being productive major leaguers, that means one of those ten will buck the odds and succeed. If that proverbial “player to be named later” just happens to be David Ortiz, or Moises Alou, or Michael Brantley (real examples) is that just luck? Probably, but some franchises take pride in hunting and finding those hidden gems, and maybe they should get credit when they do. For the purposes of this article I am judging by how the trades turned out, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as criticism of any front office, which presumably was working with the best information available at the time knowing that every trade is a gamble. I am judging these trades with the gift of hindsight, something never bestowed upon GM’s at the time a trade is made.
  2. Many trades involve veterans for prospects. In the first part of this series, the earlier trades, we will have a better track record to judge whether those prospects will ever produce as many wins as the veterans sacrificed to obtain them. In many cases involving prospects, the jury is still out.
  3. In trades involving veterans for prospects, it is expected that in the long run the team getting prospects should get more wins out of those prospects than the veteran who was sacrificed did in the short run while the new team controlled him. That’s because wins now are worth more than wins later, just like money now is worth more than money later. Which is why banks charge interest.
  4. A player at the top end of the WAR scale is worth more than several players added together whose sum total might equal the same WAR. That’s because MVP level players are rare and nearly irreplaceable. For example, imagine Mike Trout is worth 8 WAR and Tony Kemp is worth 1 WAR and that he can play every position on the field. Would you trade Mike Trout for eight Tony Kemps assuming an equal period of team control? Of course not, because you could find eight Tony Kemps easily without trading Mike Trout. Or put another way, you could find eight Tony Kemps easier than you could find one Mike Trout.
  5. We must consider that teams don’t just trade in order to obtain more WAR, either in the short run or the long run, but to address specific needs. If, for example, the best catcher on the team is a -2 WAR, and you trade for a +2 WAR catcher but the best trade available requires you to sacrifice a 3 WAR player to get him. You didn’t lose 1 WAR to get the new catcher, but added three WAR (+4 minus 1) by upgrading. (Assuming a suitable replacement for the player traded but, of course, three WAR replacements aren’t just sitting around.)
  6. Trades are supposed to help both teams.
  7. A trade which in and of itself results in a World Series championship is always a good trade.

The Trades

July 31, 2014

Astros traded Austin Waites, Jarred Cosart, and Enrique Hernandez to the Miami Marlins. Astros received Jake Marisnick, Colin Moran and Francis Martes and a competitive balance pick, Daz Cameron.

Breakdown:

Austin Waites departed the Minor Leagues after the 2015 season. Frances Martes, once considered the sleeper in the deal and one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, is currently sidelined with an elbow injury.

The headliner in the trade, Jared Cosart, considered a potential TOR pitcher at the time of the trade, has since imploded, having produced a -.5 bWAR since the trade. He last pitched in 2017 for San Diego, going only 24 innings with a 4.88 ERA.

The main catch for the Astros was believed to be Colin Moran, a #5 overall draft pick. He barely appeared in an Astros uniform but was traded to Pittsburgh in 2018 as part of the Gerrit Cole trade, more on that in part III.

This turned out to be the Kike Hernandez for Jake Marisnick trade and thus far Hernandez has produced 6.5 bWAR and Marisnick 9.3 bWAR since the trade.

Daz Cameron ended up as one third of the group traded to acquire Justin Verlander in 2017. At age 21 he had a brief taste of AAA this year.

Grade: C+

Neither team got what they wanted from this trade. Turns out, when the Phillies gave the Astros Cosart as part of the Hunter Pence trade, they were giving the Astros a head case. He was a re-gift to the Marlins.

Interesting thought experiment; would you trade Jake Marisnick, with his plus defense and minus offense, for the versatile and more effective hitter Hernandez straight up? I think I would as Hernandez seems to be blossoming as a hitter, with an .806 OPS and a 3.3 fWAR for LA last year. He is projected at 2.2 WAR for 2019, Marisnick 0.3.

That Cameron was part of the great trade that led to Verlander coming to Houston gave this trade an extra bump.

Martes may still come around to change this grade.

Below, Hernandez punishes Astros in game 2 of the World Series. Oh well, all’s well that ends well.

November 5, 2014

Astros traded catcher Carlos Perez and pitcher Nick Tropeano to the Angels for catcher Hank Conger.

Breakdown:

The Astros believed they needed a second catcher and traded two mid-level, MLB ready prospects to get Conger. Conger had his best hitting season with the Astros, but his worst fielding season, hitting 111 wRC+ with 11 home runs but getting a defensive rating from Fangraphs of -1.6. His fWAR with the Astros was .6 and his bWAR was .5. Conger’s 2015 season with the Astros was his first and only.

Strangely, the Angels’ get from the trade, Tropeano and Perez, each had career years in 2015, a year in which the Astros beat the Angels to the Wild Card game by one game. The catcher, Perez, that the Angels got from the Astros had, on paper, a better season than Conger, getting a 1.1 bWAR and 1.0 fWAR, much of this on the strength of a 7.3 defensive rating per Fangraphs.

Tropeano had a 1.1 fWAR and .2 bWAR rating in 2015. Depending on which numbers you use, Tropeano and Perez together produced, in 2015 alone, almost a win to two wins more than Conger.

According to bWAR, Tropeano has gone on to add 1.3 more wins since 2015, but according to fWAR no wins at all. He is projected for .3 fWAR in 2019. Perez has fallen off a cliff, producing -0.4 fWAR and -0.6 bWAR since 2015.

Grade: C

Since the Astros ended up beating the Angels in the Wild Card race, and neither prospect surrendered by the Astros looks like an emerging force, this is a pretty inconsequential trade. Another factor in this trade is that Conger kept Evan Gattis from catching, and as it turns out, Gattis never had a defensive rating at catcher as low as Conger’s in 2015. I would give the trade a lower grade except for these clutch moments by Conger, without which, who knows, the Astros don’t make the playoffs in 2015.

Here’s a go ahead Conger grand slammer.

And where would the 2015 Astros have been without Congerbot.

January 14, 2015

Catcher Andrew Thurman, pitcher Mike Foltynewicz, and third baseman Rio Ruiz were traded to the Braves for catcher/DH Evan Gattis and RP James Hoyt.

Breakdown:

This turned out to be the Foltynewicz for Gattis trade and so far its a pretty even deal. Folty has produced 5.3 bWAR and 6.9 fWAR for the Braves. Gattis has produced 5.4 bWAR but only 4 fWAR for the Astros. But from here on out this trade looks like the gift that keeps on giving for the Braves, as Foltynewicz broke out in 2018, making the All Star game and earning 3.9 fWAR for his up and coming Braves. He is projected at 2.7 WAR for 2019 and does not become a free agent until 2022.

Grade: C-

I know I said wins now are worth more than wins later, but, I hate to say this, I love Evan Gattis, he really didn’t produce that many wins, except in 2016, the one year in his Astros career the team didn’t make the playoffs. fWAR by year: 2015, 0.3; 2016, 2.6; 2017, 1.0; 2018, 0.0.

He never learned how to hit as a DH at very close to league average for that position, and although he hit much better as a catcher, he was too big a defensive liability there to hold down that position, or at least the Astros thought so.

On the other hand it is hard to see how Foltynewicz would have been able to help the Astros. With its stacked rotation, he may never have even had a chance to crack the starting five in 2018, his breakout year with the Braves. So Gattis helped the Astros a little during their championship runs, maybe more than Foltynewicz would have, and now Foltynewicz is there for the Braves now that they are competitive. But boy, how the Astros would like to have Folty going forward.

January 19, 2015

Center fielder Dexter Fowler to Cubs for pitcher Dan Straily and third baseman Luis Valbuena.

Breakdown:

This one is more complicated than it looks at first glance because it involves center field, a matter of great controversy looking forward, as it turned out. Fowler only had one year left on his contract with the Astros, and in 2015 he contributed 2.4 bWAR and 3.0 fWAR to the Cubs. In 2016 he resigned with the Cubs for one year, $8,000,000, and made his only All Star appearance, adding 4.1 bWAR to the championship Cubbies. More on why that matters later.

This trade was a classic trading for need, as the only other potential MLB ready third base prospect in the system at the time was maybe the erratic Jonathon Villar. Valbuena contributed bWAR 2.3, fWAR 1.5 to the 2015 playoff bound Astros, and another bWAR 2.6 and fWAR 2.2 in 2016. Using bWAR, Valbuena in two years provided 2.5 more wins than Fowler. A decent return for one year of Dexter Fowler, especially since Fowler’s replacement in center field in 2015, Jake Marisnick, contributed a nearly identical 2.3 bWAR to Fowler’s, although less by Fangraph calculations; 1.8 fWAR to 3.0.

But this trade also involved a huge missed opportunity; Dan Straily. He was barely used in 2015, then traded for next to nothing in 2016. More on that later. He has been a serviceable BOR starting pitcher since leaving the Astros and would have been under team control until 2022.

Another hypothetical to consider. What if the Astros kept Fowler and re-signed him in 2016 to the deal that the Cubs gave him; one year $8 million, one million less than 2016’s center fielder, Carlos Gomez. With Fowler’s 4.1 bWAR added to the team and taking away Carlos Gomez’ -0.7, you have about five wins added to the team. That would have put the Astros in a tie for the Wild Card that year. With Alex Bregman, Tyler White and others in the minors, could they have replaced Valbuena’s production and eked into the playoffs? Who knows? But if keeping Fowler meant not making the horrible Gomez trade that would have been reward enough.

Grade: B

Valbuena provided 2.5 more wins during the length of his contract than Fowler would have if he had stayed. He provided left handed power, and filled an urgent need at third base with first base flexibility. If Dan Straily had been utilized by the Astros this trade becomes an A. But if the hypothetical mentioned above occurred, that is Fowler kept and re-signed in 2016, and no subsequent Gomez trade, then I would have kept Fowler through 2016, hands down.

As you all know, Luis Valbuena was killed recently in his native Venezuela. The following video is a tribute.

July 23, 2015

Pitcher Daniel Mengden and catcher Jacob Nottingham were traded to the Oakland A’s for pitcher Scott Kazmir.

Breakdown:

In 2015 the Astros unexpectedly found themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot and made two major trade deadline moves to solidify the team. Both were mistakes. Let’s start with the Kazmir trade. We’ll cover the Gomez trade in part II.

Kazmir was having the second of two great comeback seasons with Oakland, having been an All Star in 2014, and before the trade sporting a 2.38 ERA in 109 innings in 2015. Unfortunately, as soon as he came to Houston he got bad, his ERA increasing almost two runs to 4.17, his FIP increasing two runs to 5.19, WHIP up, K/9 down, general decay across the board. He won two games and lost six. His bWAR was -0.1 in 73 innings. The Astros lost the one ALDS game he pitched in which Kazmir surrendered 3 runs in 5.1 innings. Seems the Astros got no return on Kazmir.

What did the Astros give up?

First off, a guy with a great baseball mustache.

Who does he think he is, Rollie Fingers?

After baseball Daniel Mengden should headline a barbershop quartet.

Since his debut with the A’s in 2016 Mengden has pitched 230 innings with a 4.69 FIP and 4.70 xFIP, slightly higher than league average. His fWAR is 1.8 and his bWAR is 1.7. At age 25 one can presume he still has room to improve and he is under team control until 2024.

If he were an Astro he would probably have way fewer innings than he has had in Oakland but in 2018 he gave the Astros’ main nemesis 115 innings, 7 wins and 6 losses, and a 4.05 ERA.

When Jacob Nottingham was traded he was considered the Astros’ top catching prospect even though he was only in A+ Lancaster. In 2016 Nottingham was rated the #66 prospect in baseball and he got his first taste of the big leagues this year with Milwaukee, hitting .200 in 20 AB’s. At age 23 he still seems on track for a successful major league career.

Here is how his age 23 AAA season compares to the Astros’ current top catching prospect, Garrett Stubbs, age 25.

Nottingham: .281/.347/.528 He had 10 home runs and an .875 OPS in 196 PA’s .

Stubbs: .310/.382/.455 He had 4 home runs and an .836 OPS in 340 PA’s.

Steamer only projects 30 PA’s for Nottingham in 2019 but rates him a plus defender. Coincidentally Steamer also projects 30 PA’s for Stubbs and gives him an identical +0.6 defensive rating.

Baseball Reference projects Nottingham with 212 major league PA’s and a .737 OPS for 2019.

Grade: D-

Wins now are worth more than wins later but Kazmir was a below replacement pitcher for the Astros in 2015. Mengden, projected for 0.6 WAR for 2019, is already a fringe BOR starter, while Nottingham is on track to be a successful major league catcher, a position of need for the Astros. All loss, no gain with this one.

Why not an F grade? The Astros got into the playoffs ahead of the Angels by one game in 2015. It is possible that even though Kazmir was a below replacement pitcher, he was better than any potential Astros replacement that year. In particular, in his second start with the Astros, July 30, 2015, he pitched 7.2 innings, allowing no runs and only 3 hits. Although he was not the pitcher of record, the Astros went on to beat the Angels that day, 3-0. What if the Kazmir replacement gave up four runs that day, easy to do with just a bad pitch or two to Mike Trout?

It was pretty much all downhill from there for Kazmir, but without that game, no playoffs, and no playoff experience for the young Astros prior to their 2017 run. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols were 0-7 for the game. Thanks Scott.

Before you comment allow me to reiterate one of my caveats. I am not judging Jeff Luhnow for the lack of wild success of these trades. How could he have known that Scott Kazmir was actually a Billy Beane mole sent to sabotage the Astros? Or that Hank Conger would collapse defensively in 2015 and actually produce fewer WAR than the unheralded rookie catcher he gave away? With any trade you play the odds. But the dice don’t always roll your way.

In Part II we will start with the infamous Carlos Gomez trade. Coming soon!