We’re two months into the season, and the Houston Astros are pretty good once again. Even with suboptimal bookends to the month of May, they sit at 36-22 on the season. After losing three in a row at home to the Yankees to begin the month (they had won the first game of the series on the final day of April), followed by dropping two of three to the Diamondbacks in Arizona, they won 13 of their next 18 against the A’s, Angels, Rangers, Giants and Indians.
They began this week by losing two of three to the Yankees in New York, bringing their record on the season against the pinstripes to 2-5. Obviously these are only seven games, primarily in May, but there aren’t a whole lot of barometers to measure a team like the Astros out there with half of the AL in tank or rebuild mode, while another couple are on the upswing. The Astros, Red Sox and Yankees were expected to be the cream of the AL crop, and thus far those teams have proven the prognosticators correct.
The Astros are in fact a pretty great team, but also keeping a potential postseason date with the Yanks in mind, I wanted to look at how the team has fared overall, and what tinkering could be done to plug up some minor leaks.
Note: While the record above is current, the stats being used throughout this piece are entering Wednesday’s game.
Have you heard? The Astros starting rotation (no, not Sergio Romo) has been completely unfair this season. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Yankees, the starting five had a combined 2.48 ERA (3.05 FIP), and had tallied nearly 2.5 more wins above replacement than the second-place Nationals.
Houston has one of the two rotations with a cumulative K/9 rate in the double digits (10.44), along with the not world champion Dodgers. Their strikeout percentage (29.7%) minus walk percentage (7.1%) is also atop the MLB leaderboard at 22.6%. Their ERA- (park and league adjusted ERA) is 61, which is 39% better than the league average of 100.
Back on May 20, Mike Petriello of MLB.com posted an article about how the Astros rotation could be the best of the modern era. Granted, their combined ERA has gone from 2.25 when the article was published to its current 2.55, so they’ve fallen behind some of the teams they were mentioned alongside (‘68 Cardinals, 2.40; ‘68 Indians, 2.45; ‘43 Cardinals, 2.43; ‘67 White Sox, 2.51). The point remains, however, that they’re not only on a great pace, but can tinker with history if they can keep it up.
Here is how the rotation had fared before Wednesday’s finale.
Trade potential: I mean, there really isn’t much the front office can do to improve upon this group. Not saying I’m for it, but if the club doesn’t plan to re-sign Dallas Keuchel in the off-season, they could shop his name out there and potentially get a prospect or two for down the road. As things sit right now, Keuchel is the fifth guy in a five-man rotation and if the playoffs started today, he would likely be the long man in the bullpen. Again, not saying that they should, or need to trade Keuchel by any means, but if you’re the front office you’re considering every trade possibility over the next couple months.
Reinforcements: Should an injury occur to one of the fabulous five, Brad Peacock or Collin McHugh would be the logical fits to take over in the rotation, since they’re already on the active roster. David Paulino has struggled to a 5.50 ERA through four starts in Triple-A this season, and has to re-establish himself post-suspension before being a viable option on the active roster.
Francis Martes dominated the minor leagues in 2015, climbing three levels, then posted a 3.30 ERA in Double-A back in 2016. Since then, he’s kind of stalled in stints between Fresno and Houston posting ERAs in the fives last year at both stops. Through four starts with the Grizzlies this season, Martes holds a 6.75 ERA with 17 walks in 18 2⁄3 innings. He’s currently on the disabled list following discomfort in his elbow, but there doesn’t seem to be any need for surgery. Martes may not be a fit in the near term, but if he turns things around when he returns to the mound, he could certainly become a viable option with his talent.
Brady Rodgers is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and while he had a rocky few outings for Houston back in 2016 that led to a 15.12 ERA (5.31 FIP), he had dominated Triple-A across nearly 150 innings, posting a 2.67 ERA.
Then there’s 22-year-old lefty Cionel Perez, the Astros’ number six prospect according to MLB Pipeline. He’s barely surpassed 50 innings in Double-A Corpus Christi between a brief stint last season and so far this season, but he’s tallied a 1.88 ERA with a K/9 of 11 and a BB/9 of 3.5. It’s not unheard of for this front office to bring a pitcher up straight from Double-A. The obvious example being Lance McCullers getting the call back in 2015. The difference being that the 2015 Astros needed help in the rotation. I mean, Roberto Hernandez started 11 games for them. That experiment ended after he collected a 5.18 ERA in those 11 starts.
In other words, there is no reason to make a move in the starting rotation as things currently stand, but if someone goes down then there are arms available to help out both in the short and long term.
While the pitching staff has ascended to glory this season, last year’s top offense in baseball has descended all the way to the fourth-best offense in the game. How are they even winning games?!
Here is a look at how the team has been performing this season.
The big difference between 2017 and the first two months of 2018 has been the decline in production of Marwin Gonzalez. Last season he posted a 144 wRC+ and had an OBP of .377. Right now he’s slugging 40 points below last year’s OBP (that’s bad) and has a wRC+ of just 77. That’s a 67% drop in production that the team is looking to make up. Math-wise, the difference in production from the combo of Jose Altuve (-24%), Carlos Correa (-29%), George Springer (-8%) and Alex Bregman (+9%) equals a 52% drop in production, though Altuve and Bregman have turned things up over the past week. Springer has stayed consistently good.
Marwin’s emergence last season was huge for the team because it gave them another lethal bat in the middle of an impossible lineup. He ended up being their third-best hitter according to wRC+, just beating out Springer. The lineup doesn’t need someone outside of the core four batters to have a career year, but the more league average bats you have in your lineup, the more difficult it is on opposing pitchers.
By positional wRC+, the Astros rank 5th at catcher, 27th at first base, 7th in right field, 14th in center and 22nd in left. I’m not going to bother with the rankings for second, short and third base because there is no way Altuve, Correa or Bregman is getting replaced. Springer can move around the outfield, so I included all three outfield spots.
Trade potential: Unless either Stassi or McCann goes down for an extended period (McCann is already on the DL with a sore knee), then it’s hard to see the club making a trade to improve what has been a big bright spot for the Houston offense. While production in center and left has been average or sub-par, George Springer is an everyday player and Josh Reddick is signed for two more seasons, so they’re locked into the lineup more or less when healthy. We all know who I’ll mention when we get to talking about the farm system, so trades aren’t terribly likely here either.
First base, however, could see some new blood. Even with the recent addition of J.D. Davis to the roster and his close to league average production, Astros first basemen hold a cumulative wRC+ of 82. With the team already exploring alternatives to Gurriel and MarGo, if Davis’ production slips by 10-15% (he currently has a wRC+ of 97), then it’s not hard to fathom the Astros seeking outside help as the time for bringing up the Tyler Whites and A.J. Reeds and seeing how they perform is dwindling.
If the Giants were to fall out of it, they could potentially attempt to move Brandon Belt, who is second among first basemen in wRC+, one point behind Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman. It’s doubtful that he’d be available, but worth a call. He’d also come with a hefty contract. Justin Smoak is the more realistic possibility, assuming the Blue Jays start moving pieces. Smoak is batting .250 with a .377 OBP and has a wRC+ of 128, sixth in baseball. He also comes with a $6 million team option for next year, complete with a $250K buyout.
Just above Smoak in the rankings is Miami’s Justin Bour, who walks at a higher rate, strikes out less, and is set to enter arbitration in the winter. Bour would be a big downgrade speed-wise compared to Gurriel, who covers roughly four feet per second more than Miami’s first baseman. The sprint speed between Bour and Smoak is a half of a foot per second in Smoak’s favor. Bour is a lefty bat while Smoak can go from either box.
If the Astros were to make a trade, Smoak would be the more likely candidate with his shorter contract and ability to hit from either side of the dish. Gurriel is about to turn 34, but is also making $10.4 million next year and $8.4 million in 2020, then hits arbitration for another two years, per Baseball Reference. And this is where Bour could become an option. If the Marlins were to take Gurriel in a trade, then Bour’s contract length wouldn’t necessarily be as big of an obstacle. Gurriel, a native of Cuba, could also thrive in Miami, so a trade is not outside the realm of possibility. There would obviously have to be much more going back to the Marlins outside of Gurriel, but without him in the deal, there is no agreement.
Reinforcements: Kyle Tucker. The 21-year-old is batting .274 with a .355 OBP to go along with seven homers, 16 doubles and six steals in eight attempts. It can’t be too much longer before Ted Tucker makes his way up.
Derek Fisher should also be mentioned as an option since he just started his rehab in Fresno (5-for-13, two doubles, five strikeouts, .429 OBP). So along with Jake Marisnick, Tony Kemp, Springer and Reddick (upon his return), the Astros have plenty of decent outfield options.
Behind the dish, Garret Stubbs just came off of the disabled list this week and picked up where he left off at the dish. He’s batting .358 with a .390 OBP through 25 games. He could be an option a little later in the season if the need arises.
At first, you have the usual suspects in Reed and White, both of whom are already on the 40-man roster. My guess is that this is the one position that the team would make a trade to make an upgrade at.
Every fan’s favorite part of a team. It’s just smooth sailing, day in and day out.
/end of article.
Ok, ok. Let’s look at the stats.
The Astros cumulative bullpen fWAR is 2.4 (after Wednesday’s game), good for sixth in baseball. Their K/9 rate (10.13) ranks fourth in the bigs behind the Yankees (12.07), Mariners (10.48) and Brewers (10.34), while their BB/9 is at the top of the list at 2.25. Their 2.85 FIP (compared to 3.02 ERA) is again at the top of the leaderboard.
Will Harris, Chris Devenski and Hector Rondon lead the way with 0.5 fWAR each, while Ken Giles and Collin McHugh come in right behind them at 0.4. Joe Smith (5.71 ERA, 4.15 FIP), Tony Sipp (3.48, 3.02) and Brad Peacock (2.91, 4.36) are the remaining regular relievers of the bunch.
While Smith’s ERA rates worst among this group, most of the damage was done during April, when he held an 8.64 ERA across 8 1⁄3 innings. In May he got one fewer out but put up a 1.13 ERA and the opposition hit just .087 against him.
We can all point to the poor months that Giles (9.00 ERA) and Harris (7.48) had, but their FIPs of 2.97 and 1.34 say that they’re due to bounce back after statistically poor months.
All in all, the Astros don’t necessarily need to make a change, but with this team eyeing another World Series banner, it’s likely that they will sometime in the next couple of months.
Trade potential: While Sipp has been good this season, his poor performance over the past two seasons makes one wonder if his days in Houston are numbered. Well, he’s a free agent after the season, so in a way, they are.
The Astros could roll with Sipp as their only lefty, but again, if we’re thinking about a potential playoff series that involves the short porch at Yankee stadium, adding a second wouldn’t be a bad idea. While that could be Keuchel (if he doesn’t make a playoff rotation), there are a couple of other premier left-handers that should be available if Jeff Luhnow is willing to ante up.
First up, Zach Britton. The Orioles reliever has yet to throw a pitch in the big leagues this season, but he just began his rehab stint in the low minors this week, striking out three while allowing one hit. If he can prove that he has returned to form, Britton should be a key trade piece for the Orioles this summer. That is, assuming that they actually trade anyone this time around.
You may remember last season when the Astros offered up Colin Moran as part of deal to land Britton, but the Orioles didn’t end up trading the lefty due to (surprise, surprise) some medical issues they didn’t like. Well Moran has since been traded to Pittsburgh, so he’s out.
On the bright side here, Britton will be a free agent at the end of the season, so the asking price should be much lower (again, we’re dealing with the O’s, so it may in fact be higher) than it was last season around this time. The risk with Britton is that he totaled just 37 1⁄3 innings last season and has missed the first two months of this season, so injuries would be a concern.
The other lefty that will be highly sought after is Brad Hand of the San Diego Padres. Hand has two years left on his contract worth $14.5 million total, and a third year that includes a $10 million team option. Hand has been a workhorse for the Padres, totaling 197 innings since the start of 2016. He has a K/9 rate of 13.5, and while his walk rate of 4.50 is a bit high, his 1.93 ERA (2.87 FIP) show that they haven’t been an issue. He can rack up saves, or act as a setup man, which would offer the Astros a little extra flexibility late in games.
If we’re looking for a cost-effective lefty, the Giants could again be a trading partner. Tony Watson, the 33-year-old former Pirates closer, has been pitching closer to his 2015 self by posting a 2.52 ERA (2.20 FIP) to go with a K/9 rate of 9.72 and a walk rate of 1.80. Watson was left on the market until the second half of February in what was a brutal off-season for free agents, and the Giants swooped him up on a two year deal for $6.5 million with a player option for 2020 (his age 35 season) at $2.5 million.
Again, if the Giants fall out of it, then they’ll be looking to rebuild their farm system via the hot stove this summer. Watson, with his resurgent season and team-friendly contract could get them a decent farm system starter set.
Reinforcements: If we’re sorting solely through players already on the 40-man roster, the two main left-handed options are Reymin Guduan (7.88 ERA in 16 career MLB innings, all last season) and Buddy Boshers (4.59, 86 1⁄3 ), who the Astros claimed off of waivers from Minnesota in January.
Guduan is four years younger and holds a 3.16 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 26 innings with Fresno this season. He has also walked 18 in that span, so his control will need to improve for him to have an impact in Houston.
If Boshers performs anything like the version of him in the latest installment of MLB The Show, he’s a solid reliever. The 30-year-old was a fourth round pick back in 2008 by the Angels and holds a 3.57 ERA with the Grizzlies through 22 2⁄3 innings this season, striking out 24 and walking 10 (two intentional). Lefties are hitting just .180 against him in ten innings this season, leading to a 1.80 ERA, while he has struggled against right-handers to the tune of a 4.97 ERA, mostly due to four home runs allowed in 12 2⁄3 .
Guduan has also been solid against left-handers with a batting average against of just .083 and has struck out two lefties per inning pitched. Both should be considered LOOGYs if they get the call.
While neither has excelled in their short big league tenures, they do represent left-handed depth on the farm for certain situations. If the team is looking to make a splash in the bullpen, they’ll do so via the trade market.
The Astros don't have to make a move in order to advance deep into the playoffs, but there will likely be some tinkering around the edges at the very least, if not swinging a deal for either one of the aforementioned players, or someone who plays those positions. It’ll be fascinating to see how the club approaches the next two months as the non-waiver trade deadline nears and what moves (if any) they decide to make.