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Reviewing Astros Trades, 2014-2018. Part III: Trimming the Infield

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This is part III of the what if series of analysis of recent Astros trades. Today we discuss the trades the sent out Jonathon Villar and Jed Lowrie, and whether Marwin Gonzalez was the best choice as utility infielder

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Introduction

This is part three of a series analyzing Astros trades from 2014-2018. For a review of the methodology and caveats go to Part I here.

This is a review of how the trades turned out, understanding that at the time the trades were made the teams involved used the best information available to maximize the chances of an advantageous transaction. But all trades are based on probabilities, and like any form of gambling, the actual outcomes may not be those desired. So this is not intended as a criticism of the trades at the time they happened, but just a review of how lady luck eventually blessed each trade in the end.

In this article we will discuss the trading of the Astros’ excess utility infielders, leaving only Marwin Gonzalez as King of the Utility Hill.

The Trades

November 19, 2015

IF Jonathon Villar to the Brewers for Minor League pitcher Cy Sneed.

Breakdown:

Cy Sneed is a 26 year old pitcher and third round draft pick who spent 2018 in AAA Fresno, compiling a 10-6 record and a 3.83 ERA. His 127 innings were the most by any Fresno pitcher. He is a ground ball pitcher with a limited ceiling and is not found in in the 2018 MLB TOP 30 or the Fantrax Top 25 lists for top Astros prospects. He could conceivably see some action with the Astros this year with enough vacancies on the big league staff.

Jonathan Villar, 27, is a utility infielder who has played for the Brewers and the Orioles. Though he showed flashes of brilliance with the Astros, and had a 109 OPS+ in 2015, he was considered erratic as a fielder, lacking in fundamentals and traded. In 2016, his first year with the Brewers, he made the Astros regret the trade, slashing .285/.369/.457 for an OPS+ of 117. He led the league with 62 stolen bases. Since then he has hit below league average. His bWAR by year has been 3.9, 0.1, and 2.7 in years 2016-2018 respectively for a total of 5.7 bWAR. His fWAR: 3.0, -0.5, 2.0 for a total of 4.5 fWAR. His ratings were hurt by negative defensive numbers until this year when his defensive rating per Fangraphs was a positive 3.6.

He is projected to slash 250/.319/.389 in 560 PA’s with a 1.2 fWAR in 2019. He is under team control until 2021.

Grade: D

Although there was no place for Villar on the roster, it appears they have gotten next to nothing in return for a somewhat flawed but athletic utility infielder with some power.

November 25, 2015

IF Jed Lowrie traded to the Athletics for P Brendan McCurry

Breakdown:

McCurry’s profiles very similarly to Sneed, both are 26 and seemingly stuck at AAA, for McCurry 2018 was his third year. He pitched 63 innings in relief with 14 saves and a 3.69 ERA.

At the time of his acquisition, Fangraphs projected him to attain 0.7 WAR by his age 28 season, and called him the “fringiest of fringe propspects.”

In return the A’s got a proven veteran, Jed Lowrie, back from Houston for the second time. It was a strange trade, the contending team sending the old hand to a semi-rebuilding team in return for a fringe prospect.

Why the trade? As with Villar there was no room on the roster for Lowrie, with the superstar core at second, third and short and Marwin Gonzalez at utility. Perhaps salary was a consideration, as the oft injured Lowrie was due $20 million through 2018.

At first Lowrie disappointed at Oakland, doing as he had done in both his stints in Houston; only playing about half the season due to injury. But his age 33 and 34 seasons have turned out to be his best, slashing .272/.356/.448 for both years, with a 120 OPS+ in over 1300 PA’s. Last year he made his only appearance in the All Star game and was even 20th in MVP voting.

In his three years with the A’s Lowrie has generated 7.9 fWAR and 8.1 bWAR.

Grade: F

This is an article about how trades turned out. I know that the chances of Lowrie having his two best seasons ever back to back at ages 33 and 34 seemed close to zero when the trade was made, but that’s what happened, and the Astros traded away 8 WAR for nothing, or so it seems.

However, they did save some bucks, and they had someone else to earn those WARs at a budget price.

And the Winner Is: Marwin Gonzalez.

In the course of about 16 months the Astros traded away three talented utility infielders, Enrique Hernandez, Jonathan Villar, and Jed Lowrie. They settled on perhaps the biggest underdog of the group, Rule 5 pickup, Marwin Gonzalez. From 2016 to 2018 how did these four compare? Was Gonzalez the right pick? See chart below.

The Four Utilitymen Compared

Player fWAR bWAR Games OPS+
Player fWAR bWAR Games OPS+
Lowrie 7.9 8.1 397 110
Villar 4.5 6.5 419 97
Hernandez 4.6 4.6 394 96
Gonzalez 5.9 7.4 420 113

At first glance, judging by WAR, it appears that Lowrie outperformed Gonzalez, who outperformed Villar and Hernandez. Lowrie was almost 1 bWAR better than Marwin, and 2 fWAR better.

But beware! Notice that Marwin had the edge in hitting. Lowrie’s overall advantage comes from better fielding statistics. But Lowrie had the luxury during these years of playing almost exclusively at second base. Gonzalez seemed to play a different position every day, and transitioned to a semi-regular outfielder in 2017. A guy who plays seven different positions and never one the majority of the time will always be at a disadvantage compared to someone who gets to play the same position almost every day for three years. So I believe that Gonzalez was punished in his fWAR rating for his greater versatility.

There’s no way Lowrie could have played outfield at all for the Astros, nor probably the other infield positions besides second base, nearly as well as Gonzalez.

So I’d say that considering his versatility at the time in question Marwin Gonzalez was more valuable than Jed Lowrie. And although I said in my initial introduction that I wouldn’t discuss money, let’s look at money.

Fangraphs put Gonzalez’ value from 2016-2018 at $47.5 million. His actual salary was $10.8 million for a surplus value of $36.7 million.

Lowrie’s value was placed at $63.1 million and his actual salary at $20 million for a surplus value of $43.1 million.

So Lowrie did produce $6.4 million more in surplus value, and Lowrie maintains a slight edge in dollars/WAR: $7.99 million to Marwin’s $8.05 million. But I do not believe these numbers reflect the greater versatility of Gonzalez. Do you think that if the Astros had Lowrie instead of Marwin, that Lowrie could have done this?

So the hidden value of Marwin Gonzalez helps explain the Villar and Lowrie trades. These players were surplus on the Astros. I still think the Astros should have gotten more value in return, at least in precious hindsight.

Poll

Should the Astros have kept Jed Lowrie and traded Marwin Gonzalez?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Yes
    (19 votes)
  • 91%
    No
    (194 votes)
213 votes total Vote Now