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Is Madison Bumgarner a Match for the Astros?

The Astros were one of eight teams on the starter’s no-trade clause: what does this mean for a possible future move?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It almost feels too early to be talking about trades at this point. After all, it’s still just the middle of May, and we have the draft, the Home Run Derby, the All-Star Game, and two months of games to work through.

But two months will sneak up on you, especially with all of those things coming up. And this year, even more so, the July 31 trade deadline carries a lot more weight than it has in the past: as of this season, August trades are no more. If your team wants to acquire a Justin Verlander at the last minute to change the course of their year, their last minute to do so will be a full 31 days earlier than when the Astros picked up Verlander at the buzzer.

And while there’s no JV this year, we did get some big news about one of the bigger names on the market this year a few days ago as a bit of a preview of this year’s trading frenzy. Madison Bumgarner’s eight-team no-trade clause leaked, and it includes the Astros (as well as the Braves, Red Sox, Cubs, Brewers, Yankees, Phillies, and Cardinals). So let’s break down this piece of news, and what it might mean for the Astros’ trade prospects over the next two months.

Doesn’t being on Bumgarner’s no-trade list mean the Astros can’t acquire him?

Not necessarily. The fact that Bumgarner’s list is entirely playoff contenders means most people expect that he’s willing to waive his no-trade clause in the event of a trade, just that he’ll want some sort of input in the deal. Having a veto like the no-trade clause gets him additional leverage in any trade, as he can demand additional concessions from his new team before he approves a deal. Whether he’d use that leverage to get a bonus, an extension, a guarantee that he’ll be allowed to hit the free agent market, or something else, we can’t be sure of unless he says, but it doesn’t rule things out entirely.

It’s worth looking at the other teams in contention that aren’t on his list, just to see if one of them might have an advantage in acquiring him, but it’s a mixed bag. The Rays could also use another starter, especially one on a deal like Bumgarner’s, but giving up prospects for short-term pieces isn’t generally their style. Ditto for Pittsburgh, although their deal for Chris Archer shows it’s not totally out of the question (although with how badly they got burnt in that deal, they might still be hesitant to try again). Cleveland seems intent on shedding money rather than taking it on, and they could use another bat much worse than a starter.

The Twins, Dodgers, and Padres are all another story, although there are additional questions for each of them. The Twins are usually low budget themselves, although they do have room this year given that Joe Mauer’s deal is now off the books. The Dodgers and Padres would each like an additional starter (the Padres, maybe more for long-term purposes rather than this year), but I’m sure the Giants would think twice about dealing a franchise icon like Madison to in-state, divisional rivals. All of this to say: the Astros don’t have the clearest path to picking up MadBum, but there aren’t a plethora of clearer landing spots, either.

Where would Bumgarner fall on a list of potential Astros trade targets?

This one isn’t too hard to sort out. The rotation is the clearest area of improvement for the Astros; the lineup leads the league in wRC+ (by quite a healthy margin, at that; the second-place Twins trail them 132 to 120) and Fangraphs’ version of WAR, with players like Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker lurking in Round Rock as fallback options. The bullpen leads in both ERA (by nearly 20 points) and FIP (by nearly 40 points) while having fewer innings on their arms than all but four teams.

The rotation isn’t in dire straits or anything, but it’s also not leading the league in any major stats, so that seems like the easiest area to improve. Plus, acquiring a big name like Bumgarner could boost the bullpen by switching another strong arm (whether Wade Miley, Corbin Martin, or someone else) to a late-inning role.

Of course, given that the rotation is still decent (seventh in ERA, tenth in FIP, eleventh in WAR), I think you would need a significant pick-up to actually justify making a move. And when you look at a list of starters who will be free agents this winter (and thus, are more likely to be traded), most of the guys who fit that profile are on competing teams and unlikely to be moved, unless they take a sudden tumble. Brett Anderson or Andrew Cashner or someone might not be a bad depth pickup if you find yourself bitten by the injury bug, but they’re closer to lateral moves for the Astros as-is. Bumgarner is the only one who seems like he might make an already-strong rotation even better.

Is Bumgarner worth adding?

I can see why some people might be hesitant in adding Bumgarner; after two injury-marred years, he’s currently sitting at a 4.21 ERA through ten starts this year. Maybe all of those innings on his arm have finally caught up to him?

Of course, as you might recall, one of those two major injuries was from a dirtbike accident, while the other was a broken pinky from a line drive off of his hand. Neither of those is nothing, of course, but on a list of potential pitcher injuries, they’re also substantially less worrisome than, say, recurring shoulder soreness, or Tommy John surgery, or any number of other things.

The ERA is pretty misleading, too; his .312 batting average on balls in play would be the highest mark he’s allowed since 2011 (even with his injured seasons included), his 64.1% strand rate will absolutely not last the full season, and his 13.8% HR/FB rate seems high, especially for him. His strikeout and walk rates are basically back where they were in his pre-injury seasons. There are still concerns, like his line drive rate and hard hit rate both being high compared to his earlier days, but with a FIP of 3.55, it’s feels fair to say he’s both fine right now, and an improvement for Houston the rest of the way.

Bumgarner is a little bizarre in that he’s never really been the best in the league (he’s topped out in Cy Young voting with two fourth-place finishes and one sixth-place, and I think you could argue that even those were reaches), but he’s been basically above-average or better every season since he turned 20 (including these last two years, if you pro-rate them), and outside of the last two years, you can pretty reliably mark him down for 200+ innings, plus whatever you need in the postseason.

Of course, there are also those postseason innings. Bumgarner is one of the few pitchers where this actually makes a difference; over four postseasons, Bumgarner has 102.1 innings of 2.11-ERA baseball, as well as three World Series rings, a World Series MVP, and an NLCS MVP. He’s also seventh all-time in career postseason Win Probability Added, at 2.7, and his 2014 season is the second-best single postseason at 1.7.

If you think that all is more descriptive than predictive, Bumgarner is still a pretty proven workhorse with postseason experience, and if healthy, would easily be a #1 on a lot of teams and become maybe the best #2 or #3 starter in the league on the Astros.

But if you think the postseason numbers reflect a repeatable talent, Bumgarner would become a massive improvement for Houston, given that the team is basically a postseason lock (Fangraphs, 538, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all have them at a 96% chance or higher to win the AL West, and a 98% or higher to make the playoffs in some form). Even if he can’t replicate that absurd 2014 performance, his numbers in other years are good enough that it would represent a real bump in the Astros’ chances come October, something that almost no other players (on the trading block or not) can say.

Of course, none of this factors in things like the cost in a trade, prospect-wise. And while his current contract is extraordinarily reasonable, if MadBum decides he’d like his acquiring team to extend him for multiple years, given that he’ll be 30 this August, “when will his decline start” is a real question his new team might face. Plus, if his new salary demands are high enough, it could affect the Astros’ budget going forward (although the number of core players locked in at below-market rates right now makes that less of a concern, for me). And of course, none of this is even accounting for how other teams will react to him being on the market, and the possibility of a bidding war.

But I find it hard to convince myself that the Astros shouldn’t be looking at Bumgarner as their top target right now. He fits the team’s most glaring need, he’d represent a definite improvement in a way that few other pitchers can offer, and his October success seems relevant for a team that already looks like it can focus more on what it will do in the postseason rather than how it will get there. Plus, he’s young enough that if he does request an extension, you would likely get several good seasons out of him.

Other teams may be more desperate and willing to overbid to acquire him, or his demands may turn out to be unrealistic, but right now, with only minimal specifics known, this feels like something Jeff Lunhow and company should be approaching aggressively.