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Could Felipe Vázquez be an alternate relief ace target for the Astros?

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If the Giants decide to hold on to Will Smith, there’s another lefty relief ace who looks similar

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As of late, the Astros have looked like they could use bullpen help. And of course, there’s the long-standing need for a lefty, which, granted, hasn’t been a debilitating problem or anything the last few years, but it would still be nice to have a shutdown lefty to go with all of the righties, you know?

And conveniently, the team that was in last place in the NL West had a really good left-handed closer that they were almost certain to trade! And even if that fell through, they had a second pretty good lefty they could potentially send to Houston instead! The Giants and the Astros just looked like perfect trade partners.

But there’s been something of a hitch in those plans over the past month: for those who haven’t been following NL West happenings as closely, the Giants have been on a bit of a roll lately. Thanks to a current 18-5 run, they’ve moved into second place in their division, and within striking distance of the Wild Card game. It’s not even a given anymore that they’ll be selling at the deadline.

Of course, they still could decide to sell, or maybe just trade relievers for more major-league-ready players; there’s still almost a week before the deadline and plenty of ways this could go. But considering how high up the list Will Smith seemed to be for a lot of Astros fans, it might be worth looking for alternatives not on the Giants, just in case. Which brings us to Felipe Vázquez.

Vázquez (formerly known as Felipe Rivero) is the left-handed closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, currently in the middle of his second of two consecutive All-Star seasons. The 28-year-old (as of July 5th, so this is technically his age 27 season) is currently in the second year of a four-year extension, meaning that unlike the Giants and impending free agent Smith, the Pirates are under no rush to trade him right now. But the Pirates are also more likely to be sellers overall at this moment, and we know from experience that they’re open to dealing players with multiple years of control remaining. So it’s not a given that he’ll be on the move, but it’s definitely not something we can rule out, either.

And if you’re looking for a replacement for Smith… well, it’s hard not to see Vázquez as a good fallback option. Just compare their stats over the past two seasons. Vázquez narrowly edges out Smith in ERA, 2.40 to 2.50, while Smith has an even slimmer lead in FIP, 2.28 to 2.27. Vázquez has 15 more innings, but Smith is a little bit better in strikeout rate (36.1% to 32.9%) and walk rate (6.9% to 7.4%). Really, they’re pretty similar in a lot of ways.

What makes it interesting is that, despite their similar outcomes, Smith and Vázquez are basically opposites as pitchers. Will Smith doesn’t have especially overwhelming stuff, with a fastball that’s (according to Statcast, all rankings among pitchers with 250 pitches this season) toward the middle of the pack in top velocity, a slider that sees similar usage to his fastball, and a once again generally-middle-of-the-pack spin rate on his breaking stuff. Vázquez, in comparison, is much more overpowering, with a fastball that’s fifth overall among pitchers in velocity, a heavy favoritism toward that fastball (he uses it over three times as much as any other pitch), and spin rates that generally fall in the top decile of the league across his main pitches.

And, again, the other main difference in the two is contracts; Vazquez is due $5.75 million next year and $7.75 million the year after that, with two $10 million team options after that for his ages 30 and 31 seasons. That’s a lot of team control, meaning that the Pirates are going to be requesting some real value in return.

We could try and work out the expected value of prospects that would take, but in this case, it might be worth it to look at a similar case. Because, as it turns out, there is a case of the Astros trading for a closer with a lot of years of control, although a lot of you might not like it.

I mean, sure, Ken Giles isn’t nearly as perfect match for Felipe Vázquez as, say, Will Smith was. But there are enough parallels that it’s might be of more use in trying to work out a rough trade package. After all, when the Astros acquired him before the 2016 season, Giles was coming off two good seasons of 115.2 innings (3.1 more than Felipe has over 2018-9). His FIP, K%, and BB% were better, but not terribly far off, and he still had five years before free agency (as opposed to Vázquez’s 4.5 with team options).

The biggest differences here are: 1) Giles at the time only had those 115.2 innings in the majors, whereas Vazquez has a longer track record (his 2017 was similarly good, and even his 2015-6 were decent); 2) Vázquez is currently two and a half years older than Giles was at that point; and 3) Giles was pre-arbitration, and therefore even cheaper (for 2016 and 2017 combined, Giles made just over $1 million, and his entire three seasons in Houston cost slightly less than what Felipe will make next year).

Vázquez is still below market rate of course, and the options on his deal means that the Astros won’t be in too much trouble should things go south (there’s a $1 million buyout on 2022 and a $500,000 one on 2023). But overall, the similarities between the two make me think they’d likely be basing a package for Vázquez around the Giles deal. In case you’ve forgotten, the package that Philly got then was Mark Appel, Vince Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Thomas Eshelman, and Harold Arauz.

In retrospect, that has turned out pretty well for Houston (even with Giles’ eventual meltdown), but at the time it looked like two pretty decent prospects in Appel and Velasquez plus some other parts. Going off of that, Kyle Tucker would probably be safe; Appel and Velasquez were reasonably liked at the time of the trade, but both also had issues that were more worrisome than anything Kyle has faced (Appel’s performance, and Velasquez’s health), and neither has reached the level of acclaim that Tucker at his peak has.

I guess I could see Forrest Whitley going if league consensus on him has dropped significantly based on his performance this year, but at his peak, Whitley has also had higher projected value than either Appel or Velasquez ever did. Given all the questions each of those three has faced and the rapid changes in their evaluations, it feels difficult to say for sure whether the general opinion on Whitley is at all like it was for those two at the time, but I think Whitley is still a step above them. So on the whole, I think multiple prospects from the tier below Tucker and Whitley is the most likely option.

The other big reason for that is that I think Vázquez’s higher salary and higher age makes his surplus value a little lower than Giles’s was at the time (again, Ken’s first two seasons were basically all surplus value, and even his final year of arbitration might not reach the $10 million of Vázquez’s two option years), although the increased track record offsets that somewhat. Maybe Houston could also negotiate that down by throwing in someone who’s blocked at the Major League level, like Derek Fisher, but I don’t know what specifically the Pirates are looking for right now, so that might not work. Overall, though, it’s tough to see this happening without at least two of the Astros top ten prospects going the other way, likely cleaning out the upper-middle of said list (and if the Pirates decide to hold out for even better, I could see the Astros balking given their experience with Giles).

From the Astros’ side of things, the biggest concern I can see there is opportunity cost; the package they’d probably be comfortable including for Vázquez looks like it would overlap significantly with the type of prospects they’d most likely be trying to move to acquire a good starter. Trading for both Vázquez and a starter would clear out the farm system pretty thoroughly. That alone is probably enough of a deterrent to this kind of deal happening.

Ultimately, I still think the rotation is the higher priority right now, so a cheaper relief option would be better. But if the Giants and Reds (who are in a similar position in the standings and also have a wealth of relievers) are both committed to not selling, the number of alternatives on the trade market drops sharply, especially for top-of-the-line relievers, so Vázquez makes for an intriguing alternative. And it’s hard not to think of how much more imposing a bullpen with him in it could get, even if it’s not the most pressing issue.

Poll

Should the Astros try to acquire Felipe Vázquez?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Yes, as a top priority
    (180 votes)
  • 49%
    Yes, as a fallback option
    (265 votes)
  • 16%
    No
    (90 votes)
535 votes total Vote Now