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Evaluating Astros off-season acquisitions

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How have our new guys done compared to the guys other teams got?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Many people wanted the Astros to make a bigger splash during the off-season, to somehow go out and get the really big game in the free agent or trade market. You know, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Patrick Corbin, etc. When the signing of Robinson Chirinos was announced, many fans said, “OK, now let’s find the starting catcher, like Realmuto, or Grandal.”

No, that was it guys. And all the other big fish got away too. The Astros were pretty conservative during the off-season, mostly under-the-radar moves, but it turns out each move was very savvy, and very effective, especially on a per dollar basis.

The Astros acquired a position player, Michael Brantley, a pitcher, Wade Miley, a catcher, Robinson Chirinos, and a utility player, Aledmys Diaz. Let’s look at how they have contributed to the Astros, and whether other available options would have been better.

Michael Brantley and the Position Players

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Brantley was the splashiest acquisition made by the Astros, a former two-time All-Star but with a history of susceptibility to injuries.

Below is a chart comparing Brantley’s 2019 statistics to those of other big-name position player acquisitions.

Top position player acquisitions

Free agents PP BA OBP SLG wRC+ HR fWAR salary/yr $/WAR
Free agents PP BA OBP SLG wRC+ HR fWAR salary/yr $/WAR
M Brantley 0.322 0.38 0.514 139 16 3.4 $16m $3.1m
B Harper 0.252 0.371 0.478 119 22 2.8 $25m $8.9m
A McCutcheon 0.256 0.378 0.457 121 10 1.6 $17m $10.6m
M Machado (IF) 0.267 0.337 0.486 114 26 2.6 $30m $11.5m
N Cruz (DH) 0.294 0.384 0.650 164 32 3.2 $14m $2.8m
LeMahieu 0.336 0..383 0.531 139 18 4.2 $12m $1.9m

The last column in the chart is how many dollars each WAR cost the team on an annual basis. Since the season is about 23 done, I projected the annual WAR based on current production. Current production is the amount on the chart. Eight to ten million dollars per WAR is considered a normal rate of production for players with free agent contracts.

For those who thought Harper should come to the Astros, or even those few who thought there must be some way to get Machado to fit on the roster, Michael Brantley has been a far more productive player in absolute terms, and especially per dollar spent.

There has been only one player clearly more productive than Brantley in terms of hitting, the DH Nelson Cruz, (maybe LeMahieu), only one who has produced more WAR, LeMahieu, and only two that have produced WAR at a cheaper price to their team, Cruz and LeMahieu.

Nelson Cruz may have been a missed opportunity, certainly a huge upgrade to Tyler White. But would he have blocked Yordan Alvarez? Would the Astros have been willing to let Alvarez displace Josh Reddick as starting outfielder with Cruz on the roster? Not likely. And would there have been enough money in the Astros budget for Zack Greinke if they had splurged on Cruz? That question applies to a number of players the Astros passed on.

D.J. LeMahieu of the Yankees was probably the best bargain of the off-season, but as an infielder he didn’t project to fit anywhere long term on the All-Star studded Astros front line. Michael Brantley is not far off as the second best free agent acquisition of the off-season.

Grade: A

Wade Miley and the Pitchers

MLB: Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the most significant off-season pitcher acquisitions, including Wade Miley.

Top off-season pitcher acquisitions

Free agents pitchers ERA xFIP fWAR salary $/WAR
Free agents pitchers ERA xFIP fWAR salary $/WAR
N Eovaldi 6.46 4.86 -0.1 $17m N/A
P Corbin 3.43 3.68 3.6 $23m $4.2m
J Paxton 4.4 4.02 2 $8.75m $2.91m
C Morton 2.77 3.28 4.5 $15m $2.08m
W Miley 2.99 4.41 1.8 $5m $1.85M

By far the cheapest pitcher on this list, Wade Miley’s ERA is close to the lowest, almost as low as Charlie Morton’s. But his WAR rating is not nearly as high, because WAR puts most of the weight on the advanced stats, where Miley doesn’t look as good. His peripherals have been significantly higher than his ERA all year, and yet his ERA hasn’t regressed upward, it continues to fall. Can this continue?

Charlie Morton has been among the top pitchers in the AL all year, and his $15 million salary is looking more and more like a bargain. Considering the injuries to the Astros’ staff, should the Astros have signed Miley AND held on to Morton? It would have been a lot cheaper to keep Morton than to sign Zack Greinke, both in terms of salary and lost prospects.

So should the Astros have re-signed Morton? That remains to be seen. The knock on Morton, and Eovaldi too, was his lack of durability. Would he be there and be effective in the play-offs? We shall see. There are signs he is experiencing late-season fatigue. Since July 18th his ERA has been 5.04, although the peripherals remain strong, so it may be too soon to declare one way or the other about the demise of Charlie Morton.

On this list, Wade Miley is certainly providing the most value, and keep in mind James Paxton (not a free agent) also came at the cost of valuable prospects. Few would disagree that Miley has been a pleasant surprise. But perhaps the best way to evaluate Miley is not in relation to the names above, including Charlie Morton, but to Dallas Keuchel, another former Astro the team let walk. Roughly speaking, Miley has given a Keuchelesque performance at about a third the cost.

Tampa Bay getting Charlie Morton was the best pitcher acquisition of the off-season, at least so far. Miley has been the best bargain. I don’t think you can make a connection between the Astros letting go of Morton and taking on Miley. If they had wanted Morton they could have had both at Miley’s low salary.

If Morton has a strong season until the end, then the decision to let him go looks like a big mistake. That remains to be seen. But getting Wade Miley was a great acquisition regardless.

Wade Miley: A

Robinson Chirinos and the Catchers

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

There were others options of course, but many Astros fans wanted to go big on catcher, either trade for J. T. Realmuto, or acquire Yasmani Grandal as a free agent. Let’s compare Robinson Chirinos to these two choices.

Top off-season catching acquisitions

Free agents catchers BA OBP SLG wRC+ HR fWAR salary/yr $/WAR
Free agents catchers BA OBP SLG wRC+ HR fWAR salary/yr $/WAR
J. T. Realmuto (traded) 0.271 0.321 0.451 98 15 3.7 $5.9m $1.18m
Y Grandal 0.251 0.37 0.472 118 19 3.7 $18.25m $3.65m
R Chirinos 0.232 0.353 0.453 113 13 1.4 $5.75m $2.74m

Deciding whether the Astros should have gotten Realmuto or Chirinos is comparing apples and oranges. Relamuto, still being cost-controlled, pre-free agency, is the cheapest option, but to acquire him the Astros would have had to give up a ransom in prospects.

Grandal has performed nicely for his $18 m salary, but Chirinos is still a better bargain. For the Astros, getting Grandal would probably have meant not getting Brantley. In terms of WAR they are about the same, but my gut says I’d rather have Brantley. The improvement of Grandal over Chirinos is maybe 2 12 wins. Is that worth losing Brantley over? Any disagreement on that?

Robinson Chirinos has outperformed expectations both offensively and defensively. Going cheap at catcher has allowed the Astros to spend elsewhere.

Grade: A-

Aledmys Diaz vs Marwin Gonzalez

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Astros have re-signed Marwin instead of trading for Aledmys Diaz. Let’s look.

Untitled

Utility IF PA BA OBP SLG wRC+ HR fWAR salary/yr
Utility IF PA BA OBP SLG wRC+ HR fWAR salary/yr
A Diaz 137 0.276 0.314 0.504 112 7 0.5 $2m
M Gonzalez 383 0.250 0.316 0.402 88 13 1.1 $11m

I am not comparing the dollar per WAR of Diaz and Gonzalez because Diaz has spent most of the season with a hamstring injury. But a look at their respective averages this year, and for their careers, shows that Diaz is a better hitter, at one fifth the cost. And he is under team control for three years after this year.

He did come at an additional cost, the trade of Trent Thornton. Thornton has been a starter for Toronto this year, with a 5.55 ERA and 1.1 fWAR. He would probably have only been a temporary call-up if he had stayed in the Astros organization, but with some of the recent trades, he would be more important at this point to the Astros as organizational depth.

Aledmys Diaz is a former All-Star with defensive versatility, a powerful and reliable bat, and three years of control during a time when the Astros will be dealing with free agent losses. As much as we love Marwin Gonzalez, he is an upgrade on Gonzalez at much less cost. He did cost the Astros a viable, low ceiling pitching prospect.

Grade A-

Overall grade A.

The Astros took a humble approach during the off-season but made smart moves that helped the team in unexpected ways. Compare it to the Phillies, who spent “stupid money,” and went all in for big names in other ways as well, and are on the outside looking in just to qualify for the wild card playoff.