Word on the baseball street is: don’t trade with Jeff Luhnow. He’s diabolical. He’s a wizard. He’ll outsmart you every time.
How else could the Astros have been the best team in baseball the last three years?
Last off-season I wrote a nine-part evaluation of the Astros trades from 2014-2018, the building phase of the Luhnow tenure. (as opposed to the tear-down phase) The articles are below.
I count sixteen trades during this period of varying degrees of importance. Some were insignificant or had a neutral impact, three were wildly successful, and I count seven in which the Astros lost two or more wins as a result,
1. Carlos Gomez OF and Mike Fiers P to Astros for Josh Hader P, Brett Phillips OF, Domingo Santana OF and Adrian Houser P.
Gomez achieved 0.1 bWAR for the Astros in 2015-2016 and Mike Fiers .9 during his stint in Houston.
Meanwhile, Josh Hader has become perhaps the best closer in baseball with 6.6 bWAR since the trade. Domingo Santana is a legitimate slugger (although a defensive liability) with 4.6 bWAR. The afterthought in the trade, Adrian Houser, is up and coming, with a 3.72 ERA in 2019 in 111 innings for 1.7 bWAR, 1.9 for his career.
The Astros gave up 13.1 wins in this trade, with the counter still running for several more years. They got 1.0 for a net loss of 12.1 wins above replacement. This number will probably double by the time the years of team control are over.
2. Cy Sneed, P to Astros for Jonathon Villar IF.
Cy Sneed age 26, made his major league debut with the Astros last year without achieving a positive WAR rating. Villar, 28, has accumulated 10.6 bWAR for Milwaukee and Baltimore since his trade. He becomes a free agent after this season.
3. Brandon Bailey, P to Astros for Ramon Laureano OF.
Bailey, age 24, has not pitched above AA. Laureano, in 171 major league games, has 5.9 bWAR. Laureano, 24, has five more years of team control.
4. Eric Kratz, C to Astros for Dan Straily P.
Kratz played 14 games for the Astros and got two hits. Straily has accumulated 4.4 bWAR since the trade in 2016 for several teams. He becomes a free agent after this year.
5. Brendan McCurry, P to Astros for Jed Lowrie, IF.
McCurry, 27, has not yet pitched in the major leagues. In the three years of team control that remained on Lowrie’s contract, he acquired 8.2 bWAR.
6. Evan Gattis, C/DH to Astros for Rio Ruiz, IF and Mike Foltynewicz P.
The net on this trade currently sits below 2 WAR lost for the Astros, but Foltynewicz is an All-Star pitcher with two more years of team control. I don’t need to tell Astros fans how useful he would be in the Astros rotation for the next two years. He accumulated 6.4 bWAR for the Braves since 2015, whereas Evan Gattis got only 5.3 after his release by the Astros and subsequent departure from baseball. Three of those WAR were in 2016, the only year since 2015 that the Astros did not make the playoffs. Ruiz has produced only 0.2 bWAR.
7. Scott Kazmir, P to Astros for Daniel Mengden, P and Jacob Nottingham C.
Kazmir was a 2015 late season rental who won only two games as an Astro and produced -0.1 bWAR. Mengden, age 26, with 5 years of team control remaining, has produced 2.0 bWAR for the A’s. Nottingham, once considered the premier catching prospect in the Astros system, at age 24 has only 31 PA’s in the big leagues.
1. Justin Verlander, P to Astros for Daz Cameron, OF Franklin Perez, P and Jake Rogers, C.
I argued last year that the Verlander trade was the Greatest Trade of All Time. That was before he won another Cy Young Award, threw another no-hitter, won 20 more games and re-signed for two more years of this stuff with our Stros. He has already accumulated 15.9 bWAR for the Astros and as we all know, without him the Astros would not have been World Champions in 2017, or likely be the AL Champions in 2019.
And with another year of hindsight, it becomes more and more likely that the Astros surrendered very little of value to get him. None of the prospects surrendered by the Astros are on a trajectory that points towards big league stardom, even starting-dom.
Daz Cameron, age 22, had a .707 OPS in AAA last year. Jake Rogers, almost 25, hit .125 with a -0.6 bWAR in 35 games with Detroit. The supposed top prize in the trade, Franklin Perez, 22, is still languishing in A+ after a series of injuries.
2. Gerrit Cole, P to Houston for Michael Feliz, P Joe Musgrove, P and Colin Moran, IF.
The Astros traded young, controllable but major-league ready pieces for two years of what became perhaps the best pitcher in baseball. Gerrit Cole got 12.1 bWAR, 6 per season, nearly three times the rate he achieved in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile Michael Feliz has pitched at replacement level, Joe Musgrove has accumulated 2.8 bWAR, and Colin Moran has gotten only 0.7 bWAR. So the Astros have netted 8.6 wins from this trade, although going forward, they could probably use someone like Joe Musgrove at the back end of their rotation.
Musgrove has three years of team control remaining, and if he attains for each of those three years the 2.8 WAR projected by Steamer and Depth Charts, that’s 8.4 wins, plus the 2.8 he already has.
Moran has four years of control remaining, and if he gets the 0.7 currently projected for 2020 for each of those years, he will have 2.8, plus the 0.7 he already has.
Michael Feliz has two years of team control remaining, and if gets the projected 0.4 WAR he is currently projected for in 2020 each of those two years, he will add 0.8 wins to the Pirates total.
Based on (admittedly inaccurate) projections, the Pirates will net 15.5 wins from the Cole trade, 3.4 more than Cole got for the Astros.
Still, Cole is the kind of player that brings championships. The Musgroves and Morans of the baseball world are much easier to come by and don’t make that kind of difference.
3. Yordan Alvarez, DH to Astros for Josh Fields, P
In just over half a season Alvarez accumulated 3.7 bWAR, with 78 RBI and 27 HR. For 162 games these numbers project out to 145 RBI and 50 HR. At 22, he has six more years of team control. He was named 2019 ROY.
In three years with LA Fields accumulated 1.9 bWAR. He gave up two home runs to the Astros in game two of the 2017 World Series, a game the Astros won in ten innings, in a series they won in seven games.
So is Jeff Luhnow an evil genius, a wheeler-dealer extraordinaire, a baseball pick-pocket to be avoided by opposing GM’s at all costs?
Sure, he pulled off the greatest trade of all time, but the rebuilding Tigers had to unload Verlander and his salary, and who could know that the top prospects they got would stall in their development?
On the other side of the ledger Luhnow made one of history’s worst trades, the Gomez fiasco. The Cole trade has to be viewed as a win, but in a few years it probably won’t count as such a steal.
Of course, Luhnow really did pick a pocket when he stole Yordan.
On the other hand, Luhnow surrendered an outstanding young center fielder, Ramon Laureano, for next to nothing, a viable major league utility infielder, Jonathon Villar, without getting much of a return, another proven utility player, eventual All-Star Jed Lowrie, for almost nothing, etc. etc.
If you doubt me, ask yourself, would anyone reverse the trades that sent those players away?
Of course, these situations tend to happen to teams with stacked major league lineups and deep farm systems. Good prospects are often blocked, and sometimes there isn’t even room for them on the 40 man roster. So opposing GM’s know the Astros have to sell, and are able to do a little pick pocketing of their own.
Furthermore, the trade deadline trades for Gomez and Kazmir in 2015 were under the duress of trying to compete for the playoffs. Those kind of trades are supposed to benefit the seller in the long-term.
Still, one wonders if in some of these transactions Jeff Luhnow could have driven a harder bargain. Or evaluate talent better. Was there really no room for Ramon Laureano on the 40 man roster? I mean, who would you have rather kept, Reymin Guduan...Brady Rodgers, or Laureano?
Perhaps Jonathon Villar was guilty of the infamous butt slide and other bone-headed plays, but he was already a young major leaguer with talent, speed, versatility and a bat with some pop. Can you really say the Astros got fair return?
Dan Straily is no All-Star, and he may not have had a place on the Astros roster, but was he really only worth two weeks and two base hits from Eric Kratz, whom the Astros knew all along was only a temp?
Some of these trades seem a little generous in hindsight. And as the Astros mature, both in terms of age and salary, we might wish that some of these traded players were still around to bring affordable youth to the team, or that they would at least have brought a better return.
(editor’s note: some of the more recent trades, for ex. J.D Davis, Aledmys Diaz, and Zack Greinke are too recent to make an historical evaluation)