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A controversial intra-division trade

In what would be a contentious trade, division rivals could ultimately benefit from making it

Houston Astros Summer Workouts Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

I have thought of the unthinkable. I have thought about the Astros trading Framber Valdez. Ace of the 2020 pitching staff, owner of one of the best curveballs in baseball, and most of all, a bonafide playoff hero.

Why would I want the Astros to move such a celebrated and talented player who has a long career ahead of him? Well, I don’t want them to. Not in general.

But there is one trade that has intrigued me since I randomly thought of it in late October.

It was a mostly flippant remark, but I maintain that Valdez for Angels outfielder Jo Adell is a somewhat realistic trade that has a non-zero chance of happening. Of course, there are no reports of such a deal being potentially swung, or even discussed, and while I usually don’t care to explore utterly speculative trade proposals, this idea has gradually been growing in my mind.

Also, the Astros did nothing of note during the virtual Winter Meetings last week, and there’s only so many pieces that can be written about the holes in the Astros’ outfield or their need for veteran help in the bullpen.

So, let’s do this.

Would this trade make sense?

The short answer is that it could, as each team would address a glaring need on their respective rosters.

But what’s significantly more important is assessing each player’s value, present and future. Doing so on the heels of a highly irregular 60-game season is going to make this complicated.

Each player is young and without substantial major-league experience, especially Adell, who was a rookie this year. Additionally, 2020 is Valdez’s breakout year, so there’s not much choice but to place a good deal of emphasis on it.

Evaluating Framber Valdez

It’s no secret that this past season put Valdez on the map, and that was even before his incredible string of starts in the postseason. His profile is uncommon but effective nonetheless.

Valdez’s recipe for success in 2020 was an above-average strikeout rate and a well-above-average walk rate combined with an elite ground ball rate. This mixture propelled him in spite of alarmingly high exit velocities and a below-average whiff rate.

Aside from often getting hit hard, Valdez’s other primary deficiency is his overall repertoire. His aforementioned curveball is a truly great offering and he also throws a quality sinker that possesses solid velocity (93 mph), but there is no viable third pitch.

He did manage to throw his changeup nearly 10% of the time this year — an increase from 2019 — but it’s still an illegitimate pitch. Not just because of the uneven results its yielded and its firmness (89 mph), but also because Valdez does not yet trust it.

In this year’s playoffs, Valdez logged 24 innings across four games. He threw a total of 365 pitches. Only 16 were changeups, good for a minuscule 4.4% usage rate.

Why does this matter? Valdez was virtually untouchable in the playoffs, and in 70 innings in the regular season, he posted a 3.57 ERA, along with a fantastic 2.85 FIP. Where is the issue here?

There’s a lot of unpacking to do.

First, 94 innings is not an adequate sample size to judge conclusively. It’s certainly not small, but for the sake of legitimacy, more innings, and thus information, is needed. Some people may think it is enough, and that’s fair. It is tempting to see it as enough in this particular case because Valdez’s numbers are backed up by numerous advanced metrics, such as FIP.

But I still want to see more. I want to see more because in 2013, Pirates starter Jeff Locke was an All-Star. In 2013, Locke produced a 2.15 ERA in 109 innings in the first half of the season, which fittingly earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team.

Then, in the second half of the season, he posted an ERA over 6.00 in 57 innings. Throughout his career, Locke never pitched better than as a back-end starter over the course of a full season.

Am I comparing Framber Valdez to Jeff Locke? Absolutely not. It was known at the time in 2013 that Locke was pitching out of his mind and that his return to earth was inevitable. Moreover, Valdez’s 94 innings have a stronger analytical foundation than Locke’s 109 innings did.

So why mention Locke’s fortuitous success? For me, it’s the merit.

Next, going back to Valdez’s prolific playoff run, it needs to be put into context, and what I mean by that is taking into account the competition he faced. That’s not to say the Twins, A’s and Rays were bad teams. They were far from it. But their lineups were... less far.

All three teams were mediocre offensively during the regular season, and two of them, the Twins and A’s, were without impactful hitters during the playoffs due to injury — Minnesota was without Josh Donaldson, and Oakland was without Matt Chapman.

As for the Rays, they looked hopelessly lost at the plate. They didn’t look helpless against just Valdez, but against essentially every pitcher they faced. It’s not a stretch to say that the 2020 Rays’ lineup is one of the worst to play in a World Series in recent memory, perhaps ever.

Lastly, the reason why I bring up Valdez’s lack of an actual third pitch is because a clear majority of above-average starting pitchers have at least three viable pitches they can rely on. Valdez is now considered an above-average starter, though perhaps purportedly so.

This isn’t to say that Valdez is incapable of replicating this year’s success in the future, but the reality is that his odds aren’t great with only two pitches.

It’s worth noting that in 2020, Valdez’s results improved as he progressed deeper into his starts, which is an encouraging sign, but what’s concerning is that when Valdez turned over a lineup for the third time, his whiff rate dropped markedly.

As it’s been established, Valdez allows an awful lot of loud contact. Granted, a lot of it is on the ground, but the more contact he allows, the higher the chances are of a batter lifting a well-struck ball into the air and out of the park. And this is regarding a starter who doesn’t miss many bats to begin with.

At the same time, however, Valdez’s strikeout rate was at its best when he pitched through a batting order the third time. While this data is not based on a sufficient sample size, the point is that there are some positive indicators for Valdez that show he could pitch deep into games with his predominantly two-pitch arsenal.

This all leads to a vital question: Is this Valdez’s peak value? Fresh off a terrific regular season and a magnificent playoff display, he also has several years of team control left. It’s not an unreasonable question to ponder.

I’m not implying that it’s all downhill from here for Valdez, but is it possible that he regresses? Is his newfound plus control that is vital to his success here to stay? Will he struggle mightily against right-handed hitters in 2021 as he did in 2019?

These are all rational, sensible questions, and they’re partially why this hypothetical trade is feasible from the Astros’ perspective.

Evaluating Jo Adell

A player with Adell’s pedigree shouldn’t need a lengthy introduction. For the past few years, he’s been viewed as a top prospect, and not just the Angels’ best, but one of baseball’s best overall.

As stated above, Adell is an outfielder, and he made his big-league debut in 2020. The latter is important but the former is a big reason why I’m going through all of this trouble to discuss a completely imaginary trade. The Astros need outfielders, and few possess upside as tantalizing as Adell’s.

In order to get, one has to give, hence Valdez’s involvement in this scenario. While Adell looked outmatched against major-league pitching this year, it was in all of 132 plate appearances. He at least managed to make some quality contact and didn’t chase pitches outside of the strike zone terribly often.

That said, his debut was disastrous, as he simply could not make contact.

But it’s this horrendous rookie year that could potentially help make him available in a trade such as this one. Adell’s power potential is enormous and, according to Statcast, his speed was in the top 2% in the league in 2020. In addition, Adell hit well in the minors in prior years and showed the ability to draw a fair amount of walks, all while being routinely young at every level.

Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs is lukewarm on Adell’s defensive prowess, but The Athletic’s Keith Law and the evaluators at Baseball Prospectus project above-average or better defense from Adell in center field, and they seem to represent the consensus on that subject.

All in all, Adell is a phenomenal athlete and talent, and though there is plenty of work to be done at the plate in the big leagues, he’ll only be 22 next year.

Would either team do this trade?

Probably not.

I know, I’ve just wasted nearly 2,000 words on something that is rather unlikely to ever happen.

But in all seriousness, I do think Astros GM James Click and newly-minted Angels GM Perry Minasian would give this idea some consideration, as it’s not without merit. The Angels have seemingly been in need of quality starting pitching since the dawn of time and the Astros’ current outfield consists of Kyle Tucker and a couple of propped-up broomsticks.

Nowadays, numerous trades are made based on how teams project players going forward. Yes, Valdez was amazing this past year and Adell’s rookie campaign was wholly unsuccessful, but how they will fare in 2021 and beyond is what actually matters now that the 2020 season is a thing of the past.

94 innings ago, Valdez was considered to be no more than a potential back-end starter, and could very well have ended up in the bullpen. Now, there’s a realistic chance that he’s developed into a legitimately above-average starter, and those don’t grow on trees.

Neither does a 21-year-old rookie who, less than a year ago, was widely thought to be one of the three best prospects in baseball.

Just for the sake of playing it out, if this trade was executed, the Astros could replace Valdez by signing a free agent starter. One logical target could be Garrett Richards, as Brian Cohn suggested, with top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley forever waiting in the wings as depth.

As for the Angels, they have top prospect Brandon Marsh, who should soon be ready to play in a big-league outfield. The Angels could sign one of the many half-decent corner outfielders on the free-agent market to use as a bridge to Marsh.

If there was one team who would agree to this trade, it would be the Astros. Click is assuredly a general manager who primarily values what a player can do and what they could do instead of what they’ve done (again, not saying Valdez will cease to be good). Plus, it’d be hard to pass up on acquiring a young and elite, albeit unproven talent in Adell.

And for those same reasons, the Angels would be disinclined to greenlight the deal. But there’s a key detail that I alluded to in my tweet that needs to be highlighted.

Angels owner Arte Moreno is one of the worst owners in pro sports, and it’s not due to a lack of spending.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant and FanGraphs