The following is a reprint of an article published in early September 2017 just after the Justin Verlander trade. Of course, everyone knows that without Verlander the Astros would not have made it through the playoff gauntlet in 2017. It’s interesting to look back at how the trade looked at the time. So, no Verlander, no 2017 championship trophy.
But the main point of this article is that the Randy Johnson trade cost the Astros possibly one or even two World Championships in the long run. So, no Johnson trade, and a good chance the Astros win championships in later years. Hear me out.
Late Thursday night, August 31, 2017, the Astros concluded the biggest, or maybe the second biggest trade in the team’s history. By acquiring one of the best pitchers of this generation, Justin Verlander, age 34, they hoped to add the last piece to a great team to make a final push for their first World Series Pennant. In July, 1998, the other great trade brought one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, the Big Unit, Randy Johnson, age 34, from the Seattle Mariners to the Astros, adding the last piece to a great team to make a final push for their first World Series Pennant.
Of course generational talents are not cheap. Johnson cost the Astros three top prospects, pitchers Frankie Garcia and John Halama, and shortstop Carlos Guillen. Garcia and Guillen were rated as top 100 prospects the year of the trade, all for a half season rental whose ERA up to that point was over 4.00.
For Verlander, the Astros surrendered pitcher Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron, and catcher Jake Rogers, all top 11 Astros prospects, although only Perez is rated in the top 100 among this year’s overall baseball prospects. Somewhat like Johnson in early 1998, Verlander has had a sub par season thus far in 2017, although much improved in August. But the Astros will control his services for the next two years at $20 million a year out of their pockets. Considering his age and salary, control could be considered as either an asset or a liability, depending on how he ages.
(editor’s note: so far, he has aged well and got a monster two year contract starting this year. This spring he required thigh surgery however)
The addition of Justin Verlander has injected a palpable excitement to the Astros dugout, to the fans and to the whole city of Houston in a time of crisis. If he is as successful as Johnson was after he came to Houston her fans will go into ecstasy, as Johnson’s run in late 1998 is legendary: 10-1, 1.28 ERA.
(editors note: yeah, he was that good, and the fans were even more ecstatic)
However, those who have expressed reluctance about the future costs of such trades point out that in the end the Johnson trade was a failure. The Astros were one and out in the playoffs, and Johnson was 0-2, despite pitching superbly. Despite a heavy cost in prospects, the gamble failed, as did the team. I will go one step further. The Johnson trade not only failed to produce a World Series, it may have cost them a World Series in later years, especially 2004 and/or even 2005.
In 2004 the Astros had the most balanced and deep team in its history: sluggers like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, slugging second baseman Kent Hance. Even Morgan Ensberg was good that year. A great rotation staffed with Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Wade Miller plus Brad “lights out” Lidge, as closer. But alas, you can never have enough pitching and the Astros lost Pettite and Miller to injury. They went into the playoffs with Oswalt, Clemens, the position player transitioned to pitcher, heroic Brandon Backe, and god-awful Pete Munro to face the Edmunds, Pujols and Rolen killers row in the NLCS. The Astros lost in seven, Clemens pitching admirably in the rubber match but obviously tired for pitching so often on short rest and losing to a late inning Rolens home run.
Let’s take a second look at the players the Astros surrendered for renting Johnson, Freddy Garcia, John Halama, and shortstop Carlos Guillen, and how they might have helped the Astros get over the top if they had remained in the Astros organization. In 2004 Freddy Garcia started 31 games, was 13-11, and had an ERA of 3.81. If he had been on the Astros that year he would have been the 3rd starter with Pettite out. In 2005 he was 14-8, 3.87 ERA in 33 starts and beat the Astros in the World Series game 4 with 7 shutout innings. His presence in the Astros play off rotation would have taken tremendous pressure off the rest of the staff in 2004, especially Clemens, who came so close to winning game seven despite being overworked throughout the playoffs.
John Halama started 14 games in 2004 and was 7-6, with an ERA of 4.70. In 2004 Garcia would have already pushed Munro out of the Astros’ playoff rotation (the starter in two of the Astros’ losses in the Cardinals series with an ERA of 9), but as a swingman Halama would have also been an improvement over Munro.
Then there is the shortstop Guillen. In 2004 he had a WRC+ of 141 with 20 home runs. The regular Astros shortstop that year was light weight Adam Everett, WRC+ of 81. A WRC+ 141 would have placed Guillen as the Astros’ second best hitter, ahead of Beltran, Bagwell and Biggio, and behind only Lance Berkman. Guillen had a 5.4 WAR that year, Everett 2.5.
For his career Guillen had a WAR of 25.4, Freddy Garcia 32.9, John Halama 7.1. The Astros traded 65.4 wins for a half season of Randy Johnson. I know these guys might not have played their whole careers with the Astros, but I assume if they were traded as proven big leaguers the Astros would have gotten equal value. With that kind of additional firepower, especially for what really was a depleted play off starting rotation, the Astros would have crushed the Cardinals in 2004, and would have had the depth and power to really challenge the Red Sox in the World Series. (who lost to the Cardianls)
In 2005, Garcia would have been a big improvement over that year’s edition of Brandon Backe, the team’s fourth starter, whom he beat in game 4 of the World Series. Maybe he wins a World Series game against the White Sox instead of vice versa. And Guillen would have lengthened the line up, replacing the anemic Adam Everett at short. Remember that although the Astros lost the Series in four games, one in extra innings, they lost by only 6 runs total. A little more pitching and one more legitimate bat could have changed the balance.
Crazy speculation I know, but it is not impossible that the Randy Johnson trade cost the Astros one or even two World Series if the players they traded had remained on the Astros. Does that mean that the Johnson trade was a mistake? No, such moves always involve both risk and possible rewards. Randy Johnson could have done for the Astros what he later did for the Diamondbacks; win a World Series. It just didn’t work out that way.
Does that mean that the Astros should not have traded for Verlander? Of course not. Maybe the Astros will score some runs for Verlander in the playoffs, something a very good 98 team could not do for Johnson. And who can say for sure how this batch of prospects will mature. In 2011 the Astros thought they got the haul of a decade by trading Hunter Pence for three prospects, two of them among baseball’s top 50. The only one of those three who has turned out to be a viable major leaguer was the one who wasn’t in the top 100 list, (Domingo Santana. not Jared Cosart or Jon Singleton) and he’s playing for another team. If the Astros win the World Series with Verlander the ace, then no one will dispute that the trade was a success. If not, it will be many years before we will be able to properly evaluate the Justin Verlander trade. Let us hope that, at least, it doesn’t cost us a World Series. The opposite seems more likely to me.
(Well, it goes without saying, Verlander got us the ring, and as it stands right now, the prospects the Astros surrendered don’t look like major contributors like the ones the Astros surrendered for Johnson. And who cares if they do? Let’s all give thanks to Kate Verlander for talking her reluctant future husband into accepting the deal with two seconds left on the clock.