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The Legacy of James Click Part II. The Trades

The Click trades of 2020-2021

MLB: Houston Astros at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part II of a multi-part series on the Legacy of James Click. For Part, I go HERE.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done and his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Lao Tzu

One of the common criticisms of James Click during his tenure with the Astros was that he didn’t seem to do very much. At every trade deadline, fans expected a blockbuster trade. Instead, the moves Click made seemed relatively modest.

There were three reasons for that.

  1. Click was a minimalist. (see Lao Tzu above) He inherited a good team, and he didn’t feel a need to make radical changes just for the sake of making changes.
  2. His trading options were limited by the depleted farm system he inherited when he became boss.
  3. He was future-oriented. It is remarkable that under Click, the Astros made the World Series two years in a row with budgets well below the salary cap and with almost all of their best prospects still in tow. And it’s ironic that, after getting such a quick hook, he left the franchise not only with a World Series trophy but a bright future as well.

And although none of Click’s trades are as consequential as, say, Jeff Luhnow’s trades for Carlos Gomez, Justin Verlander, or Gerrit Cole, still, they’ve made a difference.

Let’s take a look.

Brooks Raley, from the Reds for the PTBNL, 09/10/20

Before analyzing the impact of the Brooks Raley “trade,” we need to look at the state of the Astros in 2020. The Astros went seven games into the ALCS before losing to the Tampa Bay Rays, but they barely made the playoffs with a losing record in the Covid-shortened season.

The pitching staff was utterly decimated by injuries. Justin Verlander went down after the first game of his newly minted-two-year contract. (An important factor when considering the success of Click’s tenure) Although Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers, and Zack Greinke were available to eat innings, the other starting slots were filled by 23-year-old rookie, not-yet-ready-for-prime-time, Cristian Javier, Brandon Bielak, and a few games by injured-most-of-the-season, Jose Urquidy.

The bullpen was worse. After Ryan Pressly, there was almost no one who really even belonged in the Majors: premature rookies like Luis Garcia, Humberto Castellanos, Nivaldo Rodriguez, Brandon Bailey, Chase DeJong, Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, and Andre Scrubb, to name a few.

It’s a miracle they did as well as they did. But one of the best of this motley crew was Brooks Raley, just back from the Korean League. Among Astros relievers, he was sixth in innings pitched, and although his ERA was 3.94, his peripherals were much better, with an xFIP of 3.63 and a WHIP of .750. His fWAR in 16 IP was 0.8. Was that the difference between the Astros making the playoffs or not making them considering his replacements weren’t even replacement-level?

In the playoffs, Raley added 5.2 innings, allowing two runs on four hits, five walks, and nine strikeouts.

Raley was also an important contributor to the depleted 2021 bullpen. Unfortunately, he was allowed to walk after 2021, leaving the Astros without a left-handed bullpen arm in 2022. At Tampa, Raley had his best season, pitching 53.2 innings with a 2.68 ERA.

So does Click get credit for finding Raley or blame for letting him go? Well, it’s not like the 2022 bullpen was a problem area for the Astros.

Grade: A

Cionel Perez traded from the Astros to the Reds for Luke Berryhill, 1/23/21

Another lefthander that got away. In his short 26+ innings-pitched stint with the Astros from 2018-2020, Perez posted a 5.74 ERA. He did even worse in his season with the Reds, but last year with the Orioles, Perez was a hoss, throwing 57.2 innings with a 1.40 ERA.

Maybe giving up on Perez was not as bad as letting Josh Hader leave the organization, but instead of trading Jake Odorizzi for the mediocre Will Smith, perhaps Odorizzi could have been used to get something more valuable than Smith in 2022 if Perez had been there to lock down the left-handed relief pitching slot.

Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Luke Berryhill had a .789 OPS at AA in 2022.

Grade: C-, Understanding that Perez was traded in part due to 40-man roster considerations and his previous performance did not warrant much confidence.

Kendall Graveman and Rafael Montero from the Mariners for Joe Smith and Abraham Toro.

The Astros’ biggest weakness going into the 2021 playoffs was the bullpen. The Astros were in a buyers’ market when they gave up their future utility infielder for two relievers, one, Graveman, strictly a rental. Joe Smith (signed before Click arrived) had been horrible with the Astros in 2021. He was thrown in to dump the contract.

Graveman went from unhittable with the Mariners to merely good with Astros, but I don’t blame Click for that regression. Montero only pitched six innings with the Astros in 2021, but he was a closer-quality bullpen mainstay in 2022, amassing 68.1 innings with a 2.37 ERA. He was re-signed by the Astros after the season.

Abraham Toro was a below-replacement level player in 2022, but he’s still only 26 with four more years of team control by the Mariners.

Grade: B+ If Toro gets his career back on track, that grade could change.

Bryan De La Cruz and Austin Pruitt to the Marlins for Yimi Garcia, 07/27/21

Yimi Garcia was another bullpen piece rented by the Astros, desperate for bullpen help. Garcia has had a good career, with a 3.50 career ERA, but his 21.1 innings with the Astros were, unfortunately, the worst of his career since 2018, with a 5.48 ERA but a 3.36 FIP.

Meanwhile, the 26-year-old De La Cruz has had a 106 OPS+ and 1.6 bWAR in 574 plate appearances while playing outfield for the Marlins.

Austin Pruitt only pitched 7.1 innings in 2021, but in 2022 with the As, he threw 55.1 innings with a 4.23 ERA. But he probably would not have been a major contributor in the Astros bullpen.

Grade C-, Garcia met a pressing need during a playoff run. It is not Click’s fault that Garcia’s results underperformed his career averages in his small-sample stint with the Astros.

Myles Straw to the Cleveland Indians for Yanier Diaz and Phil Maton, 07/30/21

It was widely believed that this was a trade forced on Manager Dusty Baker by Click, but that might be folklore. If you look at which team got more value in the short run, the Indians won. In his year and a half with the Astros, Maton has a -0.6 bWAR, and Straw has a 4.5 bWAR.

But trading for value was not the point. Again, the Astros were buying bullpen help at the 2021 trade deadline. Furthermore, while Straw is an excellent defender, his bat has no pop, and the Astros believed they had higher-ceiling, younger backups that were being held back by Straw.

That has turned out to be true. Straw’s main replacement in CF, Chas McCormick, had the same fWAR in 2022, 2.0, as Straw, but in 189 fewer plate appearances. (Straw looked much better comparing bWAR) McCormick’s wRC+ was 114. Straw’s was 69. And if McCormick is a defensive liability in CF, it sure didn’t show when he made that amazing game-winning catch in the World Series.

Moreover, many still believe the future of CF for the Astros is Jake Meyer, though the injury he suffered in the 2021 playoffs limited his 2022 playing time and appeared to hinder his effectiveness when he did play.

While Straw played 152 games at CF for the Indians, the team's CF fWAR rating was 21st in MLB, while the Astros' cumulative CF fWAR rating was 14th league-wide.

The wild card and possibly the most important piece in this trade long term may well be catcher/1B Yanier Diaz. Baseball America rated him the 82nd top prospect for 2023, and he hit OPS .930 in AAA last year.

Grade B+ This grade assumes a good career for Yanier Diaz. This trade may someday be considered as a lite version of the Josh Fields, Yordan Alvarez trade. While improving the team for a playoff run, Click managed to build for the future.

Garrett Stubbs to the Philadelphia Phillies for Logan Cerny, 11/19/21

This one is a head-scratcher. Perhaps the original problem was the decision to sign Jason Castro in 2020, making Stubbs redundant in the near term. (done before Click’s tenure) But as the backup catcher for the Phillies behind baseball’s-best, J. T Realmuto, Stubbs accrued a 0.6 fWAR in 121 PAs. That’s 0.1 more than Astros catcher Martin Maldonado in 258 fewer PAs. Admittedly, over the long haul, Stubbs’ 2022 offensive production may not be sustainable, but there’s no doubt about Maldonado’s offensive liabilities. At least, Stubbs should have been retained as a backup, present and future.

The Astros got Logan Cerny for Stubbs, a 10th-round 2021 draft pick from Troy University. At age 22, in Single-A Fayetteville, Cerny hit OPS .832 playing outfield.

No doubt the Astros know something about Cerny that I don’t. But it seems that the Astros have never valued their former left-handed hitting catcher with some pop who can play other positions and run the bases as much as they should have.

Grade D Again, with Castro on the 40-man roster, there wasn’t any room for Stubbs, so Click probably had to dump one or the other. If it were Castro, the Astros would have had to eat about $5 million, and he hit pretty well in 2021 in limited action. Of course, as it turned out, Castro barely played at all in 2022, necessitating the costly trade for Christian Vasquez at the 2022 trade deadline. However, You can’t blame Click for Castro’s injury, and he did have 1st-rounder Corey Lee waiting in the stables.

Maybe Cerny has a future that I can’t see, otherwise....

Overall, none of these trades, the good and the bad, had a major or decisive impact on the Astros' season impact. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The next installment features the 2022 trades, followed by an analysis of Click’s free agent moves.