Featuring Colin Hecht & Trevor Utley
By Trevor Utley
For the first time in four years, the Astros did not lose 100 games. When you are in a painstakingly brutal rebuilding process like the one Houston is undertaking, that is progress. A nuclear meltdown from our #26 team, the Rangers, also kept the Astros out of the cellar for the first time in four seasons. They have been able to piecework a lineup and rotation through under the radar transactions and savvy drafting, which has been at the top of each round for five years. From this offseason, it looks as if GM Jeff Luhnow wants to push the dial one over from developing to contending. Such a move comes with higher expectations. The 2015 Astros will be better than the 2014 edition. I just don't think there will be as big of a leap forward as Luhnow and company hope.
The Astros made waves in 2014 when they gave up and coming first baseman Jon SIngleton a guaranteed $10 million over 5 years before he even stepped foot in Minute Maid Park. It was a deal that his fellow MLBers hated but gave the Astros their projected first baseman of the future at quite the nice price. His 2014 debut however, wasn't so nice. Singleton was able to crank 13 home runs and drive in 44, but he hit an abominable .168 and struck out a ridiculous 134 times in 362 plate appearances. If this trend continues over a full season, Houston may have actually overpaid for him. Chris Carter (37 home runs in 2014) is a strikeout machine himself at DH, but will take more at-bats from Singleton at first if he flails again. Second base is manned by the diminutive Jose Altuve. I had to take a shot at his size in the opening sentence because everything else I have to say about Altuve is incredibly positive. He won the American League batting title at .341 as well as leading the league in both stolen bases (56) and hits (225). He also set career highs in both home runs and runs batted in. Altuve doesn't fit the mold of franchise player but he is just that for Houston. At just 25 in May, he is a player that the Astros are building their infield around. They've locked him up until 2019 (with team options) and will probably extend him beyond that point in the near future. Next to him on the infield is Jed Lowrie. Lowrie is back for his second tour in the Lone Star State, but the 'Stros were in the NL last time he was in town. Don't read too much into Lowrie's three year deal with the club. He is a very versatile player and can provide depth at every infield spot. Shortstop will soon belong to Carlos Correa. Similarly to the Twins' Byron Buxton, freak injuries seem to be the only thing standing between Correa and the Major Leagues. He dominated each level he was in during his teens and is ready to take on Double and Triple-A this year. Whenever Correa makes his grand entrance, expect Lowrie to shift over to third. That position is currently held down by Luis Valbuena. Valbuena had been no more than a utility man throughout his career. Injuries and ineptitude gave him a chance at playing everyday last year with the Cubs. He responded with career highs in doubles, home runs, and RBIs. The Astros have plenty of cover around the infield as most of their backups (Jonathan Villar, Matt Dominguez, & Marwin Gonzalez) received valuable experience as starters last year. Catcher Jason Castro rounds out the infield on a sour note. The team's All-Star representative in 2013 regressed mightily last season. He finished 8th in the American League in strikeouts and hit just .222. He also became a liability behind the plate allowing 81 base stealers, ten more than his closest competitor in the AL. I don't expect new manager, former catcher A.J. Hinch, to have the same patience with Castro with new acquisitions Hank Conger and Evan Gattis in town.
Speaking of Gattis, the former Brave is part of a revamped Houston outfield. The bearded basher has hit 20 or more home runs in both of his seasons in the Majors and has to be salivating at the short porch in Minute Maid. The added plus of getting time at designated hitter means that he'll probably play more than his current career best of 108 games from 2014. That also means he could approach the 30 HR and 90 RBI plateaus. Now patrolling the weird hilled center field for Houston is Jake Marisnick. The soon to be 24 year old came over at last year's trade deadline from Miami in a deal that saw promising prospects go in both directions. Marisnick got to play everyday following his trade and did halfway decent. He showed some speed and an above average glove in center field. Sadly, he also showed another trait synonymous with being an Astros youngster these days. He strikes out a lot. The one hold over, and yes I am aware that I just said Marisnick was on the team last year, is right fielder George Springer. The 11th overall pick in 2011 hit 20 home runs and drove in 51 in just under a half a season in the bigs. His power numbers project out very well but with that would be some strikeout figures that could make Mark Reynolds blush. He is also a butcher in the outfield, leading the entire American League in errors by a right fielder in just 71 games played at the position. New signing Colby Rasmus provides a quality fourth outfielder or a replacement in center if Houston decides to start Marisnick's season at Triple-A.
The pitching staff was a pleasant surprise last year. Now that the American League has a book on some of the Houston young guns however, there may be some growing pains in 2014. Dallas Keuchel struggled mightily during his first two Major League seasons posting 5.00+ ERAs. He seemingly put all those woes behind him last year. He was one of two pitchers to end the season over .500 (12-9) and the only to pitch 200 innings. He led the American League with five complete games and won his first Gold Glove. The other pitcher to break past even was Collin McHugh (11-9). Like Keuchel, his pre-2014 numbers are gruesome. He didn't record a win in two years with the Mets and Rockies and had an ERA over 9.00. We'll see this year if 2014 was an abnormality or a turning point in these two pitchers' careers. The three hole in the rotation is filled by Scott Feldman. Feldman was signed to a 3 year deal last offseason to be a stabilizing force for a young team and be their pseudo-ace. Feldman has never been that type of pitcher and it showed. He should improve in 2015 by not having to face Houston opponents' best pitcher every five days. Brett Oberholtzer is the last pitcher to have at least a partially guaranteed rotation spot. The lefty's numbers aren't too impressive outside of the fact that he is an innings eater, a valuable asset for any organization that low in the rotation. The fifth position is currently being vied for by the likes of Roberto "Don't Call Me Fausto Carmona" Hernandez and the owner of one of my favorite baseball card photos, Samuel Deduno. The Astros are hoping by season's end that they'll both concede to 2013 number one overall pick Mark Appel. Appel has had a rough go of it in the minors, worst of all at High-A last year when he pitched to a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts. Luhnow trusts his process though and expects the turnaround Appel had at Double-A to be more indicative of the type of player they possess.
The bullpen last year was probably the team's most glaring weakness. They started off the season with the erratic Josh Fields as closer. That lasted less than a month until nondescript Chad Qualls took the reigns. As chances came few and far between, Houston started experimenting with other arms in save situations. Tony Sipp, Anthony Bass, and Jose Veras all got looks at the role at one time or another. This offseason management brought in two arms, Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, to really solidify the roles of all their bullpen arms. As of now, either Gregerson or Qualls will be the closer. The other will slot into the eighth inning. This grants A.J. Hinch with a lot more options in the middle innings. Sipp can go back to being a situational left hander, his bread and butter. He now has Neshek, who can be used more multiple innings or to just get one dangerous right handed hitter out. Joe Thatcher and Will Harris are two experienced arms for the middle innings as well. Fields is the odd man out as of now, but being a former closer only means it wouldn't be out of the question for a team to come asking about him in a trade.
The 2015 Astros will improve from last year. It won't be the 19 game jump that they took last year but it won't be a regression. Like the Rays did in the early to mid 2000's, the Astros look to be drafting smart and taking their time in getting those high picks to the Show. We'll see if they end up producing Rays-esque results at the end of this decade. Until then, take one step closer to the .500 mark and be happy.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #30 (UP 7)
PREDICTED RECORD: 75-87
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Jose Altuve (second baseman), Collin McHugh (starting pitcher)
Trevor Utley has been to Houston and probably played on the longest, shittiest shuffleboard table known to man.
Image Credit: Astros logo (sportslogos.net)
Featuring Trevor Utley, Lou Kessler, and Al deCiutiis
By Trevor Utley
The MLB Trade Deadline came and went at 4 PM yesterday and while waiver based deals can still be worked out in August, the last major deals for first place teams and the clubs chasing them have come and gone. Only time will tell if these deals bear fruit for the teams that made them, but in the interim let us review the deals of today and yesterday and hash out the winners and losers of baseball's most hectic afternoon.
Firstly, let us set aside the deals that don't really need to be graded out. These are the transactions that don't have much bearing on pennant races or involve lower caliber pieces. These trades include:
This could be a reclamation project for a player Cubs' GM Theo Epstein knows very well. Look what the North Siders did with Jake Arrieta so far this season.
Denorfia becomes part of a Mariners' outfield desperate for a spark. San Diego doesn't get much back in the two prospects, even though Almonte was the Opening Day centerfielder for the M's, but the Padres can be happy to part ways with Denorfia's over $2 million salary for what amounted to a platoon guy against lefties only.
The Braves got better with Bonifacio who, while quite fragile, can play all over the field outside of being part of the battery and Russell who absolutely dominates left handed hitters. Caratini was a second round pick a year ago who is still transitioning from the infield to catching but has a bat that could pay dividends.
The A's outfield is beat up right now and will make use of a player like Fuld whom they actually waived earlier this season. He will get some decent run right now with Cespedes gone and Coco Crisp ailing but when the main cogs come back he'll be a fourth or fifth outfielder. Milone regressed from last year but should still be a part of the Twins' rotation going forward.
Miller is a free agent this offseason and Boston didn't want to let him walk for free. The left hander was traded in the division but netted the defending World Series champions a prized piece of the Orioles' farm system. 21 year old southpaw Rodriguez hasn't been exactly setting the world on fire at Double-A Bowie but was ranked as Baltimore's #3 prospect in 2013.
If you listened to our podcast we addressed Milwaukee's glaring hole, their bullpen, and even had Haniger involved in a deal for an arm. Milwaukee brass seemed to have a different plan in acquiring Gerardo Parra and inserting him into a crowded outfield. Haniger and Banda aren't world beaters. This was a weird trade for both sides as neither team really got better.
There is a big batch of young talent being swapped in this one. The Marlins got the major league ready talent from Houston while Houston will have to wait a while on their haul. Cosart should slot in behind Jose Fernandez in Miami's rotation for the future while Hernandez is playing beyond expectations currently. A whole lot of maybes going to the Lone Star State.
With those minor deals out of the way let us delve into the ones that will have varying impacts on who makes the postseason in both leagues. From two aces being dealt to some head scratchers from the Bronx Bombers, this was easily one of the more active and interesting trade deadlines in recent memory.
ATHLETICS GET JON LESTER, JONNY GOMES, & CASH
RED SOX GET YOENIS CESPEDES & A COMPETITIVE BALANCE DRAFT PICK
The A's, which seemed to be many a reporter's mystery team in the Jon Lester sweepstakes, swooped in seemingly at the last minute for the highly coveted lefty. The move improves Oakland's greatest strength and widens the gap between them and the Angels in the AL West. Jonny Gomes takes his talents to the Bay Area as well and should get a good amount of bats against left handers, he is currently second in the league in average against southpaws, in a banged up A's outfield.
The Red Sox, the busiest team on Deadline Day, gets back a player in Cespedes that has a swing tailored for Fenway Park and an arm that could throw a laser to the plate even from the fabled triangle in Boston's centerfield. Boston may be in a similar situation to the Lester one next year with Cespedes though. A free agent at the end of 2015, the Cuban could ask away if the Red Sox don't improve.
The argument for this trade on Boston's end is that they get a big bat in the two time former HR Derby Champion and a chance to chase Lester this offseason since it is almost a foregone conclusion that the small market A's will not pay the sticker price on Lester. If they end up whiffing on him and then Cespedes walks away next fall, this deal will be frowned upon by Red Sox Nation. If they rebound (not even necessarily resigning Lester in the process) and convince Cespedes to stay, the Red Sox made the best out of a bad situation. For Oakland, they show they are all in this year and it is World Series or bust. Lester paired with recent acquisitions Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel as well as Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, and Sonny Gray make a team nobody wants to face come October. They may just not all be in Oakland green and yellow in 2015. But trust me that Oakland will just find new shiny toys to play with.
OAKLAND GRADE: A+
BOSTON GRADE: B
TIGERS GET DAVID PRICE
RAYS GET DREW SMYLY, WILLY ADAMES, & NICK FRANKLIN
MARINERS GET AUSTIN JACKSON
After all the trades that Tampa were rumored to have turned down for their ace, it seems they panicked in trading him to the Tigers. Detroit gets a left hander to put between Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in their rotation and frankly didn't give up that much to do so. They kept young infielder Nick Castellanos in town and the only pitcher they lost in the deal was Drew Smyly who has bounced between the rotation and the bullpen with no real consistency. It keeps Detroit on pace with Oakland for the top seed in the American League Playoffs and keeps their rotation strong if Scherzer departs in free agency.
Seattle acted as a third wheel in this deal and came out smelling like roses. Jackson is still only 27 and improves a Seattle outfield devoid of offensive and defensive talent. They gave up Nick Franklin who though he was seen by some as one of the Mariners of tomorrow, only hit .128 for the M's thus far in 2014.
Tampa Bay was not in the situation with Price that Boston was in with Lester. They had another year to go with their all-world left hander and instead of holding onto him for a run at the second AL Wild Card dealt him and got the proverbial pu-pu platter return. Smyly will be in the rotation for the remainder of 2014 but his role will probably end up being the same back and forth one it was in Motown. Adames is one of the more highly touted prospects in Detroit's weak hitting minor league system but he is only 18 and is light years away. It will be interesting to see if the struggling Franklin gets a chance to play everyday at the Trop.
The Rays have shown they didn't even want to pay the potential arbitration figure for Price in 2015. A team that has flying high lately has just been shot out of the sky. The team with the most to give got the least in return. I am still trying to wrap my head around this deal on Tampa's end. Detroit solidifies themselves as an American League power and Seattle gets a competent outfielder for seemingly nothing. If I write any more about this trade my brain is going to explode.
DETROIT GRADE: A-
SEATTLE GRADE: A+
TAMPA BAY GRADE: F
CARDINALS GET JOHN LACKEY & COREY LITTRELL
RED SOX GET ALLEN CRAIG & JOE KELLY
Boston is making no bones about blowing up their team. It seemed everbody outside of Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz were on the block. After Jon Lester, John Lackey was the second domino to fall. The right hander had rebuilt his image in Boston after injuries and the "Chicken and Beer" nonsense faded, making him one of their most coveted assets. His $500,000 salary for next year doesn't hurt either.
St. Louis has been chasing Milwaukee for the Central Division crown for the majority of 2014 and the acquisition of Lackey (along with Justin Masterson that we'll get to next) restocks the pitching shelves that were getting pretty bare for the Cards. Lackey will probably sit in the third starter role behind Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, a daunting opponent for the third game of any potential postseason series. Corey Littrell is basically a throw in for this deal and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last time I ever write his name again.
Boston doesn't necessarily get taken to the cleaners on this deal though. Allen Craig is only a couple seasons removed from being one of the most feared late game hitters in all of baseball. He was more than clutch in St. Louis' World Series triumph in 2011. If he can return from his injuries, which Boston will surely allow him too, they may have gotten themselves another late inning hero to pair with Big Papi. In Joe Kelly they get a pitcher who can start or relieve, and though he won't wow you with his numbers eats innings and gets outs.
While Tampa seemed to force their own hand with the Price trade, Boston so far has made teams work hard for their arms instead of the inverse. This trade helps both teams now and in 2015 and both GMs should give themselves a good old Barry Horowitz pat on the back for making it.
ST. LOUIS GRADE: B
BOSTON GRADE: A-
CARDINALS GET JUSTIN MASTERSON
INDIANS GET JAMES RAMSEY
This trade was consummated yesterday but it is still significant in St. Louis' charge to the Central Division title. They know all to well that you can never have too much starting pitching heading into the postseason, especially in the National League. In acquiring Masterson, they've added depth to a battle tested rotation whilst not giving up a high level prospect in doing so.
The Cardinals will go as far as their starting pitching will take them. Each of their runs to the World Series in the past decade have been on the backbone of their staff. The former Cleveland right hander may not be in the rotation come the postseason but has experience coming out of the pen from early years in Boston which is valuable to St. Louis.
James Ramsey, a 24 year old outfielder who has spent his season at AA for Springfield, is a prospect who may be in Cleveland by the end of this season or Opening Day 2015. He has hit .300 for St. Louis' second tier team and has shown decent pop the past two seasons. It isn't a haul for the Tribe but it isn't a complete swing and miss.
After a run to the Wild Card game last year, Cleveland went backwards. They did right by their Opening Day starter and got a player in Ramsey that will be able to contribute sooner rather than a normal prospect in one of these types of trades would. St. Louis has a completely right handed rotation but one that is very flexible and experienced in postseason play.
ST. LOUIS GRADE: A-
CLEVELAND GRADE: B
NATIONALS GET ASDRUBAL CABRERA
INDIANS GET ZACH WALTERS
I thought the Nationals would address the hole in their lineup left by Ryan Zimmerman's absence but thought it would be a third baseman instead of another shortstop. They did just that though as they shipped out promising middle infielder Zach Walters for Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera. He will get a trial by fire at second base for the first place Nationals with Ian Desmond entrenched at short.
Washington is loaded with pitching so if they were going to make a move it was definitely going to be for a bat. Adrian Beltre and Martin Prado (who eventually landed in New York) were discussed but they eventually settled for the former All-Star Cabrera. Cabrera will be asked to man second base for Washington, a position he hasn't played since 2009. The former Indian will most likely leave in free agency but he'll provide some steadiness in the infield until Zimmerman returns from his latest ailment.
The Indians are just waiting for Francisco Lindor to be ready. The uber talented shortstop down on the farm for Cleveland isn't there yet and Walters could plug the gap between Cabrera's exit and Lindor's arrival. He played in 32 games for Washington this year but only garnered 39 at-bats in those appearances. He will probably never hit for average but has 20+ home run potential at either shortstop or second base which is enticing.
When two teams help each other on a deal you can't knock it. Cabrera gets to chase the postseason for a second straight year while Walters is a stopgap to Lindor or a much cheaper option if Jason Kipnis slips further after signing his new contract.
WASHINGTON GRADE: B+
CLEVELAND GRADE: B-
NEW YORK GETS STEPHEN DREW & MARTIN PRADO
ARIZONA GETS PETER O'BRIEN
BOSTON GETS KELLY JOHNSON
This one was actually two separate trades but I combined them for the sake of time. Drew and Johnson swapped colors in the first non-waiver deal between the Red Sox and Yankees since Mike Stanley was dealt for Tony Armas Jr. Martin Prado comes over from Arizona for Peter O'Brien, a power hitting catcher who had spent his entire 2014 at AA.
From just a personnel standpoint, neither of these two trades make much sense for the Yankees. Drew is going to play out of position at second base for the Bombers after Brian Roberts was designated for assignment. Prado has more positional flexibility but seems to be of no more use to the Yankees than a $11 million a year utility guy. Don't get me wrong, they gave up nothing of immediate value to acquire these two but they were two deals that just seem to have been made for making a deal's sake.
In Boston, Xander Bogaerts now shuffles back to shortstop a move that may exacerbate his fielding woes. The young Aruban started off 2014 at short but then moved to third with Will Middlebrooks' injury and the resigning of Drew. Bogaerts going back to shortstop leaves third base for Brock Holt, which is his natural position. Johnson can play both in the infield and outfield and will surely get plenty of AB's spelling various Sox hitters down the stretch. Arizona gets out from under a big contract in Prado for a guy in O'Brien who could potentially replace Miguel Montero if Arizona chooses to rid themselves of his big deal.
Overall, the Yankees got two expensive players with no real place to put them. Though like I said before they didn't lose out on a top prospect or high level Major Leaguer to do so, but if they were going to address anything at the deadline it should have been pitching.
NEW YORK GRADE: C-
ARIZONA GRADE: C
BOSTON GRADE: B-
Trevor Utley is sad the Dodgers whiffed in their pursuit of both available aces but LA kinda has some good arms already so he thinks he'll live.
Image Credits: Let's Make A Deal (2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com); Lester, Gomes, Cespedes, Price, Lackey, Craig, Kelly, Masterson, Cabrera (espn.com); Adames, Ramsey, Walters, O'Brien (milb.com); Smyly, Franklin, Jackson, Drew, Prado, Johnson (mlb.com)
By Trevor Utley
Sorry Astros fans but it is once again going to be a brutal campaign for your favorite franchise. Top prospects Carlos Correa and Mark Appel are both at least a year away and haven't made wholesale changes to a team that lost 111 games. The replacement of departing starters Erik Bedard and Phil Humber with Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams would be considered at least a wash. Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, and Chad Qualls were added to a patchwork bullpen but none of the three are long term solutions to their issues closing games. The offense was "bolstered" by trading for Colorado's Dexter Fowler. Time will tell if his recent statistical output was product of playing at Coors Field, but even if he plateaus it won't make much of a difference on a team that was outscored by a league worst 1.5 runs a game in 2013. If they were still in the NL Central they may stand more of a chance, not much but more, but in the AL West they are cannon fodder and will surely break triple digits in the loss column again. Take solace in another #1 pick Houston faithful.
PREDICTED RECORD: 61-101
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REP: Jose Altuve, second baseman
Image Credit: Astros logo (sportslogos.net)