Astros' Future Takes Shape Through Deadline Deals




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The 2008 Astros won 86 games despite being outscored by 31 runs over the course of the season. The 2009 edition played well in the first half but collapsed in the second and finished with 74 wins.

Houston general manager Ed Wade geared up for 2010 by importing free agents Brett Myers, Brandon Lyon and Pedro Feliz, but the reinforcements proved to be too little, too late. [Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Myers, Lyon and Feliz signed with Houston for the 2009 season. ME.]

The 2010 Astros began the year with eight straight losses and never challenged for anything more ambitious than third place in the National League Central.

Wade finally faced the music during the summer months of 2010 and began dismantling the veteran club. At the July deadline, he traded a pair of franchise icons, Roy Oswalt to the Phillies and Lance Berkman to the Yankees, for five prospects. In August, he dealt Feliz to the Cardinals for righthander David Carpenter. In the offseason, Wade shipped closer Matt Lindstrom to the Rockies in a salary-paring move.

Five of the six players acquired by Wade during the 2010 season have played for the big league club this year. It's a group that includes lefty starter J.A. Happ (though he's gone 4-13, 6.01 through 21 starts), first baseman Brett Wallace (though he batted .268/.345/.375 with four homers in 317 at-bats to earn a ticket to Triple-A) and closer Mark Melancon (who's actually been effective with 10 saves in 13 chances and solid peripherals).

Wade continued purging veterans at this year's trade deadline, dealing away two-thirds of the Astros' starting outfield. He sent right fielder Hunter Pence to the Phillies for three prospects (plus a player to be named) and center fielder Michael Bourn to the Braves for three prospects plus scuffling 24-year-old center fielder Jordan Schafer (.623 OPS in 52 games for Atlanta). Ten days earlier, he traded second baseman Jeff Keppinger to the Giants for Henry Sosa and Jason Stoffel, a pair of Double-A righthanders who profile as relievers.

Wade could have one more deal up his sleeve in August if lefty Wandy Rodriguez—and the minimum of $25.5 million he's owed through 2013—clears waivers and attracts attention from a well-heeled club such as the Yankees.

Two things are clear from the Astros' flurry of activity in the past two years. First, Houston is well positioned to land the first pick in the 2012 draft. They held an eight-game advantage on the Cubs even before jettisoning Bourn and Pence. And second, Wade likes dealing with the Phillies, the team for which he served as GM from 1998 through 2005. He traded Oswalt and Pence to Philadelphia and also signed ex-Phillies like Myers, Feliz and Jason Michaels as free agents.

Prospects offer few certainties, but Wade deserves credit for turning the club's veterans into young players who might power the next competitive Astros team, even if those prospects don't develop in time to stave off his firing.

Considering only the eight unproven prospects received by the Astros in the trades of Berkman, Bourn, Oswalt and Pence:  

• Thee could one day pitch in Houston's rotation: high Class A righthander Jarred Cosart, 21; Double-A lefty Brett Oberholtzer, 22; and Double-A righthander Paul Clemens, 23.

Cosart (from the Pence deal) featured the best arm strength in a stacked Phillies system. He pitches at 92-96 mph with a hammer curve and fast-improving changeup, but his command holds him back now because he tends to work behind batters.

The Bourn deal yielded Oberholtzer and Clemens, both members of the Mississippi rotation at the time of the trade. Oberholtzer lacks a knockout pitch, but strong command and a deceptive delivery make his low-90s fastball, slider and change play up. Clemens can dial his fastball up to 96 mph and he throws a plus hard curveball, but his future role hinges on further development of his changeup. Still, his downside potential might be the rosiest of the three arms because he has better present command than Cosart and better raw stuff than Oberholtzer.

• One could develop into a middle-of-the-order masher: high Class A first baseman Jonathan Singleton, 19.

The Pence deal also included Singleton, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound lefthanded hitter with strength, a pure swing and an idea of the strike zone. As a teenager (and fifth youngest position player) in the tough hitting environment of the Florida State League he hit .282, cranked nine home runs and drew walks in nearly 15 percent of plate appearances to rank fifth in the league. He's limited to first base but has a feel to hit and plus raw power.

• Two could form the left side of the infield: Double-A shortstop Jonathan Villar, 20; and Double-A third baseman Jimmy Paredes, 22.

Holdovers from the Oswalt and Berkman trades of 2010, Villar and Paredes are switch-hitters with quick bats and foot speed to spare. Unfortunately, they're both wildly aggressive hitters with on-base percentages hovering near .300 with Double-A Corpus Christi.

The rangy Villar can make it to the majors on the strength of his glove alone, as scouts have thrown 70 grades (on the 20-80 scale) on his defense and arm. But to this point he's a .257 career hitter in the low minors. Paredes stole 29 bases (in 41 attempts) in Double-A this season and made his big league debut on Aug. 1. He has plus speed and baserunning instincts and would seem to profile at second base, but his feet don't work at the position, thus the shift to third. A super utility role might be his best path to regular play.

• Two could pitch in the middle innings: Triple-A righthander Juan Abreu, 26; and Double-A righthander Josh Zeid, 24.

The Braves plucked Abreu off the minor league free agent scrap heap and, while he doesn't do it easy, he pitches at 96 mph and touches 98. He led International League relievers in strikeout rate (12.8 per nine innings) and ranked fourth in opponent average (.193) at the time of his inclusion in the Bourn trade. Abreu remains wild in and out of the strike zone and his secondary pitches lack consistency.

Zeid ran up a 6.80 ERA in 11 starts this season before being shifted back to the Reading bullpen, where he thrived with a 24-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just 10 hits allowed over 16 innings. He pitches in the low 90s and tops out near 94 mph, mixing in a power slider that makes him tough on righties.

Other Deadline Dealers

The Astros weren't the only organization to import potential impact prospects at the trade deadline. In all, five players who ranked among our Midseason Top 50 Prospects switched teams in late July. Houston acquired Jonathan Singleton (No. 41) and Jarred Cosart (No. 43), but the Mets, Padres and Rockies also landed promising young players. So much for clubs overvaluing and overprotecting their own prospects . . .

• The Rockies sensed the time was right to trade Ubaldo Jimenez, a durable, 27-year-old strikeout pitcher who is under contract for as many as two more seasons. Not only was he the most attractive starting pitcher available on the trade market—he was just about the only one. (Erik Bedard, Doug Fister, Edwin Jackson and Jason Marquis also changed teams.) This meant that Colorado could essentially name its price. They zeroed in on the Indians' offer containing righthander Alex White (15th pick in 2009 draft) and lefty Drew Pomeranz (fifth in 2010).

The 22-year-old White zoomed through Triple-A this season (5.6 SO/BB, 1.01 WHIP) to make his big league debut in Cleveland at the end of April. Shortly thereafter he went on the disabled list with a finger injury on his pitching hand. White may or may not be a starter long term—he tops out near 95 mph with sink, but his secondary stuff remains inconsistent—but even his downside as a late-inning reliever—and possible closer—remains high. Pomeranz is a different animal entirely. The 22-year-old is a pure power lefty who pitches in the low-to-mid 90s with a plus curveball. Just nine minor league pitchers have a higher strikeout rate than his 11 per nine innings. If the changeup develops as expected, Pomeranz, the No. 14 prospect on our midseason list, is a No. 2 or 3 starter in the making.

All signs point to a formidable Colorado rotation in 2012, when Pomeranz and White figure to join burgeoning righthanders Jhoulys Chacin (132 ERA+ in 22 starts this season) and rookie Juan Nicasio (114 ERA+ in first 12 starts of his career). While the Rockies seemingly come up with another stud Latin pitching prospect every year, they haven't had the same track record drafting and developing their own domestic arms. From 2006-09 they invested first-round picks in Greg Reynolds, Casey Weathers, Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek.

• The Rangers have a rotation to rival any other in the American League (115 ERA+, just a hair behind Oakland for third), but they assessed their bullpen as a bit lacking, particularly from the right side. Texas addressed that deficiency by swinging deadline trades for strike-throwing set-up men Koji Uehara (from the Orioles) and Mike Adams (from the Padres). The Rangers' prospect depth enabled them to make deals that perhaps other organizations would not be able to do. Uehara cost them Tommy Hunter (who started a World Series game for Texas last year) and third baseman Chris Davis (who has extreme power but no role with the Rangers, and he'll be out of options next year).

Because he is under club control for 2012, Adams did not come cheap. The Padres held out to the last minute on July 31 before deciding which bullpen ace to deal, Adams or closer Heath Bell. Ultimately they decided to deal Adams, shrewdly acquired Double-A lefty Robbie Erlin and his Frisco teammate Joe Wieland, a righthander, from the Rangers. As command-oriented, flyball pitching prospects, Erlin and Wieland could not be a better fit for San Diego's Petco Park. The same is probably not true of Rangers Ballpark.

Erlin, who ranked No. 34 on our midseason prospect list, tops out in the low 90s and stands just (a listed) 6-foot and 175 pounds, but he has supreme pitchability. The 20-year-old throws to both corners and mixes in a plus curve and change. Erlin will surrender home runs (16 in 19 starts this year), but with his minor league-leading 0.91 WHIP, those are typically solo shots. The actual breakdown: 12 solo shots, four two-run homers. Wieland, 21, is almost a taller version of Erlin, but because he's righthanded, that dings his profile to the point where he's probably a back-end starter or a reliever. Wieland has located his pitches and changed speeds on minor league hitters to such an extent that his 1.80 ERA ranked third in the minors at the time of the Adams trade.

• Carlos Beltran offered the best pure bat on this year's trade market. He hit for power in a large ballpark in New York, drew his share of walks and played a steady right field. In other words, he fit perfectly within the framework of the Giants' offense. Consequently, the Mets and Giants worked out a trade that sent Beltran to San Francisco for 21-year-old righthander Zack Wheeler, who ranked No. 35 on our midseason prospects list. (The Giants drafted him sixth overall in 2009.) Though far from a sure thing, Wheeler has the velocity (up to 96 mph) and fluidity scouts like to see from a potential frontline starter. He does not have consistent feel for his secondary stuff at this stage, especially his changeup, which did little to upset high Class A opponents. Cal League lefties lit up Wheeler for a .292/.404/.487 line through 135 plate appearances.

Curiously, the Mets appear to have received more in trading the 34-year-old Beltran than the Royals did when they traded the 26-year-old version of Beltran in 2004. The acquisition strategies highlight a difference in philosophies between the two front offices, and one that J.J. Cooper and I made mention of in our recent podcast, entitled Trade Deadline Review. Back in 2004, Kansas City zeroed in on three areas of need at the big league level—catcher, third base, starting pitcher—and made acquiring one of each the primary objective in trading Beltran. To that end, the Royals achieved their goal, receiving John Buck (non-tendered in 2009), Mark Teahen (traded for Chris Getz and Josh Fields in 2009) and Mike Wood (lost on waivers following the 2006 season).

• Twenty-three-year-old rookie Dustin Ackley has hit .311/.373/.556 in 37 games for the Mariners, making him far and away the club's best hitter in another dismal offensive season in Seattle. Pitching isn't such a problem for the Mariners because Safeco Field covers for a lot of mistakes. So even while Seattle had no obvious players to trade, it managed to drum up interest in three pitchers—righthander Doug Fister (he of the career 4.40 ERA away from Safeco), lefty Erik Bedard (fresh off a month on the disabled list) and reliever David Pauley (a 28-year-old journeyman who did little to distinguish himself in three previous organizations). That trio of pitchers brought back solid value in trade for an organization that can leave no stone unturned in its search for offense.

Third baseman Francisco Martinez (from the Tigers for Fister/Pauley) might be the best of the bunch. He's a 20-year-old at Double-A who grades out average across the board. He'll probably never be a middle-of-the-order force, but Martinez runs well, and if he develops a more discerning batting eye he may be the rare top-of-the-order third baseman. Don't cringe, Mariners fans, but Chone Figgins (four times) is the only third baseman other than David Wright or Aaron Boone (once each) to steal 30 bases in a season since Howard Johnson did so from 1989-91.

If the Mariners plugged in the outfielders they acquired in July—Casper Wells from the Tigers, Trayvon Robinson from the Dodgers and Chih-Hsien Chiang from the Red Sox—as their starters in 2012, it's hard to see how that trio could fare worse than this year's group. Seattle left fielders (mostly Carlos Peguero and Milton Bradley) have hit .211 with 12 homers; center fielders (mostly Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders) have hit .197 with five homers; and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (.266/.310/.315) is mired in by far his worst season in the U.S. Not one of Wells, Robinson or Chiang offers star potential, but fans can expect the trio to wage a fierce battle for two roster spots next year: one starting job and the chief outfield backup role is at stake. Wells has one minor league option remaining and Robinson has two.

The one arm brought back by Seattle in their deadline dealing, Charlie Furbush, has the fastball/breaking ball repertoire (as well as the funky motion) to thrive as a situational reliever, in a worst-case scenario.

• The Nationals deserve mention for their prospect acquisitions. They didn't deal much—just Jason Marquis and Jerry Hairston Jr.—but they identified prospects who never go out of style: versatile players who can bet lefthanded. Acquired from the Brewers for Hairston, 23-year-old outfielder Erik Komatsu batted .294/.393/.416 in 93 games for Double-A Huntsville. He controls the strike zone, runs well enough to play an average center field and shows solid contact skills. Komatsu never will be a huge power threat, but he's a future big leaguer of some stripe. Washington traded Marquis to the Diamondbacks for low Class A shortstop/third baseman Zach Walters, a 21-year-old switch-hitter who could one day hit for average with occasional power in the big leagues. He belted all nine of his home runs, and batted .313/.392/.549, for South Bend while batting lefthanded, so if that trend holds he's going to make a fine utility man or fringe starter.

The Nationals also took a wise gamble on Jonny Gomes when the Reds wanted to clear left field for prospect Yonder Alonso. If a number of conditions are met, then Washington will yield a supplemental first-round pick for having Gomes on its roster for two months. First, Gomes must qualify for Type B free agent status, then the Nationals must offer arbitration, then he must sign a big league deal with another club.