Image credit: Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, Jose Altuve, and Astros owner Jim Crane look on during a press conference announcing Altuve's contract extension on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
With the Mets needing corner infield depth, the Astros sent third baseman J.D. Davis to New York on Sunday and brought back in return Luis Santana, a promising teenaged middle infield prospect who is years away from the majors.
It’s not a major trade, and if Santana (or Ross Adolph or Scott Manea) doesn’t develop, it’s very possible it’s one the Mets could win. They landed the only player in the trade who is a surefire major league player. At the worst, Davis should be a backup for the Mets this season at first and third base (and is also capable of serving as a emergency reliever as well). With his power and the improvements he made as a hitter and on defense last season at Triple-A, he could end up becoming the Mets everyday third baseman at some point.
But for now, the trade continues what has become a long-running trend for the Astros. Much like fellow third baseman Colin Moran a year ago, Davis was entirely surplus to Houston’s needs. He was never going to play extensively for a team that has better options at both corner infield spots. So, Houston traded him to acquire a younger, higher-ceiling prospect.
Houston’s scouting and player development has allowed the Astros to produce a large number of big league caliber players. They have produced large numbers of useful outfielders as well as plenty of intriguing pitching prospects. Many of them do not fit for them, but they have enough value to bring back either solid prospects or big league help in return.
Since the 2016 offseason began, the Astros have traded away 16 prospects. Some of those are very solid prospects and a few have already turned into useful big leaguers. Ramon Laureano, Colin Moran, Teoscar Hernandez and Joe Musgrove have all spent time in the majors so far. Davis, Franklin Perez, Trent Thornton, Patrick Sandoval, Jake Rogers and Daz Cameron could all play in the majors in 2019.
But the Astros have received Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna in return. Those four pitchers provided 13.7 bWAR for the Astros just last season (and Pressly and Osuna only arrived at the July trade deadline). The Astros got 46.5 percent of its pitching WAR last year from players it had acquired in recent trades.
While most of the current big leaguers the Astros traded have value elsewhere, they are surplus talent for Houston. Of the players the Astros have traded, it is hard to find many who would play a significant role for the Astros in 2019 if they had been retained. Musgrove might fit in the back of the rotation. Laureano would at least be the team’s fourth outfielder.
Notably, most of the players the Astros traded are later-round draft picks or international signees who signed for modest bonuses. Cameron was a $4 million signee as a supplemental first round pick and Gilberto Celestino and Perez each signed for $1 million or more internationally. But the Astros have also traded away two third round picks, a fifth-round pick, an eighth, an 11th, and a 16th rounder. Even as Houston’s big league success has pushed it to drafting at the back of the first round, these are the kind of picks every team can make every year.
The pattern goes back further than just the past few years. Outfielder Brett Phillips (a 2012 sixth-round pick), catcher Jacob Nottingham (a 2013 sixth-round pick) and Daniel Mengden (a 2014 fourth-round pick) all netted big league value in trades.
If the Astros can continue to develop prospects like they have in recent years, they have a renewable resource. Houston has done a very good job of scouting and developing players like Laureano (a 16th-round pick) or Martin (eighth round) or Sandoval (11th round) or Teoscar Hernandez (who signed for $20,000). As long as the Astros keep drafting and developing late-round picks like they have, they can keep turning them into useful big league help.
Next year at the deadline, the Astros will likely again have a surplus of talent available to trade. Josh James (a 34th-round pick) will likely fit into the Astros big league rotation and bullpen. Forrest Whitley is the best pitching prospect in baseball and righthanders Corbin Martin and J.B. Bukauskas are potential bullpen or rotation options as well in 2019.
But righthanders Tyler Ivey (a 2017 third-round pick), Peter Solomon (a 2017 fourth-round pick) and Brandon Bielak (a 2017 11th-round pick) have developed into solid pitching prospects who have value in trades, and who also may be surplus to the Astros needs. Similarly, the Astros have a quintet of young outfielders in Triple-A or backup roles in the majors (ranging from top prospects like Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez to Derek Fisher, Tony Kemp and Myles Straw) who have value to other teams if they can’t fit into the Astros long-term plans.
At some point, the Astros will have to find ways to replace franchise cornerstones like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa or George Springer. But the Astros’ window of contention will be longer than most because they continue to find players in the later rounds of the draft they can develop into prospects other teams desire.