Today is the sixth anniversary of Hot Corner Harbor, and by some coincidence, I’ll be looking at a similar question as I did six years ago. Back then, I was wondering if one of the top teams in the league needed to make any moves to shore up their roster, despite having the second-best record in the majors. Today, I’ll be doing the same, only this time for the team with the best record in the majors: do the Astros need to make a trade, and if so, for whom?
Let’s start with the obvious: the Astros are already a really, really good team. You don’t get to a 38-16 record at the start of June if you aren’t. Sure, sometimes bad teams will fluke their way into a division lead at this point, or close to it. For instance, look no further than June 1, 2014, where half of the division leaders finished the season between 79 and 83 wins… but those types of teams aren’t generally 38-16 with a 11-game division lead. The Astros are already in rare territory.
Of course, nothing guarantees that they’ll keep up this pace, and even if they do finish the year with 114 wins, there’s still a chance they get bounced early in the playoffs (remember the 2001 Mariners?). Upgrading an area of weakness couldn’t hurt.
So what would that area of weakness be? Well, the team is second in the majors in both most runs scored per game (barely behind the Nationals) and fewest runs allowed per game (behind the Dodgers). That…seems pretty balanced. Digging deeper, we see that the Astros lead the majors with a 121 wRC+. That’s as a team, which is just incredible. They’ve hit, on average, 21% better than a league-average hitter. So yeah, they’ve got their bases covered there, both metaphorically and literally.
Their pitching isn’t quite that strong; they have a team ERA- (like ERA+, but below 100 is better instead of above) of 86, fourth-best staff in the majors. However, it’s worth noting that they’re currently outperforming their FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) by a little bit. At 90, they drop all the way to seventh in the league. Both are good, they just don’t live up to the high standards the hitters set.
Breaking it down to starters and closers is a little rougher; while their bullpen rates highly, their starters currently carry an 87 ERA- (fifth in the league) and a 97 FIP-. This makes some sense: while Dallas Keuchel has looked like his old Cy-Young-winning self and Lance McCullers has broken out in a big way, the rest of the rotation has been more ordinary. Collin McHugh has been hurt all year, Charlie Morton has been fine but just went on the DL, Joe Musgrove isn’t super overpowering and is prone to surrendering dingers, and Mike Fiers at the back end has been giving up homers like he thinks the Sky Gods demand sacrifices. They could stand to have a little bit more depth here. After all, you can never have enough arms.
The team recently called up David Paulino, one of their top prospects, to try and fill the gap. This is a fine stopgap; maybe Paulino is ready for the big time, and it would save the Astros from having to sacrifice prospects. If he fails, maybe they can try top prospect Francis Martes, although he may be too far away still. Their upper levels of the minors have some good prospects, but most are hitters. So if the Astros do decide to look externally for help, what might be available?
The first name that might pop is Jose Quintana, since the Astros were linked to him all winter, but that might be a harder sell now. He’s not as bad as his 5.60 ERA indicates, but he’s seen a definite spike in his walk and home run rates this year. Maybe the Astros will see him as a buy-low candidate, but there’s a chance that the White Sox just decide to hold on to him until they can sell him at full price.*
*I’ve always wondered if the Braves were considering moving Julio Teheran; he can be inconsistent, but is still young and under contract for a while, and the Braves are definitely rebuilding and have made moves like that before. He seems similar to Quintana in that case, which made it seem like a natural inquiry for Houston. However, he’s also struggling this year, and even if the Braves might consider trading him for prospects, they definitely wouldn’t sell low on him right now.
Sonny Gray’s name also pops up frequently in these discussions, but he might run into similar issues. While he’s good when healthy, that’s always a big “if” in his case, and that may lead to an asymmetric assessment of his worth. It doesn’t help that the Astros’ rotation is already solid; they’d like another starter, but they don’t have to panic and jump at someone with Gray’s red flags. There just might be too many complications here.
Let’s look at MLB Trade Rumors’ upcoming free agents list, since that’s usually a pretty good starting point in deciding who all is on the trading block. So many of the best players will probably stay put, though, because their teams are still good. The Cubs’ playoff chances hinge on Jake Arrieta, much like the Rangers’ chances hinge on Yu Darvish, and so on. Lance Lynn of the Cardinals, Marco Estrada of the Blue Jays, and several others aren’t quite as good as a Arrieta or Darvish, but they still play critical roles.
There’s no sense in acquiring a struggling pitcher like Ubaldo Jimenez, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Yovani Gallardo, or Ian Kennedy; there’s no reason the team needs to take a “buy low/hope for a rebound” approach. There’s more reason to look into more “league-average” types, like Miguel Gonzalez, Scott Feldman, Alex Cobb, or Jaime Garcia (again, among others), given that they’ll at least provide quality innings. But that wouldn’t really be much of an upgrade over what they have, so unless McHugh and Morton look like they’ll miss more time than first anticipated, it’s better to stick to looking for actual upside.
From what I can see, there are only four good options in that department, and each one comes with its own set of problems.
Derek Holland – The White Sox are without a doubt rebuilding, and Holland looks like a perfect candidate for them to flip. He’s had a good start to the year, posting a 2.37 ERA. There are some concerning factors there, though. His walk rate has seen a big uptick from his career mark (3.56 versus 2.88), but to be fair, his strikeout rate is also above his career rate (7.71 versus 7.25).
The other concern is that he’s gotten lucky on balls in play, allowing a BABIP of .257 and explaining his rather high 4.37 FIP. So if you trade for him, you’re hoping he can either sustain this the rest of the year or that you can fix the walks and the strong outfield defense will help him out some. As long as his cost isn’t too prohibitive, he makes sense, although we don’t know what Chicago might be asking for him, and it’s fair to wonder how much better he really is than one of the earlier “innings eater” types.
Jason Vargas – We don’t know for sure that the Royals will sell, like we do the White Sox. They are technically only 5.5 back in the AL Central. But they also have the worst record in the AL at the moment and it’s looking like their window is closing; 34-year-olds in the final year of their contracts are usually the first to go in those cases.
Since coming back from Tommy John surgery last year, Vargas has seen improvements in his K rate, walk rate, and home run rate. All of that has resulted in a 2.36 ERA and a 3.21 FIP in 72.1 innings over the last two years. The concerns are that, as a 34-year-old starter, his injury might catch up with him, or these changes won’t carry forward, but right now, he looks like an interesting mix of potential and reasonable cost. Of course, that will make him one of the prime targets at the Trade Deadline, which might drive his cost up even more…
Johnny Cueto – This one isn’t at all certain. Cueto has an opt out after this year, which means that he might be a free agent, but he also might be under team control for five more years. If he were pitching better this year, it might be more certain that he would opt out, but the Giants will likely want to hold on to him otherwise. He also hasn’t pitched up to his normal standards this year, but he has been streaky in the past, so he could turn it around. And if you’re a believer in the importance of playoff experience, the Astros are familiar with Cueto’s resume in that department. With the contract questions, though, this might be too complicated to work out.
Ervin Santana – This one is the biggest stretch. Santana isn’t a free agent until after 2018, which makes him a much more attractive trade target. And most of the other pitchers of that free agent class look to be the type of pitchers their teams would like to hold on to, at least for the start of 2018.
Of course, that’s the key question: are the Twins still “rebuilding”? If so, trading a 34-year-old off to a hot start looks like a smart move. But Minnesota is currently in a virtual tie with Cleveland for first in the AL Central…but on the other hand, they’ve been outscored on the year, and are outperforming their Pythagorean Record by 4 games (the largest such positive gap in the majors right now). And Santana also has options on his deal that may take it through 2019...it’s possible, but a trade for Santana might have been more plausible before his and his team’s hot starts, which made it seem much, much more likely that he’d be around for the next good Twins team.
All things considered, Jason Vargas looks like the best option, even though his name doesn’t really conjure images of an ace leading a team in the playoffs. Of course, it’s not a guarantee yet that the Astros will decide to make deals, but it never hurts to add to a stacked team. That Cardinals team I wrote about back in 2011 did, and it went pretty well for them.