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    Monday, August 7, 2023

    The Astros Paid a Steep Price at the Trade Deadline, but Their Recent Prospect Development Successes Might Offset Those Losses

    I started looking at a question several weeks ago, just out of curiosity. It was a complicated question, and I don’t know that I found a conclusive answer; but then, it was a tough question, and I was hardly the first person to take a stab at it. If nothing else, I at least found a lot of interesting bits of trivia, and it seemed like it would maybe be interesting to write about them… except I still never really found a central hook to build it all around.

    See, my basic question was: Have the Astros been doing a better-than-expected job at converting young prospects into useful big leaguers lately? I mean, it’s an interesting question, but there weren’t any factors making it especially pressing to sort through.

    And then, we had the trade deadline, with the Astros sending away two players who were very likely their top prospects (Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford) in order to re-acquire Justin Verlander from the Mets. This came just days after sending away Korey Lee, another prospect with some hype behind him, in order to re-acquire Kendall Graveman. As you might figure, those have taken a toll on a farm system that was already regarded as one of the weakest in the majors.

    There’s a lot going on here; losing big prospects is tough, especially when things are already thin. And part of that is the limitless potential of young players; of course they’ll all succeed, and keep your team competitive indefinitely through several cost-effective, All-Star quality years. Until they try and fail (a few times), there really isn’t a reason for fans to think otherwise (unless they like being pessimistic, or something).

    Of course, in reality, a lot of prospects fail, and a key reason to have a good farm system is to trade bits of it for established players. In fact, as I sit here on the evening of the Trade Deadline (writing this intro, at least), I began the day thinking that I would actually be working on something to that effect, a sort of capstone on my series comparing the Orioles’ and Astros’ rebuilds. In fact, I had this big thing planned, where I would point out how weird it was that a second Mike Elias-guided team with a deep farm system acquired a reigning Cy Young runner-up with two and a half years of control left from an underperforming AL Central team, but then the White Sox just held on to Dylan Cease.

    But actually, that 2017 Justin Verlander trade isn’t a bad point of comparison, for those feeling the doom-and-gloom side of things right now. In exchange for those stellar 2017 to 2019 season (all that was guaranteed when they acquired him), the Astros gave up three prospects for JV, two who were generally considered top 100 prospects and another who would go on to play in the Futures Game. Except that, as of 2023, Franklin Perez is 25 and still hasn’t made it to AAA, Daz Cameron is on the Orioles’ AAA team after Detroit waived him last November, and Jake Rogers (the least-heralded of the trio at the time) is finally, in his third season in the Majors, looking like he can be an average MLB catcher.

    Thursday, June 15, 2023

    Jose Abreu’s Career Is Even Greater Than the Sum of 1500 Hits

    If you were watching Tuesday’s night’s game against the Nationals, you might have caught a neat milestone: José Abreu collected his 1500th career hit (as well as his 1501st, but that one doesn’t end in a 0, so it got a smaller call-out). Abreu is 21st among active Major Leaguers in hits and, at the halfway point to 3000, stands somewhere in the mid-600s all-time. His start with the Astros hasn’t been the best, and while I hope he manages to turn it around, it’s still cool to appreciate a big moment like that!

    Of course, that also got me thinking… Abreu’s path to the majors has been very non-standard. For those that don’t know, his 2014 Rookie of the Year campaign came at the relatively late age of 27, thanks to Abreu being born in Cuba. In fact, he was a ten-year veteran of the Cuban National Series before defecting after the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

    And players like that, with interesting and unique careers, have always fascinated me. I actually wrote about another one like that a few years ago, Astros’ unlikely batting champ and postseason hero Yuli Gurriel. And before that, I took a deep look at Hiroki Kuroda, who was much better than you might remember (or might have ever realized at the time!).

    I had always thought about doing that for another player down the line, and Abreu always seemed like one of the favorites. So I thought, in honor of Jose Abreu’s 1500th hit, why not go back and take a look at his total career? For basically all of this, I’ll be pulling from Baseball-Reference’s extensive library of foreign league stats. 

    Wednesday, April 12, 2023

    Some Thoughts on the New Rule Changes

    We’ve got a new Starting Nine up over at The Crawfish Boxes, once again featuring yours truly! The topic of this one is our early impressions on the new rule changes, including the pitch clock and shift bans. So far, I generally think there's a lot to like about them, but I do have a few slightly more complicated thoughts about them as well, as does everyone else. Go check it out if you have a minute!

    Thursday, March 30, 2023

    2023 Astros Predictions at The Crawfish Boxes!

    I hope everyone had a good Opening Day! Once again, I participated in The Crawfish Boxes’ Annual Astros Pre-Season Predictions. I have to say, making these predictions is much better coming off a World Series win than a loss; it kind of makes it feel like you’re playing with house money this year. It looks like the AL West will be a little tougher for Houston in 2023 than the last few years, but they’re still a really good team, and I’m expecting another big year from them!

    Anyway, Opening Day was a tough loss, but given that Dylan Cease was almost the Cy Young winner last year, it’s at least understandable. Hopefully they can come back strong this weekend and take the first series of the year!

    Wednesday, March 29, 2023

    Comparing and Contrasting the Braves' Rebuild

    Last year while I was writing my article on the Orioles' Trade Deadline, I dug up an older piece of mine with an interesting opinion that I wanted to dig into a little bit when I had more time. I ended up sort of looking into it at the end of the 2022 season, and slowly plugging away at it in between playoff stuff and Hall of Fame stuff and all of the other offseason writings that I did. I wanted to post it a little earlier in the offseason, but ended up having to reflect on some of it a little more and then push it back. I think it’s finally to a good place though, and getting it up before the start of the season seems like a good idea!

    It’s sort of a companion piece to that mini-series I did last year looking at the Orioles’ Rebuild, this time approaching the question from a different angle. For background, in the back-half of the 2010s, it seemed like there were a lot of teams who were trying to copy off the Astros’ and Cubs’ strategies of a full teardown and rebuild, and I thought in the moment that maybe some of those decisions were a little premature; the Astros and Cubs were notably devoid of talent in both the majors and minors prior to their complete rebuilds.

    I feel like that gets lost in a lot of these discussions on “tanking”; go back and look at those 2010 and 2011 Cubs and Astros teams. Both had spent several years stuck in neutral at the bottom of the NL Central. The 2011 Astros’ best players were a pair of very-good-but-not-great outfielders (Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn) who were a year and a half from free agency, and another 35-year-old “left fielder” who really looked like he should have been at first base (Carlos Lee). The Cubs, meanwhile, were relying on their 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro to bolster their core of… 33-year-old corner infielders Carlos Peña and Aramis Ramirez. Their aces on these teams were Brett Myers and Matt Garza, respectively.

    Those cores would maybe barely work, were all those players at their peaks, with very strong supporting casts and the potential for star prospects to bolster them down the stretch. None of that describes the rest of those teams, which were thin at the top and regularly ranked in the bottom third of Farm System rankings (with the Astros even picking up several last place finishes). Their drafting and player development was atrocious, Houston’s especially; Baseball-Reference’s has the Astros’ first round draft picks from 1999 to 2009 worth a combined 11.9 WAR for their careers, a number overwhelming supported by Jason Castro’s 12.4 total (plus Jordan Lyles’s 1.0 mark last season, the third-best year of his career).* Feel free to do the math on everyone else there, it’s pretty bad! That wasn’t the only factor in their lack of success obviously, but it’s a pretty good representation of the larger failure going on.

    *The Cubs during that stretch look a lot less disastrous; it still wasn’t fantastic, but other clubs with similar records could turn it into strong minor league systems, with things like successful later picks, international signings, trades, or player development. The Cubs… did not do any of that.

    All of that is to say: when the Cubs and Astros decided to do their total teardowns, there was a very clear logic behind it. Long gone were the early-to-mid 2000s glory days, of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt and Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano, and the window on the late-2000s inglorious days of Carlos Peña and Carlos Lee seemed to be closing rapidly. But despite how much the teams sold off, every trade made sense; most pieces being sent out were some combination of aging, not great, or rapidly nearing free agency on a bad team. It’s part of why the 2018 Orioles made sense following their path, given their atrocious record, neglected minor league rosters, and a major league roster consisting of Manny Machado (in his final season before free agency) and a bunch of question marks.

    However, that scenario did not describe every team going for a rebuild in subsequent years, and I think my general sense that too many teams in the late 2010s were going for that strategy has held up. Sure, some of them fit that Astros/Cubs mold: for instance, the Phillies under Ruben Amaro Jr. had been ineptly patching an aging roster for years up until 2015, and it had all fallen apart. Or the Tigers, who had seen a lot of their roster suddenly start to look very old come 2017. You’re always going to have a few cases like that, teams that went all-in on an aging core or something and stretched themselves thin (and sometimes it even works, like with the 2019 Nationals!).

    But that clearly couldn’t describe over 20% of the league, like I called out in that original 2018 piece that I linked to, especially not when teams with win totals in the high-80s could still be in playoff contention (in fact, 2017 had just seen Wild Card teams with 87 and 85 wins). And I was arguably even playing it safe and just going with teams that were unambiguously already in the middle of a rebuild, and not teams that were just about to enter one (like the Orioles and Rangers), or the more muddled edge cases (like the Pirates and Royals).

    Take the Marlins for instance, who famously traded a stellar young outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna rather than do literally anything to reinforce that core beyond hoping their draft pick lottery tickets all suddenly became All-Stars at once. Or the White Sox, who dealt their two top, all-star level starters rather than bump up their middle-of-the-pack payroll even slightly while playing in baseball’s weakest division.

    But there’s one team from that group that stood out. All of the teams I called out back then finished 2018 in a manner exactly as uninspiring as predicted… except for the Braves. And of course, ignoring the eventual end result of the 2021 World Series and looking only at where things stood at that moment, I absolutely understand why I included the Braves here.

    Going into the 2014 season, the Braves were coming off of four straight seasons where they averaged 92.5 wins and made the playoffs three of four times. They had a young, homegrown core of stars, and things looked bright. Sure, their playoff runs had been short (two Division Series losses and one Wild Card Game loss), but October is pretty random, so just making it to the playoffs seemed like the thing to focus on.

    And then, they mildly underperformed in 2014, going 79-83. Granted, that was still second in the middling NL East, and they still had their young core, so it wasn’t hard to predict a possible rebound. Except… Atlanta didn’t do that. Instead, they sold off a ton of talent, including Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, and Evan Gattis. It might be easy to forget given that we’re nearly a decade removed at this point, but back in 2014, that was half of their eight best players (by Baseball-Reference WAR), and they ranged in age from 27 (Gattis) to 24 (Heyward). The team took a corresponding tumble, going 67-95 in 2015.