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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.

    Or take the last time the Astros acquired an aging, Cooperstown-bound starter. Back in 2019, Zack Greinke came over from Arizona. In return, the Astros sent over: Corbin Martin, who is 0-4 with a 7.28 ERA since the trade and missing the entire 2023 season due to injury; Seth Beer, who has spent the majority of his age-26 season at AA; J.B. Bukauskas, who is on the Brewers’ AAA team after being waived by two different teams this year; and Josh Rojas, who is 29 and generally spent his time in Arizona bouncing around just above replacement level before being traded to Seattle at the deadline this year. Going just off of value, Houson clearly won that trade outright (Baseball-Reference has it at 3.5 WAR for Greinke in Houston to 0.6 WAR for everyone in Arizona, while Fangraphs has it at 5.2 WAR to 1.3), and you don’t even need to get into all of the extenuating circumstances that tilt it even further in their direction.

    I could keep going on here. I’ve been meaning to take a more comprehensive look at this for a while, and I still might later. And there are obvious counter-examples, of course; for instance, arguably the best player in the Astros’ history came on them winning a deadline deal like this. But you can’t get too attached to unproven prospects, especially when you’re still trying to win.

    We could also go on about the process that led to this. After all, the Astros were negotiating with Verlander as a free agent just months ago, and that wouldn’t have required losing prospects. Except several months ago, they were looking at a much deeper, less-injured rotation, while the contract Verlander was asking for was… honestly, probably a little unreasonable. Even as someone who thinks teams should be more willing to cross the luxury tax threshold, it makes perfect sense to me why those talks back then didn’t work out.

    Of course, things changed, and that depth in the Astros’ rotation slowly disappeared. Meanwhile, Verlander’s deal wound up being for 2 years and $86.7 million deal (3 years and $121.7 with a 2025 option), and in the end, the Mets will end up paying over half of that (between the payments they’ve already made and what they’ve committed to covering going forward), which seems much more in-line with the value the Astros can expect from Verlander here. In a perfect world, I probably would have preferred that the Astros take on a bit more money to save on the prospect side, especially if the impetus for that came from the Astros’ ownership. But it’s also possible the Mets wouldn’t have accepted that offer, so until we have confirmation one way or the other, this is all just hypothetical.

    Yeah, this piece has kind of become a backdoor evaluation of the trade… I think I’ve come down on “It’s a tough pill to swallow, but probably a fair balance of risk and reward given the Astros’ 2023 needs and beyond, and getting Verlander back triggers the warm-fuzzies so the risk feels less bad”.

    BUT! You may recall that none of that is why I started writing this piece! So, back to the question: Have the Astros been doing a better-than-expected job at converting young prospects into useful big leaguers? Again, it’s debatable how much looking at the history here matters given that the Dana Brown era is still new and could prove a shift, but trying something is better than just giving up.

    There are a lot of ways we could look at this problem, but this is the one I came up with: I used Baseball-Reference to search every team over the last ten years and see how many players in their first four seasons put up 1.0 Win Above Replacement or better. I probably could have tweaked these numbers around the edges, but these seemed like the best balance.

    Four seasons felt like a good quantity to ensure regular turnover in players, as well as limit teams bolstering their numbers by acquiring other team’s developed players (which of course becomes even more common as players hit their arbitration years and get more expensive). And 1 WAR felt like a good balance to use.

    Stars are important, but I didn’t want to look exclusively at them. You do also need to develop regular starters and bit players, too (not to mention that this helps account for things like late call-ups or the 2020 season). Plus, you probably don’t need to be bringing up stars that frequently; ideally, if you develop a really big star, you lock them up and have them lead the team for more than just their first four years (not to mention that if we’re just focusing on stars, I don’t know that it really matters if you develop them in-house or pick them up via trade or signing; just having them is the important part). But of course, if you want to test any of these assumptions yourself, feel free to tweak my method and share your results! Part of why I’m writing is because I feel like I’ve taken the idea as far as I can for the time being.

    Okay, so with all of that out of the way, how many Year One-to-Four 1-WAR players did the Astros run each season over the last decade?

    Year # Players Rank Players
    2023    7 5 Yainer Diaz, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, Jeremy Peña, Hunter Brown, J.P. France, Cristian Javier
    2022    7 7 Yordan Alvarez, Chas McCormick, Jeremy Peña, Bryan Abreu, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, José Urquidy
       9 1 Yordan Alvarez, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, Myles Straw, Kyle Tucker, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, José Urquidy, Framber Valdez
    2020    4 3 Kyle Tucker, Cristian Javier, Andre Scrubb, Framber Valdez
    2019    5 15 Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, Aledmys Díaz, Yuli Gurriel, Myles Straw
    2018    6 12 Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Tyler White, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez
    2017    6 8 Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, George Springer, Chris Devenski, Ken Giles
    2016    7 4 Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Evan Gattis, Jake Marisnick, George Springer, Chris Devenski, Lance McCullers Jr.
    2015    8 4 Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Jake Marisnick, George Springer, Will Harris, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Collin McHugh
    2014    9 3 Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Marwin Gonzalez, Robbie Grossman, Jake Marisnick, Gregorio Petit, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh

    (Note: All rankings were ties. And 2023 totals are not finalized, obviously.)

    As you can see, all in all, it’s been a great run! They’ve been in the top half of the league for basically this entire span (you could argue the 2019 team doesn’t count since it was a big seven-way tie for the fifteenth spot, but maybe they deserve the tiebreaker there, since they won 107 games and the AL Pennant), and the top third for everything outside of 2018-19.

    (And while I’m talking about exceptions, you can also easily see how the 2023 team could be doing even better than it already is; Luis Garcia was well on his way to qualifying before his injury, Yordan only lost his status this year because his true “second” season was that 2-game 2020 campaign, Jose Siri qualifies for the Rays this year and is still eligible next year despite Houston doing a lot of the developmental heavy lifting there… I can’t truly compare all of these exceptions, since I didn't want to do this for every single player on every other single team, but still, I feel like this has to be one of the stronger extra credit cases in the league this year.)

    So, if you had to guess based on this chart, at which point would you say that, per industry popular perception, the Astros’ farm system took a sharp downturn? I mean, a lot of you reading this might already know, but if all you were going on was the rate that they’ve been churning out young players, there doesn’t really appear to be any end. There was a brief dip around 2019, but as we pointed out, the 2019 team was a juggernaut, in large part because the 2015-2018 crop had graduated out of our rankings without any real need to replace them yet. And besides, we would probably expect a drop in prospect rankings to come before the drop in successful major leaguers, so that would put our dip based on the results somewhere in the 2017-18 range?

    The answer, of course, is 2020. Going back through the farm system rankings of, Fangraphs, The Athletic, Bleacher Report, and others, most of them still had the Astros towards the top going into 2019, while they’ve rarely escaped the 20-to-30 range since then. And if you want to be precise, the 2019 Trade Deadline was the real inflection point. Evaluators universally dropped them after all they gave up there, headlined by the four prospects they sent over Zack Greinke trade; take a moment to refer back to my earlier paragraph on that trade, and see how that ended up.

    I say that not to dump on the prospect evaluators; it’s a tough job, and misses are to be expected! Instead, I’m saying it to highlight my two key points:

    Trading prospects to get established major leaguers is one of the big benefits of having a top-rated farm system; you might lose a deal sometimes, but you’re also losing out if you just hoard them all, given the failure rate of prospects.

    2) The Astros as of late do seem to have some kind of talent for regularly churning out useful major leaguers, despite predictions to the contrary.

    There are, of course, ways a team can game this methodology; believe me, I found all of them while looking over my results, you don’t need to bring up counterfactuals. And the results don’t guarantee success or anything; there’s no one way to build a good team. (Actually, if anything, the Astros are bucking the trend here a little; a lot of other strong teams over the last decade have looked more like the 2019 team, falling more towards the middle of the pack following several recent “graduations”.)

    The individual data points are less interesting than the trends here: the Astros have been consistently at the top of the list (on average, the only team to finish higher up in the ranks than the Astros over the last decade is the Rays), while consistently competing in a way that doesn’t usually guarantee a plethora of spots for newcomers. They’ve been able to produce a strong recurring cast, and they’ve been able to supplement it by filling out the margins of the roster with bit players who provide more than expected.

    Really, even that “strong recurring class” bit is worth investigating more, because even a lot of the core young stars the Astros have produced the last five years were not the most heralded of their class. Kyle Tucker was routinely rated towards the top of prospect lists for several years; but Yordan Alvarez, in contrast, was rated a consensus top-50 prospect, but more in the 30-50 range, and for only one year. Ditto for Hunter Brown (although Fangraphs was higher on him than their peers for a few years before that). Some evaluators put Jeremy Peña in the top 50 as well, but he was divisive, and some rankings had him more towards the back end of their top 100. Jose Urquidy and Yainer Diaz were back-end top-100 guys on a few lists at the end of their prospect tenures, but not all of them.

    Of course, that leaves Jose Urquidy, Framber Valdez, Christian Javier, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, and J.P. France; none of them appeared on a top 100 prospect list, as best as I can tell? Certainly not one of the major ones that I checked. And despite that, five of them have appeared on this list for two or more of their first four seasons (France is still in his first season, but you can substitute in Myles Straw here, if you want another recent Astros product that fits this pattern).

    Again, please don’t take this as some “the Astros have cracked player development!” take; they have plenty of failures here, too. Forrest Whitley was regularly appearing above Kyle Tucker on those prospect lists, and they have plenty of other high-profile flops over the years, from Frances Martes to Mark Appel to AJ Reed.

    All I’m trying to do is point out that the Astros seem to have found a way to avoid letting those flops or limitations (from things like low draft positions or frequent prospect trades) set them back too much when it comes to finding, training, and graduating young talent to the majors. Maybe their frequent front office turnover means this won’t continue forever. But in the meantime, it is giving me some pause in bemoaning yet another round of selling off big-name prospects at the Trade Deadline.

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      1. Great analysis! In hindsight, looking back over the trades you mentioned it is clear the Astros made the right choices. Will it work again for Verlander a second time? Only time will tell.

        Question for you. What did the Astros offer Verlander to stay with the Astros at the end of last season? Did they end up paying less for him this time around when getting him from the Mets? Not counting the prospects I mean?

        1. I believe the final rumor was something around 2 years and $70 million (, and my understanding is that with the Mets' payments, it'll wind up being about 3 years and $40 million for Houston? Sounds like there are a lot of conditionals here, especially around his third year option.

      2. Thanks. So from a monetary perspective, they got him back for less money than what they were negotiating against at the end of last season.