The A’s figured 2015 would be a competitive year, and though there have been plenty of encouraging signs, at some point there’s just not enough time left to expect bad luck to reverse itself. The Astros, meanwhile, figured 2015 would be a competitive year, but maybe not this much of a competitive year, so they found themselves considering the market of short-term upgrades. So it is that a surprising A’s team and a surprising Astros team have come together on a move: Scott Kazmir is going to Houston, and now the league-wide trade market is open.
He’s not the first big-leaguer to be moved. Juan Uribe got swapped. Mark Trumbo got swapped. Welington Castillo got swapped a couple of times. But this is the first real deadline move, with the A’s conceding that it’s time for them to sell. Kazmir’s a free agent in a few months, but the Astros weren’t turned off by that. If anything, they were seeking that out. Rentals tend to cost less, and Kazmir provides important rotation insurance. The guys the A’s are getting are named Jacob Nottingham and Daniel Mengden. You’re probably not familiar with either, but that doesn’t mean the A’s just got robbed.
These things tend to be written in halves. We’ll start with the Astros half. The Astros are well within striking distance of the Angels in the AL West, and they’re five games clear in the wild card. Because of the situation, the Astros’ priorities have shifted more toward the short-term, but it’s still a long-term-thinking organization, so Houston wasn’t looking to make a farm-burning blockbuster. They’ve openly talked about their pursuit of a starting pitcher, going back the last few weeks.
Dallas Keuchel is great. How great do you think Dallas Keuchel is? He’s better than that! And Lance McCullers has been great, but he might be running out of innings, having thrown about 200 combined over the previous two years. Collin McHugh isn’t what he was in 2014, and Scott Feldman has been hittable, and on and on. If McCullers could be counted on down the stretch, there wouldn’t have been so much of a need. But the Astros wanted to be proactive.
Kazmir helps them now, and Kazmir should help them in the playoffs, assuming they get that far. Kazmir has established beyond any doubt that he’s good again. And he might never escape the injury questions, but this year, he’s made his turns. Last year, he started 32 times. The year before that, he started 29 times, and another time in the minors. Do not exaggerate Scott Kazmir’s fragility. He’s been able to keep himself together.
Based on updated projections and depth charts, the rest of the way Kazmir makes the Astros just about one win better. He improves their playoff odds from right around 70% to just shy of 80%. Obviously these are just estimates, and we could never know the real effects ahead of time, but Kazmir supports a rotation that might’ve been destined to become increasingly shaky, and he’s a No. 2 starter in the postseason, an adequate sort between Keuchel and whoever might be third.
It’s worth noting that, since the start of last season, Kazmir has allowed a bottom-10 rate of hard contact, which is good, for a pitcher. (Keuchel has the lowest rate among qualified starters.) It’s also worth noting that Kazmir is from Houston, which could give the Astros a leg up if they want to try to bring him back. I’ve heard talk the Astros remain an undesirable organization to play for, and while winning changes that some, reputations are sticky, and a lot of players would prefer to play somewhere else, given that option. I don’t think the Astros traded for Kazmir because of his local ties, but I also imagine it was some kind of factor. In that way, Kazmir might turn into a non-rental rental. He’s probably more likely to sign with Houston than the majority of would-be talented free agents.
We move on to the A’s half. Despite the way they started, it’s not like the A’s knew they were going to sell. A stretch of better play threatened to allow the A’s back into the race, but they’ve now alternated wins and losses for a number of weeks, failing to make up real ground. So, off the bits go. Kazmir first. Soon, it’ll be Ben Zobrist. And Tyler Clippard, and potentially more. Billy Beane doesn’t do the long-term-rebuild thing, but he is now focused on the future. For Kazmir, he didn’t get a preseason top-100 prospect. He didn’t get a preseason top-200 prospect.
But he did get a pair of prospects, with higher stock than they had a few months ago. The better of the two appears to be Jacob Nottingham, who’s had a breakout 2015. It’s important to note both Nottingham and Daniel Mengden have played only in the lower levels, so in that sense they’re a ways off, but these could be two quick movers, and Nottingham has the higher ceiling.
I chatted with Kiley, and you can read his prospect breakdown here. He’s got more of the details, and the insight into why these players are rising. But Nottingham isn’t hard to figure out — he’s a catcher, who doesn’t embarrass himself, and he’s hit about 30% better than average. There’s power there, and improving contact skills, and I want to show you a spray chart from MLB Farm. Nottingham’s 2015:
I know we’re talking A-ball, here, but Nottingham is a right-handed hitter, and, look at what he’s done to the opposite field. He isn’t just about his pull power. He’s shown the ability to drive the ball the other way, and that bodes well for his offensive future against more advanced competition. Even if Nottingham doesn’t stay behind the plate, he has a developing big-league bat, and it’s not like we’re talking about Matt LeCroy. He could be a real catcher with real offense.
Mengden is a lower-ceiling collegiate arm with multiple pitches, none of them thought to be plus. Injury issues behind him, he’s generated about a strikeout an inning, doing his damnedest to survive the miserable Cal League. For Oakland, this is a familiar sort, and though Mengden’s still in single-A, he could rise to the majors fast, occupying a slot in the back of the rotation. There’s only so much development for him to do. He’s reasonably close to being good enough.
Nottingham is the prize. Because Nottingham didn’t show up on any big prospect lists or midseason updates, this might feel like a light return, but Kazmir’s also a second-tier starter, so no one’s clearly getting shafted. Kazmir’s a pretty good pitcher. Nottingham’s a pretty good prospect. What once looked like an extreme seller’s market has become more buyer-friendly, so that worked to Oakland’s disadvantage, but it also helped them some to strike first. Now everyone else gets a chance to respond. Now a fair value has been set. Now a dozen teams can call on Ben Zobrist, understanding better than ever that he is, indeed, available, and going to go somewhere in the next week and a half.
It’s a bittersweet occasion for the A’s. It’s an occasion once thought almost unimaginable for the Astros. The Houston Astros are buyers, and they just bought. We already knew they were in the hunt for a number of months, but if nothing else, this is symbolic.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.