Both the Astros and the Cubs are in the process of a long-term build, yes. And in third baseman Luis Valbuena, starting pitcher Dan Straily, and outfielder Dexter Fowler, they’re moving three players that average close to 28 years old. Not everything these teams do needs to be focused on the far-term, though. With the second wild card, this year can be as important as any other.
When the Astros today sent Fowler to the Cubs for Valbuena and Straily, both teams traded from current surpluses to fill current needs.
The Cubs have infielders. With Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Luis Valbuena, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell, they had an infield twice over. Once you factor in bust rates, that’s probably a good way to go about things. Since some in the community think the six-foot-five Kris Bryant is headed to the corner outfield, and Alcantara was already playing in the outfield, they might be have been able to fill both the infield and outfield eventually.
Eventually, though. Because for right now, they’d probably rather see which of their young players can stick on the infield, where they’ll get the most value out of their production. So, perhaps to remove the temptation to put Kris Bryant in the outfield right now in lieu of Chris Coghlan because Bryant’s bat is ready and Luis Valbuena can play a decent third, the Cubs went and got an outfielder. Now even Alcantara can return to second base, the position he manned in the minor leagues, should the team want to try Baez at third in the short term.
Dexter Fowler may not stay with the Cubs after this year, but he helps them get better this year. It’s fair to wonder why the team needs him if they aren’t going to compete this year. But they are building to competitiveness quickly, and at least one player things this is the year for them. Even if last year’s one-year defensive numbers mean Fowler can’t play center any more, he’s a fit for a team that needs outfielders. Three of the last four years, Fowler would have been worth giving a qualifying offer, too — even as the veteran leaves at the end of the season, he may bring the Cubs presents.
The Cubs do need pitching. So perhaps it was surprising for them to send Dan Straily in the deal. Straily took a while to find his changeup, but once he did, it completed his arsenal. That change, with a 17% whiff rate and a 50% ground-ball rate last year, was well above-average among its peers. With a 22% whiff rate, his slider was a top-ten offering among starters. And his fastball, despite losing a bit of gas, was still average with a 7% whiff rate. At the very least, Straily can be an average starter. He’s been one before.
Maybe it’s lack of ace-type upside that made the Cubs feel they could move him. With Kyle Hendricks or Travis Wood in the fifth slot after the Jon Lester signing, Edwin Jackson is suddenly a sixth starter. Straily would have likely been an injury replacement on the 2015 Chicago Cubs.
On the Astros, however, Straily probably begins the season with the team. Brett Oberholtzer only has one pitch that rates above average, and with a history of home run problems in the minor leagues, perhaps the Astros didn’t want to depend on him keeping his home run per fly ball rates on the small side of average (6.2% career, 10% is average).
After the acquisition of Evan Gattis, the Astros did have a surplus in the outfield. No matter what you think of their gloves, between Chris Carter and Gattis, they would have had at least one corner outfielder to pair with George Springer. That left Robbie Grossman and Jake Marisnick on the outside looking in — despite the fact that both could man center field. Now they will both man center field, in some sort of platoon.
That won’t be the only regular platoon on the Astros this coming year. If there’s one weakness for Valbuena it’s that, while he’s been above-average for three years running, he hasn’t been a complete player over the past three years. He’s been league average against righties, but his offense against lefties has dropped to 24% worse than league average. He’ll fit nicely with righty Matt Dominguez.
And that’s what this deal was about, in the end. Fit. The Astros now have platoon solutions at third and in center, and for their troubles, they have a better fifth starter situation. The Cubs, who are building quickly, get a two-win boost in the outfield. It cost them a redundant platoon player at third base with two years of control remaining, and a young starter that’s been league average in the past and has seen some velocity loss the last couple of years.
It’s the starting pitcher that could change the calculus of the deal. Five years of control of a league-average starter would be a great return for one year of Dexter Fowler. It’s tempting to say we should all watch the velocity readings in the spring for Dan Straily. But those per-pitch numbers, the ones that suggest he’s above-average right now? Those came when his fastball barely broke 90 last year.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.