When you’re a bad team, you might want to sign good free agents to try to get better. A tricky part is getting those good free agents to want to play for your bad team. Teams don’t get much worse than the current Houston Astros, and according to recent reports, they’ve tried with no success to lure quality players from the market. Thankfully for bad teams, free agency isn’t the only way to improve by addition. Players have to play for you if you trade for them, and later on Tuesday, the Astros picked up Dexter Fowler from the Rockies, at the cost of Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes. The Rockies will also send a player to be named later, but I doubt that that will be the interesting part.
Immediately, it seems a bit backwards. Some things we know: at present, the Astros are dreadful, far more dreadful than the Rockies are. Fowler is already getting expensive, and he has two remaining years of team control. Lyles is 23, and he has four. Barnes is 27, and he has five. You’d think it would be the Astros trying to acquire longer-term security, but I think this actually makes more sense for Houston than it does for Colorado. Even if the Astros still aren’t close to contending, it’s never a bad idea to add what you think might be undervalued.
The Rockies, of course, had been shopping Fowler for a while, which tells you something about their internal valuation. Fowler had never been moved until today, which tells you something about the league’s valuation. Some notes on Twitter suggested that rival teams were scared off by Fowler’s massive career home/road splits, which do need to be addressed as a thing. With Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson around, the Rockies didn’t feel like paying Fowler $7 million+ this coming season, so now they’re going to use that saved salary to put to other pursuits. They’re going to survive Fowler’s departure, and it’s not like they didn’t get anything beyond the flexibility.
Barnes looks like he could be a skilled defensive fourth outfielder, which, all right. The real key here is Lyles, who’s young for a guy with 65 big-league starts. Apparently the Rockies feel like he was a little rushed, and he’s been a quality prospect in the not-distant past. Before 2011, Baseball America ranked him baseball’s #42 overall prospect. He debuted when he was 20, and he’s already approaching 400 innings. They haven’t been great innings, but then they haven’t been awful, with a 108 xFIP-.
Lyles throws four pitches and two fastballs, sometimes getting one of them into the mid-90s. He’s a big righty at 6-foot-4, and he was drafted 38th overall. With his stuff and recent prospect reputation, it’s easy to understand that he could have long-term rotation upside. A couple years ago, people thought Lyles could be the real deal. It’s far from too late. The Rockies believe in his arm, and in their own player development.
But there’s more to the truth. What Lyles hasn’t done in his three big-league years is improve. He didn’t generate many whiffs in Triple-A, and he hasn’t generated many whiffs in the majors. He doesn’t have a real out-pitch, and he has all kinds of problems against lefties. For nearly 400 innings, he’s been a below-average starting pitcher, whose velocity has climbed a bit without improved results following. Lyles is a project, and even with players this young, the performance record matters. Lyles has work to do to be decent, and then a lot more to be good. He’s leaving one rough environment for another.
And Fowler is leaving one charitable environment for another. He’s been on the block forever, and it was essentially inevitable that he was going to be moved before the end of the month. Maybe the Astros aren’t his preferred destination, but it’s important for Fowler to get some seasons out of Colorado, and the Astros here are trying to exploit a potentially over-cautious market.
Fowler has big home/road splits, and that’s scary. He has mediocre defensive numbers, and that’s also a little scary. One thing that needs to be acknowledged is that pretty much every player is worse on the road. Another thing that needs to be acknowledged is that Fowler has been far from awful on the road. And still another thing to acknowledge is that just looking at Fowler’s road splits does him a disservice, because the road splits include disproportionate time in more pitcher-friendly parks, and because it never makes sense to throw out half of a sample that already isn’t big enough.
To address one of those points, Fowler’s road splits don’t include road games in Colorado, like the road splits for, say, Padres players. To address the last point, we can still try to make something of Fowler’s performance in Coors, and the easiest thing to do is to just park-adjust, like wRC+ does. That stat is rather fond of Fowler. Even if you dock him a few points, he still looks something like a league-average hitter who turns 28 in late March.
A league-average hitter who plays center field. Historically, Fowler has been well below-average by UZR, but here we encounter another, less famous Coors Field park effect. The Coors Field outfield is massive, greatly inflating hits on balls in play. That makes it more tricky to turn balls in play into outs, and though UZR does attempt to correct for this, Colorado makes everything difficult. It’s possible that UZR makes Fowler look worse than he is, that he can actually cover a decent amount of ground in a usual park. If you’re going to worry about how Fowler’s offense will look outside of Colorado, at least there’s some reason of hope for his defense to look all right.
Even as just a decent hitter with passable center-field glovework, Fowler would do more good than bad. It wouldn’t take much for a healthy Fowler to be worth a couple wins, and he could be above-average without much more trouble. The league as a whole doesn’t seem to trust players that much coming out of Colorado, and teams are justified in believing that Coors Field is zany, but here the Astros believe in Fowler’s statistical potential, that he can remain at least a 2 WAR to 3 WAR player in a more normal environment. That’s a player with value that other teams would be more willing to trust.
The next two years, Fowler should get paid something like, say, $18 million. He’ll be a center fielder at 28 to 29 years old, and as an Astro, it wouldn’t be hard for Fowler to be worth that money. In that sense, all right, the Astros just got a little better. Nothing wrong with an improvement. But there’s also the matter of next offseason, or even this coming trade deadline. If Fowler shows he can be successful outside of Colorado, that’ll get more teams more interested. Presumably, the Astros would be willing to swing a deal, and then they could very easily bring back more than they gave up to get Fowler in the first place. Pretty good center fielders can fetch some value, provided they don’t come with big question marks. Houston’s gamble is that Fowler’s Colorado question mark won’t turn out to be that big of a deal.
For the Rockies, it’s a bet that Jordan Lyles’ performance can get better. For the Astros, it’s a bet that Dexter Fowler’s performance can remain more or less the same. If Lyles busts, well, he won’t be the first to do so. And if Fowler busts, it’s not like that’ll be the difference between a good Astros team and a bad Astros team. They still get to have fun with experiments, and Fowler is only their latest.
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.