Astros Trade Stars, Start Winning

How do you make a bad team worse? By moving its best players to other teams. We see this every year at the non-waiver trade deadline. Contenders seek upgrades. Non-contenders seek a return on the veterans who won’t be part of the future. The pairing is almost perfect. Contenders load up for the short-term, while non-contenders build with the next two or three years in mind. Of course, that leaves in question the matter of the current season for the non-contending club.

Realistically it doesn’t matter whether a team wins 65 games or it wins 70 games. Either way it’s a sub-.500 season and it will almost certainly mean a top 15 draft pick the following year. Why, then, do some teams hold onto the veterans whose contracts will expire before they will reach the point of contention? Off the top of my head I can think of a few reasons:

1. They want to keep the player close so they can re-sign him and make him part of the franchise’s long-term outlook.

2. They think they can get a better return on the player at a later date, perhaps in the winter when more teams will vie for his services.

2a. The available trade proposals don’t match the potential of the compensatory draft picks.

3. They’re afraid that trading the player signal surrender and cause fans to stop attending games.

The Nats actually used all three reasons to explain why they didn’t trade Adam Dunn. All year we’ve heard about the team’s desire to sign Dunn long-term, we’ve heard GM Mike Rizzo say that he didn’t receive any acceptable offers, and we know that the team wanted to win as many games as possible even though the playoffs have been an impossibility since sometime in May. If Dunn signs elsewhere this off-season the Nats can fall back only on No. 3, and considering their spot in last place that’s a tiny consolation.

The Astros took an opposite approach this July. They entered the month 31-48 and had no hope of a come back. Sure, they made runs after being 35-41 on July 1, 2005 and 40-43 on July 1, 2008, but this was a considerably deeper hole. At least in those years they were within 7.5 games of the Wild Card. This year they were 13.5 back, and considering the roster composition there was simply no chance for a comeback. This led the team to make available its highest profile players, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. Before the month was over the Astros would deal both.

Trading Oswalt acted as the precursor for trading Berkman. The Astros received J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose, and Jonathan Villar in exchange for Oswalt, and then flipped Gose to the Blue Jays for 1B Brett Wallace. With an MLB-ready first baseman on hand, the Astros could then flip Berkman and get out from under some of his remaining salary. They didn’t receive much from the Yankees, though Mark Melancon was a once-heralded reliever who might find success in his new environment. The trades helped the Astros in the short-term, in that it saved them some money, and in the long-term, since they have young, cost-controlled players in place of older, more expensive ones. But there is that pesky thing called winning, and the trades looked to hurt the Astros in that department.

Berkman played his last game for the Astros on July 29. That means from July 29 through now they have played without their two franchise-defining players. At that point the team was 42-59, 3.5 games behind fourth-place Chicago, 14 games behind the Reds and Cardinals, and 15.5 games back in the Wild Card. Not that any of that mattered. The Astros were just playing out the season and hoping they might learn something that they can use in assembling next year’s club. But instead of flipping on cruise control, the Astros went on a tear.

Since Berkman’s final game the Astros have gone 20-12, playing spoiler to many NL contenders, including their division rivals the Cardinals. They leapfrogged Chicago a while back and now sit 5.5 games ahead of them. They’ve even caught Milwaukee and are currently tied with them for third in the Central. How does that happen? How does a team lose two of its best players and play better than they did with them on board? The answer, at least in this case, is that the Astros’ improvement started while Oswalt and Berkman were still on the roster.

The Astros’ season couldn’t have started any worse. They went 8-14 in April and then fell even further, going 9-20 in May. That left them with the worst record in the NL by 2.5 games. They had scored 13 fewer runs than the next closest NL team, and were 75 behind the next closest after that. June didn’t appear to be much friendlier, as their interleague schedule included two series against Texas and one against the Yankees. But the Astros made it through at a .500 pace even though they had a -22 run differential. That appeared to be just the start. In July the Astros went 13-11 with a +3 run differential. Then, sans their stars, they went 17-12 in August with a +17 differential. They’re currently 1-0 in September.

They have accomplished this by improving on both sides of the ball. In the rotation Wandy Rodriguez has come on strong after a rough start. Through his first 14 starts he had a 6.09 ERA, though his 4.29 FIP suggested it wasn’t solely bad pitching at fault. In his latest 13 starts he has a 1.65 ERA and 2.50 FIP, lasting at least six innings each time. He has allowed more than one earned run just three times in those 13 starts. Oswalt was the team’s best pitcher at his time of departure, a 3.42 ERA and 3.39 FIP, which amounted to 2.7 WAR. Happ took his place and while his FIP is a bit higher, 3.65, his ERA is a bit lower, 3.32. He has so far produced 0.7 WAR in his seven starts.

On offense the Astros did more than replace Berkman with Wallace. In fact, that was a considerable downgrade. Berkman wasn’t having the greatest year, but he did appear to be recovering from knee surgery. His wOBA rose in each month this season, peaking at .392 in July. That amounted to 2.0 WAR. Wallace has been worth -0.3 WAR since his arrival. The difference has been made in a number of places, most noticeably with Jeff Keppinger, whom R.J. wrote about this week, and Chris Johnson, who has been on a BABIP-fueled tear since taking over at third base for the uninspiring Pedro Feliz. Hunter Pence has also recovered after a slow start. He produced a .372 wOBA in July and .376 in August, helping power a once punchless Astros offense.

By most indications, the Astros are playing above their heads. Based on simple run differential they’re behind both Milwaukee and Chicago. Baseball Prospectus’s third-order wins have them in that position as well. There is no doubt that some of their players, Johnson most notably, are hitting at unsustainable rates. It doesn’t mean much for next year. The Astros are still a few years and a number of lucky breaks away from pulling back into contention. But they’ve managed to make something out of what was a season lost from the very beginning.

Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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I agree that the Astros have been the beneficiaries of some luck over the past few months, but at the same time I think you have to remember that with a young team like this, being lucky doesn’t necessarily mean the club will regress in the future–or at least not as much as you might assume.

Young players typically improve their skills as they gain experience. The Astros have a lot of rookies and pre-arbitration players on their roster, now. A player like Chris Johnson, who is riding an unsustainable BABIP, might see regression in some areas, but that regression could be offset (at least in part) by the legitimate improvement of other skills.

Okay, maybe he’s not a.363 wOBA player over the next few years. But that doesn’t mean you can find his true talent level by simply regressing his BABIP to expected levels.

All of that said, I agree that the Astros having a winning record next season is a low-probability outcome. But I think they are on the right track to improve, finally, and that’s a good feeling as a fan of the team.