Just as the clock struck 4 pm Eastern, the Astros completed a significant trade with the Blue Jays, acquiring both right-handed starter Aaron Sanchez and right-handed reliever Joe Biagini in one fell swoop. As first reported by Shi Davidi of Sportsnet, the full deal looks like this:
That is quite the haul for the Astros. A trade like this kills two birds with one stone: It allows them to add depth to both the starting rotation and the bullpen, two areas of need.
The Astros’ rotation has been quite good this season, but they have lacked depth, with Brad Peacock (shoulder discomfort), Lance McCullers Jr. (Tommy John surgery), and Corbin Martin (Tommy John surgery again) currently out on the IL, and Collin McHugh relegated to the bullpen after an ineffective start. The minor league options to replace them have had varying degrees of success.
Sanchez will certainly provide depth in the Astros’ rotation, but there is the potential for him to be much more than that. He is now three years removed from his last significant run of success, having battled a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness since 2016. But what remains encouraging about the 27-year-old Sanchez, despite his abysmal 2019 performance, are his underlying metrics. He still possesses a good fastball, though it is currently a few ticks below of what it was pre-injuries. More intriguing is his curveball. The spin rate on the pitch ranks in the 94th percentile, and hitters have been held to just a .273 wOBA (.234 xwOBA) against it, all while whiffing on 37% of swings.
For Houston, the hope is that the coaching staff will be able to leverage Sanchez’s excellent curveball into tangible on-field results. They’ve done it before — it’s worth noting that both Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander feature curveballs with high spin. Sanchez was perhaps the prime change-of-scenery candidate at the 2019 trade deadline, and there’s hardly a better situation in which to land than in Houston.
Sanchez will join a rotation that features the aforementioned Cole and Verlander, but also Wade Miley (4.34 FIP) and the newly-acquired Zack Greinke (we’ll have more on that soon). Should one of these back-end arms falter, or if Sanchez needs to be moved to the bullpen, Jose Urquidy (2.65 FIP) is a solid bet to fill in. He’s been quite solid serving as a stopgap in four July starts. No matter how one breaks it down, the Astros have an elite rotation, and they clearly have their sights set on the World Series behind this group of arms.
With that said, there’s more to baseball than starting pitching, especially in the bullpen-dominated postseason. That’s where Biagini comes into play. The 29-year-old has been a solid-if-unspectacular bullpen arm in Toronto this season, posting a 3.78 ERA and a 4.39 FIP in 50 innings, including today’s performance. The Astros’ bullpen ranks in the top-third of teams in terms of overall value, but their top arm, Ryan Pressly, was just put on the IL with right knee soreness earlier today. They do have other competent arms in their bullpen to bridge the gap to closer Roberto Osuna, but more depth never hurts.
Prior to 2019, Biagini had been a fine reliever, but his strikeout rate has seen a seven-point jump this year. This is likely due to an increase in cutter usage, a pitch that hitters are posting just a .245 wOBA (.261 xwOBA) against. They whiff on nearly 46% of swings against it. Only two pitchers with at least 30 innings have increased their cutter usage more than Biagini. He now throws it 32% of the time, compared to just 16% last season. Clearly, what he’s done has worked, and that made him a very attractive trade option for the Astros.
Stevenson is the third and final piece Houston received in this deal. He’s a 22-year-old outfielder currently playing in High-A, where he has slashed .298/.388/.393 over 390 PA. Prior to the season, Eric and Kiley ranked Stevenson as the Blue Jays’ 33rd-best prospect, noting that his tools “are indicative of a bench outfielder.”
In return for these two high-upside arms and the prospect, the Blue Jays received the 25-year-old Fisher, a former prospect who ranked as high as No. 7 on the Astros’ preseason list in 2017. As Eric wrote at the time:
If he ever starts hitting, he’s a potential star. Fisher is already 23 and it’s unlikely he develops great bat-to-ball skills at this point, but he still projects as a big-league regular of some kind because of the power, patience, and speed.
Due to Houston’s plethora of outfield talent, Fisher fell out of favor on the depth chart and has been limited to just 312 big league plate appearances in three years. In that time, he hasn’t been particularly impressive, either, posting a 77 wRC+ and just 0.2 WAR. He’ll likely be the beneficiary of a significant boost in playing time with Toronto. He’s a year younger than their current center field regular, Teoscar Hernández, and likely has more upside with his speed and power combination. Whether he can develop into something more remains to be seen, but the opportunity to do so is much greater playing for a rebuilding team in the Blue Jays than a contending one in the Astros. For what it is worth, Fisher is hitting .286/.401/.522 (125 wRC+) in 270 Triple-A plate appearances this season, his fourth straight season with at least some time at the minor leagues’ highest level.
This trade makes sense for all involved. The Astros receive a high-upside arm to bolster their rotation and a solid, improved relief arm to provide value in the postseason, while the Blue Jays take a chance on a former prospect who will have the opportunity to prove himself on a rebuilding squad.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.
You guys just sitting on the Greinke deal…or?
That’s a third pitching need