The Astros Make Their Big Splash

A month ago, when the dust settled on the July 31st trade deadline, the Astros had added just left-hander Francisco Liriano, whose struggles were one of the main reasons the Blue Jays failed to contend in 2017. It was an underwhelming upgrade for a team headed for the postseason, and the fact that the team thought they had a deal for Zach Britton was little solace to disappointed fans and players who hoped for more reinforcements.

Well, it took a month, but reinforcements are here, and this particular reinforcement throws really hard.

As Jeff noted in the InstaGraphs post last night, the Astros landed Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers for three interesting prospects, who we’ll get to in a minute. For the Tigers to land that kind of return, they had to pay down Verlander’s salary, and the Tigers are sending $8 million per year for each of the next two seasons to facilitate the trade, which means they’ll be paying him 2/$40M after this year. Three weeks ago, when assessing Verlander’s trade value, I wrote this.

So let’s say Verlander would get something like 2/$40M this winter if constrained to only accepting a two year deal. Maybe it’s $35M, maybe it’s $45M, but I think something in that range is probably about right. Since he’s due $56 million over those years, you’d be looking at the Tigers eating about $16 million to get the contract down near market value, or about the point at which they could trade him for a minimal return.

But there’s also the remainder of his contract this year to consider. He’s due about $8 million through the rest of 2017, and while he’s pitched well of late, most teams don’t have $8 million left in their budgets this year. If the Tigers want to move him for a real return, they probably have to pick up a good chunk of that money too; guys who were traded without money to offset their current prices didn’t fetch much, so let’s round that $16 million up to $20 million just to help cover some of the in-season costs.

Well, I got the $16 million part right. But this is clearly not a “minimal return”, as the Tigers extracted a far better package than I expected they’d get while also unloading this much salary. Part of the disconnect between my expectations and what Houston paid to land Verlander comes in what the man has done since I wrote that piece.

Justin Verlander Since August 9th
Games Innings Hits Walks Strikeouts ERA- FIP- xFIP-
5 35 20 7 40 52 84 73

After a pretty mediocre first half, Verlander has been much better lately; as Jeff showed, the recent vintage looks a lot like the guy Detroit had last year, when he was a +5 WAR pitcher. In August, Verlander has been lights out, running a 31% strikeout rate against a 4% walk rate. Lately, he’s looked like a guy you pay a premium to have in your rotation in October.

But just like Verlander got better, the Astros got more desperate. They went 11-17 in August. Dallas Keuchel has looked just okay since returning from the DL. Lance McCullers hasn’t returned from the DL yet, in part because he walked five guys in three innings in his first rehab stint, and he’s struck out just three of the 35 batters he’s faced in his two minor league tune-ups. The rotation is currently being carried by Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock, so, yeah, there was more reason to pay for Verlander now than there was a month ago.

So pay they did. Eric will have his full thoughts up on these guys in a bit, but if you’re a Tigers fan, you have to be pretty happy with what is coming back here, even if you’re sad about trading Verlander.

Franklin Perez is the headliner here, as a 19-year-old RHP who is already getting outs in Double-A. He’s not getting the strikeouts you’d ideally like to see, but given his age, level, and stuff, he’s pretty clearly one of the best pitching prospects around. Eric ranked him #62 overall on his summer update, roughly equal to Willie Calhoun, who headlined the deal for Yu Darvish.

The Darvish deal, though, was effectively Calhoun and a couple of lottery tickets. But this isn’t a one player return for Detroit.

Daz Cameron, son of Mike Cameron, was the 37th pick in the 2015 draft, but only fell that far because of his bonus demand; he signed for $4 million, which slots him in right between the 5th and 6th spots in that draft. His bat hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations yet, but as a CF with power and speed, he’s got a lot of upside if he hits, and he’s run a 127 wRC+ this year, so no one should give up on the bat yet. If you want a lottery ticket as a secondary piece, it’s hard to do better than a guy considered a top-10 draft talent two years ago who is still just 20-years-old and looks to be on the upswing.

And the third guy in this deal is the one that KATOH likes most of all. Jake Rogers was a third round pick last year as a catcher with serious defensive skills, and now all he’s done is hit pretty well as professional, showing patience and power with reasonable strikeout rates. Eric said he “the best defensive catching prospect I’ve ever seen in person” in his pre-season write-up, and if he’s really a plus defender behind the plate, KATOH’s #62 overall midseason ranking might not be so crazy.

So the Tigers get a live-armed teenager already in Double-A, a toolsy 20-year-old center fielder who hit well this year, and a potentially elite defensive catcher who is showing more life in his bat than was expected. This trio might not have the prospect ranking pedigree of the guys the Yankees gave up for Sonny Gray, but I think you could make an argument for this package not being that different from the one Oakland got for their ace. This kind of return more than justifies Al Avila’s decision to hold Verlander at the deadline and wait for a better offer.

Given that Verlander isn’t just around for 2017, this isn’t a pure win-this-year move, but there’s no question the Astros paid a hefty price to upgrade right now because they were concerned about what they could throw in the postseason. With Verlander clearly in the #1 spot, the team has plenty of options now.

Unless Keuchel gets bombed again in September, you have to imagine he’s getting the ball in Game 2, but after that, the Astros can basically abandon the idea of a “starting pitcher”. With Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, and Lance McCullers (if he proves healthy), the Astros could effectively throw tandem-starters in Games 3 and 4 of each postseason series, only asking each guy to go 2-3 innings before giving way to a fresh arm. Toss in starter-turned-quality-setup-guy Joe Musgrove and Chris Devenski, and the Astros could have six multi-inning capable arms to mix and match with.

Having Verlander at the top spot gives the team a significantly better chance to save their bullpen for the other starts, and that impact could be felt by other teams when they realize they might not get to see any of the Astros non-Verlander pitchers a third time through the order in any postseason game. It would have been a lot harder to pull that kind of strategy off with a question mark in the first spot, but with Verlander around, the Astros can do some pretty interesting things with their pitching staff next month.

With the American League wide open, the Astros just put themselves back in the driver’s seat for a World Series position. Verlander doesn’t guarantee anything, and getting through the postseason still requires a lot of luck, but the organization just gave the team a much better shot at advancing through the tournament than they had yesterday. It came at a steep price, and this is the kind of deal that could turn out to be a huge win for Detroit — especially if first-half Verlander re-emerges at any point in the near future — but the Astros decided they weren’t going to be left wondering whether they should have pushed harder at a second straight trade deadline.

This time, they paid the price to get a lot better. I don’t know that I’d have given up those three guys for an aging pitcher who will still cost $20 million per year even with the subsidy, but given what the city of Houston is going through, I hope it pays off for the Astros in October. Houston could use some good news. Justin Verlander on the mound in the postseason can be pretty good news.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

It is a high price but you always have to consider window of opportunity, especially if you consider that the astros might not be able to resign those young stars.

If the astros win it probably is in the next 3 years or so and even if the trade has negative surplus value a win for the astros in 2018 might be a lot more valuable than a win in 2022 when the astros might do another rebuild.

Still a risk with verlanders age of course but after failing to make a move at the deadline luhnow had not many more alternatives and 2017 might be the best shots they will ever get.

Goldsteins_Tool_Fedora
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Goldsteins_Tool_Fedora

I disagree. The Astros have not committed a long term contract to anyone yet.. I personally believe this is on purpose, because they know that when its time to give the years to Altuve and Correa… no albatross contract will be in the way. They even front loaded Yuli’s contract significantly, because the payroll is so low this year. Beltran is being paid 16 million on a one year deal right now. Verlanders contract will almost equal his money on the books, after he is gone next season.

This is also why they value prospects, more than most teams. They still have the deepest system in baseball, and an emerging elite front of the rotation starter in Whitley who probably will pitch for them in 2018. But their staff is actually under team control for a very long time, at a good price.

The Astros run their franchise like a business. Their goal is to sustain. Winning the world series is a crapshoot. Your best shot is to put a very good team in contention over a long span. There should be no such thing as a window.

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

While I agree with most in this post, Astros are about increasing their chances of winning the WS. Usually, that means they are going to favor prospects and diversifying WAR over more seasons as making playoffs in more seasons usually helps WS odds more than consolidating talent into one season. With McCullers not 100%, I’m guessing Astros believe Verlander increases WS odds in next three years more than the three prospects plus the opportunity cost based on money differences.

I doubt Astros do this if McCullers was pitching well right now.

jdbolick
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And there’s a pretty compelling reason for the Houston Astros to put their best foot forward this fall.

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

Actually if the astros compete until 2020 they have competed for 5 years. A 5 year window is pretty good if you don’t spend a ton. I see no indication that crane wants to spend big bucks, their tv deal isn’t the best.

Luhnow has done a full rebuild before and I don’t think he will hesitate to do it again, I don’t see him extending correa.

But now that is far I think they have at least 3 years left.