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August 1, 2015

Transaction Analysis

Houston is Hip to Gomez

by J.P. Breen, Kate Morrison, Christopher Crawford, Brendan Gawlowski, Wilson Karaman and Mike Gianella

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired OF-R Carlos Gomez and RHP Mike Fiers from the Brewers in exchange for OF-L Brett Phillips, OF-R Domingo Santana, RHP Adrian Houser, and LHP Josh Hader. [7/30]

Perhaps the Astros are contending for a postseason berth more quickly than people expected—after all, they won’t win the World Series until 2017—but the organization has embraced its situation and taken a massive step to increase its odds for October baseball. While the team has tried to cobble together an outfield and a starting rotation with prospects and fringe-average players, the addition of Gomez and Fiers provides two upgrades at key positions.

Gomez was worth 11.3 WARP between 2013 and 2014, establishing himself as one of the premier center fielders in the non-Trout division of Major League Baseball. His production has fallen a bit this year, but his .278 TAv remains above average and one of the top 10 marks for qualified center fielders. He’ll be a massive upgrade over Jake Marisnick, who’s hitting .238/.275/.374, and Colby Rasmus, who only has a .236/.304/.459 slash line. Add Gomez’s Gold Glove–caliber defense in center field and the Astros have drastically upgraded their outfield situation for the next two seasons.

Once George Springer returns from his wrist injury—a timetable that’s suddenly more uncertain—the Astros will have their 2016 outfield intact. Preston Tucker has proven capable of handling major-league pitching, while Gomez and Springer have the potential to be a special combination in center and right. This isn’t a two-month quick fix for the Astros. They’re gearing up for continued contention in 2016.

That same spirit guides any analysis of the Fiers acquisition. The right-hander has been roughly league-average this year and could be a useful back-end starter for the next couple of seasons, helping the Astros upgrade a rotation that has featured Scott Feldman and pressed Vincent Velasquez into action. If one wants to be super charitable, Fiers’ 89 cFIP projects him to be 11 percent above average throughout the remainder of the season. In that way, one wonders if Fiers has a bit more upside than expected, given his pedestrian fastball velocity.

This is different than the Scott Kazmir acquisition, which was very much a “go for it” rental move in the manner that we’ve become accustomed to seeing at the trade deadline. The Astros understand they’ve stepped into their window of contention. Any high-profile moves would have to help the club beyond 2015. Gomez and Fiers both fit the bill. And while Gomez is the impact acquisition, the Astros needed to add to their pitching depth. Their combined 4.02 DRA in the rotation ranks sixth in the American League, and that’s largely carried by Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. The back end of the rotation has struggled more. Collin McHugh and Feldman have ERAs over 4.40, while Velasquez has a 3.92 ERA but is still adjusting to the majors. Fiers slides into the rotation and provides league-average production with a hint of upside.

Ultimately, this is a shrewd piece of business. They leveraged one of their top prospects, Phillips, with a handful of other non-impact guys to upgrade two key parts of their roster for at least the next year-plus. The fact that they were able to do this without moving Mark Appel, Velasquez, Derek Fisher, or McCullers is huge. Perhaps losing Phillips will hurt in the long run, but playing baseball in October for the next two seasons with an All-Star-caliber center fielder would lessen any residual pain.

Hell, if you’re more interested in the symbolism of such a deal, this is the Astros announcing their arrival as a mainstay in the AL West. Perhaps there’s value in that alone. They aren’t willing to sit back and wait for a magical moment in which all their prospects mature at exactly the same time. The club is ready to grab the AL West by the throat and make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. It’s a statement deal that has the added benefit of not mortgaging the future. That’s money. –J.P. Breen

Fantasy Impact
Carlos Gomez
After establishing himself as a no-doubt first rounder in 2013, Gomez has had a down year in fantasy by anyone’s standards, but the trade to the Astros should rejuvenate the power/speed combination. He’s moving from a hitter’s park to a hitter’s park, but the Astros' strong lineup provides Gomez with more run/RBI opportunities than he would have had on the Brewers, particularly with Jose Altuve batting in front of him. Gomez could lose some steals batting behind Altuve, but the overall lineup boost should give Gomez a slight bump. He is a break-the-bank guy in FAAB, and if hitting is your priority over pitching, you can feel free to ignore Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels and come in big. Despite the year-to-date results, he is at least on a par with Troy Tulowitzki in terms of bid priority.

Mike Fiers
Fiers was having a solid campaign in Milwaukee, and should be a decent contributor for the Astros, but the move to the AL—and having to face the DH on a regular basis—stings a little. Fiers remains a deep mixed play but fantasy owners should be somewhat more judicious when it comes to matchups and tougher AL lineups and parks. As is always the case in these situations, the wins bump is a benefit for Fiers, but it will not quite be offset by the league switch. It does help that he is bringing Gomez’s defense with him.
Jake Marisnick
Marisnick had been the regular center fielder for the Astros; now his best-case scenario is on the soft side of a platoon with Colby Rasmus. If this is the way it plays out Rasmus will take a little bit of a hit, but Marisnick is the one who really gets dinged. He is a pure AL-only play now barring an injury or a terrible slump by either Rasmus or Preston Tucker.

Lance McCullers
It is possible that Scott Feldman is pulled from the rotation, but eventually the Astros are going to start using their veterans to keep McCullers and Vincent Velasquez at their inning limits. McCullers will continue to provide value, but even if he sticks in the rotation, this move will hasten his move to the bullpen, particularly if the Astros want to save his bullets for the playoffs. –Mike Gianella

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired OF-L Brett Phillips, OF-R Domingo Santana, RHP Adrian Houser, and LHP Josh Hader from the Astros in exchange for OF-R Carlos Gomez and RHP Mike Fiers. [7/30]

Although the Brewers have given conflicting signals about whether they’d listen on their cost-controlled players, the trade-that-wasn’t sending Gomez to New York ultimately put the team’s cards on the table for all to see. Not only were the Brewers listening on the former All-Star, but they were highly motivated to move him, starting a much-needed (perhaps overdue) rebuilding process.

Doug Melvin has historically prioritized high-minors players in big trades, targeting players in Double-A or above. It’s precisely what he did when trading Zack Greinke to Los Angeles in 2012 and when trading Yovani Gallardo to Texas this past winter. Such an organizational philosophy is predicated on the theory that prospects who have successfully navigated the treacherous jump from High-A to Double-A have a better chance of doing the same from the minors to the majors. Similarly, the Brewers wish to avoid a rebuild that drags on for a half-decade or more. Targeting players in the high minors should hypothetically shorten any period of non-contention, a strategy owner Mark Attanasio desperately hopes to be true.

Gomez is one of the top four players -- including Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Ben Sheets -- to wear a Brewers uniform since the turn of the century. As such, losing his presence in center field will be a massive drop in production, both offensively and defensively. Assuming Gerardo Parra is also traded before the deadline, someone like Shane Peterson or Logan Schafer may play center field for the remainder of 2015. The Brewers will transition from above-average production, even with a bit of a down season this year, to replacement-level production.

Fortunately, their performance throughout the remainder of the 2015 season isn’t important. This trade signals an explicit acknowledgement that the club’s window of contention has closed, and that they must reload for the future. Although Gomez is a special player, his greatest service to the Brewers’ organization, at this point, is bringing in talent that can contribute beyond 2016.

If the decision to move Gomez represents a shift in the Brewers’ competitive strategy, trading Fiers only raises the white flag higher up the pole. The right-hander had four years of control before reaching free agency and has arguably been the Brewers’ best starting pitcher in 2015. He has posted an ERA that’s roughly league average (3.89) and has struck out over a batter per inning, all while making the minimum. Moving such an asset clearly signals a total rebuild.

For the Brewers, though, Fiers is a terrific asset to market to contenders. He’s a pitcher who could help beyond the 2015 season, but he’s also 30 years old. For an organization that recognizes its next chance for legitimate contention lies a few seasons (at least) in the future, an aging mid-rotation starter is hardly something to clutch too tightly. Moreover, with Wily Peralta returning to the rotation and Kyle Lohse/Matt Garza currently untradeable, the Brewers had excess starting pitching.

It's not clear if Melvin and his scouting staff targeted a specific position in trade negotiations, but the addition of Phillips gives them a long-term plan in center field now that Gomez has departed. Tyrone Taylor has been the internal plan for the past two years; however, his struggles in Double-A and the arrival of Phillips should stabilize the future at the position, perhaps as soon as late 2016.

Ultimately, though, this trade wasn’t about acquiring specific talent or clearing salary. It was about amassing talent across the board, which is what a package of four prospects—two of whom ranked in the Astros’ 2015 top-10 prospects—accomplishes. The Brewers began the 2013 season with one of the worst minor-league systems in baseball. Through quality drafts, a recent trade, and aggressive signings on the international market, that system had begun to creep up the organization rankings. A further infusion of talent through this trade will only contribute to that cause.


The Brewers continue to reload their system with potential major leaguers and are committed to moving big-named pieces for future help. That, in itself, is perhaps more important than the any individual deal. It’s a signal that Milwaukee understands its status and is willing to meaningfully address it. –J.P. Breen

***

Drafted out of high school with the first pick of the sixth round in 2012, Phillips has impressed with his growth and linear development at every stop in the minors since. What stands out most about him, on top of his raw tools, is his work ethic and demonstrated ability to address his shortcomings, particularly at the plate. He's a max-effort player who demonstrates the kind of engagement with the game and leadership qualities that give confidence that he can maximize his potential. If he does so, the Brewers' will have an above-average center fielder on their hands.

Skill-wise he offers a five-tool package highlighted by plus speed and a howitzer of a right arm. In the box he demonstrated significant growth in his time at Lancaster; his first trip through the Cal League was marked by a raw approach that saw him sell out for power at the expense of his balance. He gained strength in the off-season, helping the raw power tick up to average. Combined engaging his lower half and creating more natural torque, he showed an improved ability to drive the ball without selling out this season. The adjustments helped him stay on pitches longer and more effectively utilize the whole field, allowing the hit tool to play up despite a persistently aggressive approach. That approach means he'll give away at-bats chasing balls early in the count, and he tracks poorly against same-hand pitching. But the overall offensive package is solid-average, and there's potential for his plus speed to translate into additional value-added on the basepaths as he refines his base-stealing technique.

In the field he shows sound instincts with plus range to get to balls in the gap. He charges especially well, and the arm projects as a true weapon in center. The arm strength allows for a safety net in right and sets a high floor for Phillips as a versatile fourth outfielder if the offensive development stagnates in the high minors. –Wilson Karaman

***

Houser was a second round pick in the 2011 draft, and the Astros have taken it slowly with the right-hander from Oklahoma, as he's yet to pitch more than 110 innings in a full season. His best pitch is his fastball. While it doesn't have elite velocity, it does sit 91-93 mph with downhill plane and sink that gets him his share of groundball outs. His curveball is also an above-average offering, and its hard downward break also allows him to keep the ball on the ground. The changeup is easily the weakest of his three-pitch mix, though it has shown improvement as he gains more confidence and feel for it. He repeats his delivery well, and though he doesn't have the necessary command to pitch in the big leagues, there's no reason to think it can't get there in time.

There's not a ton of upside here, but Houser projects as a backend starter, possibly even a mid-rotation arm if the change continues to progress. –Chris Crawford

***

An easy comparison for Josh Hader could be “poor man’s Chris Sale,” but the lanky lefty also reminds of recent transactee Alex Wood, if just in mechanics alone. Hader joined the Astros from Baltimore in the 2013 deal that also sent L.J. Hoes and a competitive balance pick to the O's in exchange for starter Bud Norris. A 2012 draft pick, the 21-year-old Hader has worked his way up to Double-A at a fair pace, though not without his share of bumps and bruises in the ERA column along the way. Though he has both started and relieved, the bullpen likely given his quirky mechanics from the left side, particularly if he struggles to repeat his delivery. As for those mechanics: Hader has a slight rock-step in the beginning of his delivery, making the rest (a full turn towards second base; arms almost creating a straight line at full extension, whipping through a low 3/4 arm slot to a slightly off-balance finish) even more difficult for hitters to time than your standard lefty.


In a recent viewing, his fastball sat 92-94 MPH, and ran up to 97 MPH in the first inning. He did touch 95 MPH in the fourth inning, his last before being removed for an unknown reason. The aforementioned armslot and motion add both deception and life to the offering, which is by far his best pitch, and he relied primarily on it in that recent outing. Hader also works with a somewhat slider that can border on slurve in the mid-to-upper 70s, a pitch that could become a solid piece with more confidence and time. Hader’s third pitch, a changeup averaging 83-84, is by far his weakest pitch, and he would do well to drop it should he transition to the bullpen on a permanent basis. –Kate Morrison

***

At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Santana has an athletic physique and wiry strength. He has plus power and is seemingly just as comfortable lining a fastball over the right field wall as he is pulling his hands in to drive a pitch to left. He has average bat speed but plenty of loft in his swing and he puts a ton of leverage behind it. If everything clicks, it’s not unreasonable to think he could hit 30+ home runs at full maturity.

Santana’s hit tool makes that a big if, however. He can cover the entire plate effectively, but he often expands the zone, chasing breaking balls in the dirt and trying to catch up to fastballs above the letters. He doesn’t recognize spin well at all, and often flails at sliders and curves, even if they’re in the zone. He can hit anybody’s fastball but he’s really struggled against right-handers with good secondaries.

In the field, Santana has a plus arm but little else. His focus drifts in the outfield and he's been known to miss or bobble routine ground balls hit right at him. He’s a below-average runner too, so he doesn’t offer anything out there besides arm strength.

Having already reached the major leagues, there isn’t much growth left in Santana’s game. The Brewers can afford to give him every chance to crack their lineup as a regular but he’ll likely get chewed up by big league righties and it’s hard to project him as more than a second division starter with some pop. It’s possible that he exceeds that projection, of course, but in the long run, his skills best suit him in a platoon role where he can mash lefties and offer Craig Counsell a power-hitting weapon off the bench against everyone else. –Brendan Gawlowski


Fantasy Impact

Khris Davis
Davis was understandably buried on the Brewers by the emergence of Gerardo Parra, but with Gomez out the door Davis will get another opportunity to play every day. He has 20-25 home run potential, so even with a low batting average, Davis’s ceiling can play in all formats. If he was dumped in your mixed league he is an instant add in 15 or 16-team mixed and someone worth stashing reserve on in a 12-team mixed to see if he can put it all together now that he will be starting again. –Mike Gianella

J.P. Breen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see J.P.'s other articles. You can contact J.P. by clicking here
Kate Morrison is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kate's other articles. You can contact Kate by clicking here
Christopher Crawford is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christopher's other articles. You can contact Christopher by clicking here
Brendan Gawlowski is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Brendan's other articles. You can contact Brendan by clicking here
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Wilson's other articles. You can contact Wilson by clicking here
Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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