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December 4, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Astros Acquire a Player!

by Sam Miller

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired CF-S Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for RHP Jordan Lyles and CF-R Brandon Barnes [12/3]

The trade pipeline flows toward Houston for the first time since—geez, Clint Barmes in November 2010? Maybe Matt Lindstrom a year earlier? The group of outgoings since then includes Justin Maxwell, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Jed Lowrie, Wilton Lopez, Chris Johnson, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ, Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Jeff Keppinger, Matt Lindstrom, Felipe Paulino, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. But it’s morning in America again: the Astros are trying to get better!

At the risk of ignoring the trees, it’s more relevant and interesting to wonder what acquiring Fowler says about their intentions. After all, the Astros’ intentions have been a major story of the era, more important in many ways than almost any trade or signing that any other team has made. Fowler is in many ways an interesting place to start the movement.

He’s got two years left until free agency, and facing arbitration last winter he signed a two-year extension, which all gives Houston a ton of flexibility here. They know he’s cost controlled this year, so there’s no risk of losing an arbitration hearing. By next winter, when he’ll be in his fourth arbitration year (he was a super two), they’ll have had a year to evaluate him and decide whether he’s worth tendering a contract to. If he’s not, then it’s a limited financial risk up front.

By then, they might even consider themselves contenders. In fact, it would almost defy belief that they don’t currently consider themselves something like contenders in 2015. Yeah, they’ve mastered the losing-to-win gambit, but nobody’s that patient. Even if they intend to spend money next winter, they’ll have to convince free agents to sign with a team that has lost around 430 games over a four-year period, while (in some eyes) turning their games into a farce. A push for 85 or 90 wins in 2015 might be much more cost effective if it follows a push this winter for 75, and Fowler helps there. Further, adding Fowler now is potentially one pretty splashy signing in the bank, and there’s nothing he or his agent can do about it. And if he breaks out—and, with Fowler, there’s always an “if he breaks out” rattling around in your brain—then they’ve got two years to work on an extension, the sort that shows they’re serious about whatever comes next. He's like the contract version of a utility guy, giving them flexibility as their aims become clearer.

How likely is that breakout? Fowler’s consistency is almost what dooms him. Nate Silver once wrote that the players with the deepest weak spots are the ones with the most room to break out, but Fowler does everything pretty well: good plate discipline, a little pop, speed, a strikeout rate that is under control. The best bet is that he’ll leverage that long body into a late-career power surge, but a quick skim of comparables—tall guys with above-average slash lines but below-average power in ages 25-27 seasons—doesn’t turn up many breakouts. Paul O’Neill is about it.

In his favor, he might be undervalued by Coors Field, which seems to significantly diminish the value of players who draw a lot of walks. And it’s also possible he’s undervalued in Coors Field by total metric systems, as the Rockies’ outfield finishes in the bottom five by advanced metrics every year. Either the Rockies have a decade-long problem fielding the outfield, or the metrics have as much trouble in Coors Field as curveball pitchers.

Also, he’ll make a helluva trade chit in eight months. That literally might be the entire idea behind this; a pretty famous player fell into their laps for not much talent, figure out the rest later. Shane Victorino brought back a top-100 prospect, and that was only a two-month rental. That’s sort of the nice thing about acquiring Fowler today, in his current state and under his current contract: The Astros don’t have to decide what they are quite yet, and they don’t have to decide what Fowler is quite yet. He gives them flexibility as they pursue the franchise’s first-ever winning season* eventually.

*Right? I think this is right.

COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Jordan Lyles and CF-R Brandon Barnes from the Houston Astros in exchange for CF-S Dexter Fowler [12/3]

Since 1998, only 13 pitchers have thrown 350 or more innings by the end of their age-22 season. One is Lyles, and the others are really good! There's Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw, and Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner, and CC Sabathia. Of the 12 who aren't Jordan Lyles, eight were All-Stars sometimes between 23 and 25, and the four who weren't are a very groovy bunch themselves: Oliver Perez, Jeremy Bonderman, Rick Porcello and Trevor Cahill. It is probably no stretch to say that the Rockies will win this trade if Lyles turns out to be as good as any of the 12.

Lyles has, unfortunately, been considerably worse thus far than any of the 12. His ERA is .37 runs worse than the next highest (Bonderman’s) and more than a run worse than nine of them—and this, meanwhile, happened in a pitcher-friendlier era than most of these pitchers grew up in. He doesn’t have the lowest strikeout rate, and he’s right around the middle in strikeout-to-walk rate, but he’s been hit hard, as though he (unlike the others) didn’t actually belong in the majors that whole time.

Lyles works in the low-to-mid-90s, and has added velocity in increments since his debut in 2011. The extra heat hasn’t added enough whiff to his game, though, and neither of his breaking pitches gets many swinging strikes. Meanwhile, his changeup has deteriorated since his rookie year, leaving him stagnating. He throws strikes and has a better-than-average groundball rate, but he’s prone to homers (and doubles). Perhaps most damningly, he was just given up on by an organization that has been collecting busted former prospects like Pokemon.

Brandon Barnes finished third on Houston in positional WARP, but that was almost all due to a 13-run fielding rating that needs to be repeated to be believed. Now, if you believe the defensive ratings, and you believe Fowler’s defensive ratings—and, to be fair, UZR, DRS, and FRAA all agree here—you might actually expect him to be a more valuable WARPer than Fowler next year, for a fraction of the cost. But he’s 27 (two months younger than Fowler, only), and while there are some .500 slugging percentages on his minor-league resume and he can handle center field, he’s a really terrible hitter. PECOTA projects a better TAv this year from (hang on, skimming through the spreadsheet, looking for a good example, give me a minuuuuuuute…) everybody.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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