BUYERS OR SELLERS?
Examining 3 trade scenarios that could benefit the Astros
The MLB trade deadline is just four days away. It's expected to be a quiet deadline considering the unique circumstances. First, there's a limited group of sellers due to the expanded playoff picture. Only the Seattle Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox, and Pittsburgh Pirates are for sure sellers, with the Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, and Texas Rangers falling in the likely category. The rest of MLB is either firmly in the playoff hunt or has a puncher's chance. Lastly, teams are restricted to trading players within the 60-man player pool of talent between big league rosters and alternate training sites. There is no minor league baseball this year, meaning the pool of players to deal from is significantly smaller.
The Astros were rumored to be possible sellers after their early season skid, but they've righted the ship a bit and look likely for the playoffs. Jim Crane has said that the Astros "are in a position to be aggressive." A title would go a long way towards helping the franchise image, erasing a lot of the doubts about the legitimacy of the 2017 title.
Most Astros fans will jump to the assumption that pitching is the Astros biggest need. That isn't the case. The Astros staff has actually been respectable, especially considering the circumstances, and the big pitching acquisitions will be coming from the injured list, not other franchises. Justin Verlander and Jose Urquidy are both progressing. If the foursome of Verlander, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers, and Urquidy are rolling, that rotation can win a World Series with any sort of supporting offensive cast. Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier provide reliable and respectable starting pitching depth if one of those four fall prey to injury.
Similarly, the bullpen will see better days. Roberto Osuna is pushing to come back by the end of the regular season, and Brad Peacock's return is around the corner. Once Osuna and Peacock rejoin Ryan Pressly, and the emergent Blake Taylor and Enoli Paredes, the Astros bullpen will be good enough to win a World Series as well.
Lastly, the current staff is locked up for 2021. Every one of the names above is either under contract or club control for next season. The Astros dealt for Greinke last year as insurance for losing Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh, and more.
The real need is on the offensive side. First, superstars George Springer and Jose Altuve are underperforming. Alex Bregman is on the shelf and Yordan Alvarez is out for the year. Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, and Yuli Gurriel are all impending free agents. There's need for offensive help in the short term and there's room to add in the long term as insurance for one or multiple of the quartet of impending free agent bats leaving in the offseason.
Houston Astros GET: OF/DH Jorge Soler
Kansas City Royals GET: P Josh James, 3B Abraham Toro
Soler is under club control through 2022, meaning the Astros would get him for the rest of 2020 and two more seasons. He's off to a hot start in 2020, batting .252/.341/.495 with 7 homers for the lowly Kansas City Royals. His $7.3M price tag (non pro-rata) is more than feasible for the Astros to add to the payroll.
Soler really shines in some of the advanced metrics. He's in the 95th percentile in average exit velocity, 89th percentile in hard hit percentage, and 97th percentile in barrel percentage. Put simply, Soler hits the ball really hard on a line more so than almost any other hitter in baseball. Now, he does swing and miss a lot, as he's in the 6th percentile in K-rate and the 8th percentile in whiff percentage. However, the Astros have done such a good job at building a lineup with spectacular plate discipline that the presence of one boom-or-bust hitter would be okay. The Astros player development staff is fantastic at what they do. If they could find a way to help Soler cut down on that swing-and-miss just a little bit, the Astros would have an absolute star on their hands.
In return, the Royals get James and Toro. While both players have had rough seasons, both still have plenty of value. James was thrust into the starting rotation, a role he's clearly not a good fit for. He had pitched better after his move to the bullpen before hurting himself in Colorado. James would slot in nicely at the back of Kansas City's bullpen, where he'd have a defined role. He has the benefit of being young and controllable while also being someone that's been there and done that in the playoffs for a Kansas City pitching staff that has a lot of young guns on the way.
Similar to James, Toro has been thrust into action due to injury. Aledmys Diaz was "a week to 10 days away" a little over a week ago, so the Astros true infield utility option should be back soon, meaning Toro will see his playing time drop precipitously. However, Toro is a switch hitter with a track record of success at the minor league level that can play multiple infield positions. He'd immediately be the best first baseman on the Kansas City roster, and he'd be a lot more likely to find success with regular playing time.
CF George Springer
2B Jose Altuve
3B Alex Bregman
LF Michael Brantley
1B Yuli Gurriel
SS Carlos Correa
DH Jorge Soler
RF Kyle Tucker/Josh Reddick
C Martin Maldonado
Houston Astros GET: OF Andrew Benintendi
Boston Red Sox GET: P Bryan Abreu, P Brandon Bielak
Andrew Benintendi has been on a steep downhill track since what seemed to be his breakout year in 2018, but that doesn't mean that he can't steer his career back in the right direction. The Red Sox would admittedly be selling low on Benintendi, but it's becoming clearer that they might have a little bit of a rebuild on their hands, and Benintendi isn't likely to be a factor in their next title run.
It's questionable whether or not Benintendi could even be helpful in a 2020 title run for the Astros, as he's on the IL with a rib cage injury. Injuries have been a common theme for Benintendi the last couple of years. Because of the Astros current outfield situation, Houston has the luxury of allowing Benintendi to get healthy; any production they get from him in 2020 would be gravy. The real value in Benintendi lies in 2021 and beyond, as he'd be a cheap and controllable replacement for the free agent outfield bats on the roster. Benintendi has already settled for next season and will make $6.6M. He's also under club control for 2022 and 2023 before hitting the market.
Benintendi's batted ball profile is nothing like it was in 2018. He's hitting the ball on the ground a ton, he's not hitting it hard very often, and he's swinging the bat way more than he used to. It really speaks to an injured player that doesn't trust his swing, and it is reminiscent of Ryan Zimmerman in 2016. Zimmerman was a player with a track record of success, but injuries forced him to change his swing and he hit the ball on the ground way too often. With health and swing changes, Zimmerman hit over .300 with 36 homers in 2017. Benintendi could do the same thing in orange and blue.
Houston Astros Get: 1B Josh Bell
Pittsburgh Pirates Get: P Josh James, 3B Abraham Toro
Similar to Benintendi, Bell would be another buy low option for the Astros. Coming off of his first All-Star appearance in 2019, Bell has had a brutal 2020 season. He's slashing .198/.242/.286, and has a WAR of -0.2. If the Astros could get Bell on track for 2020, that would be fantastic, but he'd ultimately serve as the replacement for Yuli Gurriel in the long term, as Bell is under club control through 2023.
There are reasons for optimism with Bell. For one, his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is about .030 points below his career mark, meaning he's been a little unlucky. Next, he's still hitting the ball hard, as he's in the 86th percentile for exit velocity and the 75th percentile for hard hit rate. However, his barrel percentage has dropped 8% from last season, his K-Rate has jumped 11%, and his BB-Rate has dropped 7%. He's striking out a ton, barely walking, and hitting the ball hard, but just not doing it on a line. There's obviously a great hitter in there, because he's coming off a season where he hit .277/.367/.569 with 37 homers for a terrible Pirates baseball club. It would be up to the Astros coaching staff and player development department to help Bell find that version of himself again.
Bell could be a coup for the Astros, and if the Pirates are buying into the struggles and are willing to play ball on James and Toro, then the Astros should absolutely be interested. However, the Pirates likely see the value left in that bat as well and might not be willing to sell this low on their former All-Star.