Jeff Luhnow, the Mastermind, has stunned the baseball world yet again.
It was a busy day for Jeff Luhnow as the trade deadline wound down. After working for weeks trying to find the right fit, it all came down to the final minutes before the deadline. Astros fans have seen this movie before, when the Astros traded for Justin Verlander on August 31st 2017. The Astros went on to win the World Series that year, as you know. In the sequel, Jeff Luhnow has again pulled off a diabolical, stunning, last second trade. Will the movie end with another parade in downtown Houston? Stay tuned.
While one trade may be more important than the others, let’s discuss them in the order that they were reported and their impact on the team going forward.
The farm system has been raided, but that is one reason why an organization accumulates prospects; to help the MLB club. Luhnow did what he does, he waited out the other teams and got the players he wanted. By 3:00 PM, CDT, the rest of baseball sat in stunned amazement. Let’s take a look.
It’s catching up time.
On July 25th, the Astros designated Tony Kemp for assignment to add Carlos Correa to the 25-man roster. Jake Kaplan reported at the time that Kemp could be part of a package for a starting pitcher. The team had seven days to trade him or place him on waivers. Speed and a high contact rate were what the Cubs were looking for, but there wouldn’t be a match right?
Luhnow was able to turn the DFAed Kemp into a backup catcher. The Astros traded for Martin Maldonado for the second straight season at the trade deadline. After declining a two-year deal in the off-season, Maldonado would later sign a one-year deal with the Royals after Robinson Chirinos signed with the Astros. It was only a $2.5 million contract, but he was needed in Kansas City with Salvador Perez out for the year.
After a trade to the Cubs a few weeks ago when Wilson Contreras went on the IL, they made him available. The Astros appeared to have given up on Max Stassi, so they were looking for another backup catcher. It was a match made in heaven. Maldonado knows most of the pitchers and is reputedly a good defensive catcher, so it made sense to go out and bring him back.
Maldonado is batting .217 with six homers and 17 RBI this year. Last year his offense improved after the trade to Houston. He’s not a significant offensive upgrade over Stassi, but this signaled the end of Stassi’s time in Houston.
Stassi, now superfluous and out of options, was traded to the Angels. In return the Astros got two 18-year-outfielders, Rainer Rivas and Raider Uceta. The Angels signed both during the 2017 international signing period.
Rivas is from Venezuela and signed a $200k bonus. Uceta is from the Dominican Republic and was signed for $500k bonus. Luhnow added two more young international players for the future in this trade, adding to the depth of the farm system. Maybe one of these two guys could be the next Yordan Alvarez in four years. Or maybe it’s just California dreamin.
The 3 for 1 Blue Jay trade.
Around that time, there were reports that the Astros traded for Blue Jays reliever Joe Biagini. With all the information leaking out, Astros fans were trying to figure out what the deal was all about. Earlier in the day, through Talking Stros, after several names were taken off the market, I Tweeted, “watch us trade for Aaron Sanchez!” After the 3 pm deadline past, there were reports that Sanchez was traded. Putting it together, the Astros got both Biagini and Sanchez from the Blue Jays, for something not yet announced.
However, wait, there is more. The Astros also got the Blue Jays 24th ranked prospect, Cal Stevenson. Stevenson was drafted in the 10th round by the Blue Jays in 2018 and has shown patience at the plate, walking (117) more than striking out (76) and the ability to steal bases. Even in a depleted farm system, Stevenson doesn’t crack the Astros top 30 list. However, he is another depth option for the future.
The best part of this that the Astros got those three players for Derek Fisher, someone many Astros fans thought had no trade value. The Blue Jays have said that they expect him to be their starting center fielder for many years. They were intrigued with his upside, so they gave the Astros three players for him. It’s understandable if you don’t like all the players in that deal, but each could be a diamond in the rough.
A diamond in the rough?
Biagini may not be Kirby Yates or Shane Greene, but he gives the Astros another experienced reliever. Despite his career 4.76 ERA, Biagini has had a good season with a 3-1 record and a 3.78 ERA while striking out 50 batters in 50 innings. Who knows, maybe the Astros see a little Ryan Pressly in him. Like Pressly, Biagini comes to Houston with elite spin on his curve, a prime ingredient in the Brent Strom magical elixir. With the injuries to Josh James, Brad Peacock, and Pressly, this gives the Astros a deeper bullpen. And Biagini has three more years of club control after 2019.
Looking at Sanchez’s stats makes you think, this is a total Stros move. His 3-14 record with a 6.07 ERA could give the average fan pause. How is he an upgrade over Jose Urquidy or Rogelio Armenteros? The answer is, he could be if Strom can help him out. He is three years removed from a 15-2 season with the lowest ERA in the AL that season at 3.00. He has never been a big strikeout pitcher, averaging 7.2 k/9 innings pitched for his career, but has a 52.9% ground ball rate. About half his pitches are sinkers, averaging 94 MPH, with a fairly even distribution of four-seamers, curves, and change-ups to round out his arsenal.
He has one more year of arbitration in 2020 before he hits free agency. If the former phenom can return to form, he could soften the blow to the Astros of the now almost certain loss of Gerrit Cole after this season.
After his beak-out season in 2016, Sanchez has been plagued by injuries, and some analysts believe the Jays may have given up on him too soon. The following quote is from an unnamed scout via Bob Elliot.
”Moving Aaron Sanchez could be the Blue Jays biggest swing and miss since not re-signing Chris Carpenter in 2002.”
Sanchez could be a hidden gem if the Astros can improve his already excellent curveball spin rate and other pitches. Think of Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton etc..
They get their guy in Greinke.
After weeks of hearing Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and others being linked to the Astros, fans were probably let down by Sanchez, who has the highest ERA in the AL. When Ken Rosenthal was asked on the MLB Network about Sanchez, he said that he could throw 100 mph and, by the way, the Astros have ZACK GRIENKE as their third pitcher. That was a Ken-Bomb live on TV. Astros fans everywhere dropped their jaws. Yankees fans, and Dodger fans too. Hell, baseball fans everywhere dropped their jaws contemplating the new found awesomeness of the Houston Astros.
“Zack Greinke is the No. 3 starter for the Houston Astros. Aaron Sanchez, throwing 100, is their No. 5 starter.”
“They were the team to beat before! Good luck, American League.” pic.twitter.com/cf1cZvC8SA
— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) July 31, 2019
Everyone, players included, was probably walking on air after that trade. The Astros now had an unbeatable trio of pitchers in the rotation, without giving up Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley. However, who did they give up for the former Cy Young award-winning Greinke?
To get the 36-year-old Greinke, the Astros traded four of their top 22 prospects. Considering the financial obligation tied to Greinke, it was quite a haul for the Diamondbacks. Greinke is owed the prorated $31.5 million in 2019 and $32 million each year for the next two years.
The Astros got $24 million in salary relief, which pays for the 2019 season and about $11 million over the rest of the contract. Greinke wanted to play with the Astros or stay with the Diamondbacks. Luckily Jim Crane gave Luhnow the go-ahead to take on $53 million to add Greinke.
Owner Jim Crane on the #Astros landing Zack Greinke: “Jeff (Luhnow) pulled this deal off. I approved the deal. We wanted to do something game-breaking because we’re in a position to win and that’s what we did.”
— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) July 31, 2019
Prospects are prospects.
The Astros traded first base prospect Seth Beer (3), pitchers JB Bukauskas (4) and Corbin Martin (5), and utility infielder Joshua Rojas (22). There was no forseeable path to the majors for Beer or Rojas, Beer being blocked by Yordan Alvarez, and Rojas by Jose Altuve. Martin is out for a year and a half with Tommy John surgery, and former first round pick Bukauskas has struggled this year in Double-A.
It will be many years before we see the impact of these prospects, and for the Astros there is considerable risk. Bukauskas and Martin have #2 or #3 starter upsides, Beer could be a legitimate clean-up hitter, and Rojas could be a utiity player with some pop. But if you get a chance to add Greinke to your rotation to help win a World Series, you get it done. Luhnow initially balked, but in the end the Diamondbacks and Astros reached an agreement that is in the interests of both teams. Luhnow extended the window for the Astros to compete for the World Series, and the Diamondbacks got key players for their re-build.
How do the pieces fit in?
Maldonado will become the backup catcher. The Astros could use a 3:2 ratio for Chirinos starts to Maldonado starts, or maybe they will go more 50-50 to give Chirinos more rest so he is fresh for the playoffs. Unless Maldonado becomes someone’s personal catcher, Chirinos will get most of the starts in the playoffs.
Biagini could take the place of Bryan Abreu, who made his MLB debut last night. When Pressly returns from the IL, they will have to make a tough decision between optioning Chris Devenski or someone else. Things will get even more complicated when Brad Peacock returns.
Biagini has three years of team control after this season. This acquisition will fill one of the holes when Will Harris, Joe Smith, Collin McHugh, and Hector Rondon hit free agency after the season. Now they have Roberto Osuna, Pressly, and Biagini headlining the bullpen in 2020. This is what the Astros do, trade for players who are cheap and controllable.
Greinke will replace Urquidy in the rotation and the 25-man roster. He will most likely be the third starter in the playoffs, but he is available to start on Tuesday. We will find out more when Greinke joins the Astros today. Greinke offers the Astros insurance if they are unable to re-sign Gerrit Cole or Wade Miley after the season. Trading for Greinke may take the option away to re-sign Cole. That may have been unlikely in any case.
What these trades mean.
Any team facing the Astros in the playoffs will have to go through Justin Verlander, Cole, Greinke, and Miley. While other non-contenders are trying to build super rotations to get back in the playoff chase, the Astros literally have one. If the Astros finished with the best record, the Wild Card winner would have to face those three pitchers in a five-game series.
It would appear that the Astros will start off using Sanchez in the rotation, so Brent Strom has a few days to work with him before his likely start on Monday. Should he continue to struggle, the Astros can’t option him without his permission because of his five year service time. We have seen what Strom can do with pitchers with less talent than Sanchez, but don’t expect results overnight.
He will essentially replace Cy Sneed on the active roster and likely be the fifth starter. Like Greinke, he offers another starting option for the Astros should they lose free agents. For the price they paid for Sanchez and Biagini, they are playing with house money. Unless Sanchez really impresses over the next two months, I don’t see him making the playoff roster.
While the Astros had one of the best teams already before making these three trades, they were one or two injuries away from not being playoff ready. They were struggling to find a starter, even using an opener for two games, now they added two more options. They also added two more options for the bullpen in Biagini and Peacock, since he will not likely return to the rotation.
These trades may have adverse long-term ramifications, but short-term adding Greinke, Sanchez, and Biagini increases the team’s depth for a playoff run. The Astros now only have two prospects in the top-100 lists in Tucker and Whitley, but that’s the risk you take when a team has a chance to win it all again as they did in 2017. Yankees fans are upset that the Astros improved and they did not before the trade deadline. This could be a deciding factor concerning who wins the AL to head into the World Series.
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