Houston Finds Value in Return for Replaceable Part

Jeff Luhnow is at it again. The Houston Astros general manager has flipped starting third baseman Chris Johnson to the playoff-hungry Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for two fringe-B-level prospects.

The approach being utilized by Houston is an excellent one. The organization does not have highly-sought-after commodities to trade (Carlos Lee, Brandon Lyon, Wandy Rodriguez, Johnson) so they’re seeking former highly-regarded prospects that have fallen in value but remain promising.

From Arizona, Houston acquired two outfielders that were taken within the first 64 picks of the 2009 amateur draft: Bobby Borchering (16th overall) and Marc Krauss (64th). Neither player is a sure-fire big league regular but both should see time with the Astros and the 27-year-old Johnson is not a regular third baseman; he didn’t play the hot corner, he played a lukewarm corner.

Borchering, 21, was selected out of a Florida high school with a lot of potential but he’s struggled to make contact and handle breaking balls. The third baseman-turned-outfielder has struck out less than 27% in a season just once in his four-year career but he continues to show impressive raw power.

Houston won’t have to add Borchering to the 40-man roster until after the 2013 season and will then have three option years to burn through. That will give the organization plenty of time to try and work with him and tap into his potential. He’ll be more of a priority prospect for the Astros than he was with the Diamondbacks so the added attention could pay off. I ranked him as Arizona’s seventh best prospect entering 2012 after having him in the sixth slot the year prior.

Krauss did not make Arizona’s Top 15 prospect list in 2012 but he was the No. 5 prospect prior to ’11 after a strong Arizona Fall League showing. The University of Ohio alum disappeared in ’11, though, and was forced to repeat the level in 2012. He’s done well, raising his wRC+ from 109 to 159 and should move up to triple-A immediately with the Houston organization.

He possesses almost zero defensive value and is limited to left field. Krauss, though, could carve out a nice MLB career as a part-time player and powerful left-handed bat off the bench; his OPS against right-handed pitchers in 2012 is .944. Overall, Krauss’ isolated slugging rate is at .225 and he off-sets his +20% strikeout rate with a high walk rate (16.9% in AA). The 24-year-old prospect should be ready for his first taste of the Majors within the next year.

The Houston Astros organization had an outstanding run of contention from 1994 to 2006 and it’s going to be a few ugly years in Texas. But the good news is that Luhnow and his front office crew, along with new owner Jim Crane, are trying to build a team that will have sustainable success for another long stretch of time. The organization was picked over and left for the buzzards when previous owner Drayton McLane Jr. entrusted the organization to former General Manager Ed Wade who neglected the minor league system and thumbed his nose at the amateur draft.

Fans seem to still have faith in the Astros. In the midst of one of the worst losing stretches in the history of the organization, and with the smoke from the fire sale fully visible from space, the club still managed to draw more than 34,000 fans to the game on Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their loyalty will be tested over the next few years but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.




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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.


15 Responses to “Houston Finds Value in Return for Replaceable Part”

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  1. chuckb says:

    I would argue that it was McLane rather than Wade who “neglected the farm system and thumbed his nose at the amateur draft.” Wade was most definitely a poor GM but McLane was a much worse owner.

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    • Yeah says:

      It’s probably fair not to place all the blame on Wade, but I think McLane and Wade held pretty similar mind sets and both of them have a lot to do with the state of the Astros right now.

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  2. Kate Upton: Fantasy MVP says:

    The fans in Houston have really impressed me lately. I was at the game on Friday, and not only was Minute Maid packed, but almost everyone stayed until the end. For a team that is currently on a record-setting pace of terribleness, that is fairly surprising.

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    • chuckb says:

      I guess that’s good. I’ve been to 5 or 6 games at Minute Maid this season and I think there were at least as many fans of the road team at each game as there were Astros’ fans. I don’t really blame them but maybe the fact that the park was packed in the 9th was because there were 15-20,000 fans of the road team at the game.

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  3. Brian says:

    Wade wasn’t great, but he didn’t thumb his nose at the draft; under him, for the first time in years, we had 1st round picks every year and signed them, and the majority of our other picks. We also picked up some key supplemental picks during those years. It was Drayton’s fault (I.E. being cheap as hell) that we drafted so horrifically prior to 2008.

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    • Russell says:

      Bingo. Drayton forced Hunsicker out and put a yes man in place with Purpura. Then made ridiculous decisions to waste high picks for veteran FAs and not go overslot on picks he did make.

      Wade had nothing to work with. His farm system was gone before he got there and he was told to keep the team competitive while trying to rebuild through the draft. The Bourn trade doesn’t look great, but the value they got for Pence looks good. I’m not going to absolve Wade of blame, but the majority of blame should be put at the feet of former owner Drayton McLane.

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  4. qudjy1 says:

    Is Johnson a replaceable part? His Career WAR in less than 2 years is 3, and for 2012 is 1.1. Not great by any means, but given the dearth of quality 3b in MLB, its not that easy to replace.

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    • Will says:

      People keep repeating this truism that 3B have not been very good this season, but it’s just not true.

      There are currently 12 3B with more than 2.0 WAR this season (and another 9 with 1.5 WAR or more). 3B have accumulated 57.1 WAR this season.

      Compared to other positions, that’s VERY good. 1B, for example, is much worse off. There are only 9 players with 2.0 WAR or more (and only 4 more with 1.5 or more). 1B have been worth only 34.6 WAR.

      At 2B, there are 11 with 2.0+ WAR, with 2B being worth 48.5 WAR in total.

      At SS, there are 8 players with 2.0+ WAR. In total, for 45.8 WAR.

      There is actually considerable depth at 3B with 21 players (on 21 teams) playing distinctly above average baseball. All things considered, 3B have been the most valuable position in the infield this season.

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      • adohaj says:

        I think this is happening because 3B isn’t a very top heavy position. People can only think of a few “elite” 3B whereas there are many “elite” 1B. But the non elite 3B still produce good value when the non elite 1B don’t.

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      • DL80 says:

        Will, I did some further research, and it looks like you are right. But I wouldn’t use overall WAR to make the point because some of that comes from added defensive value that is factored into WAR. Still, using wOBA or RC+ seems to show the same thing that you stated.

        I actually started looking to try to prove you wrong, but the numbers didn’t bear out my idea, so I came around to your side.

        For example, there are 17 qualified 1B with a RC+ of 100 or better. There are 14 qualified 3B over 100 RC+.

        There are 47 qualified outfielders over 100, a little more than 3 times as many as at third base, which is about what you’d expect.

        Second base is actually a bit better than I would expect, with 9 guys above 100, and a bunch above 90.

        Interestingly, in 2011 there were only 10 qualified third basemen above 100, but much of that is because guys who were above 100 were not qualified because they missed time due to injury (ARod, Sandoval, Headley, Zimmerman, and others).

        I wonder if this year’s third base pool is hitting better than last year, just more healthy, or both? ARod qualifies this year, so far, but he probably won’t at the end of the year because of his recent injury.

        This seems to argue that third basemen are actually hitting at least as well, even outside of defensive context, of the premium hitting positions (1B, OF).

        Anyway, good point by Will, which seems backed up by the data I found.

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      • Will says:

        adohaj, please define “elite”. Is it top 10% of all players in the game? If so, that would mean the best 15 players (out of 151 qualified) would be “elite”. In that case, 3 3B (Wright, Cabrera and Headley) are “elite”. That’s disproportionately high, because 3B only make up 1/8th of offense, which would suggest there are not just a few elite 3B. You’ll also see that it’s the exact opposite for 1B. Votto is the only “elite” 1B in baseball this year.

        DL80, good points. I don’t have the time, but it would be useful to compare 3B wOBA or WAR vs previous years to see if it has dropped or stayed the same recently. As you suggest, 2011 was indeed a down year, but with M. Cabrera shifting to 3B, and Wright and (more recently) Zimmerman’s resurgence, 3B isn’t such a black hole. It’s just taking some time for people to realize that. If I remember correctly, in 2009 3B was one of the best positions, as Zimmerman, Wright, Longoria, Sandoval and others were mashing at the plate. I think 2011 was simply a fluke due to injuries/bad luck, because 3B is still a high value position, both for “elite” talent and solid 2-4 WAR players.

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  5. nuxie says:

    that;s ohio university, not the university of ohio

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  6. Spike says:

    nice job by the ‘Stros. Both players and especially Krauss at this point, sound like potential DHs and with the move to the AL, they needed the punch up to their lineup.

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  7. Brazen Reader says:

    “But the good news is that Luhnow….”

    This is not good news for the AL West teams and their fans. Don’t be such a homer (jk).

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  8. Ryan D. says:

    Again, it was Drayton McLane who balked at going over slot and was cheap when it came to the draft. Wade tried his best in a bad situation. Don’t forget Wade was attacked by Shawn Chacon.

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