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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.