The Houston Astros are far from the worst team in baseball this season, but their ability to seriously contend in the near future is largely based upon the rebuilding effort that was fully implemented the moment Jeff Luhnow took over. Luhnow inherited a team with a poor farm system — ranked #27 by Marc Hulet — that was high on right-handed pitching and nearly devoid of high-ceiling bats.
He also walked into a sub-par major league situation, with a strange mix of pricey veterans and underwhelming youngsters. There were bright spots in both the major and minor leagues, but Luhnow took the job knowing very well that the organization was more than a mere move or two away from turning things around.
Luckily, he brought with him a strong reputation for building from within. The Astros finally started the rebuilding process last season under Ed Wade by trading Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, and entered this past offseason with long-term goals that took precedent over short-term — and short-lived — success.
The organization was interested in a solution, not a band-aid, and ownership seemed more than willing to experience losing seasons if management did everything in its power to essentially hit the reset button. With one-third of the season in the books, the Astros are getting closer to the point where decisions need to be made and actions taken with respect to several rostered players whose departures could aid and potentially expedite the rebuilding process.
At 23-31, the Astros are 7.5 games behind the Reds in the NL Central — their final year in the division and the NL itself — and aren’t going to contend. They played well early on and have a run differential closer to that of a .500 team than a cellar-dweller, but their recent eight-game losing streak reinforced that the team shouldn’t be seduced by short-term success. That they hovered around the .500 mark for so relatively long is a testament to the solid performances of several members of the new core.
However, it also serves as a reminder that, even with players like Jed Lowrie, Jose Altuve, Chris Johnson, J.D. Martinez, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ in place, the team is still its ways away from making a legitimate push. Fortunately, they have a number of players who could attract multiple suitors as the trade deadline inches closer. These veterans aren’t the greatest trade chips in the world, as each makes a pretty penny, but getting something for them is better than nothing, even if the Astros have to eat some salary to extract greater returns.
Luhnow and his team have already shown themselves to be shrewd evaluators of talent by turning reliever Mark Melancon into starting shortstop Jed Lowrie. Now, they need to figure out what to do with Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon. All four have talent and value, but make too much money to be considered slam-dunk trade chips.
Lee is hitting a decent .297/.348/.411, and is bound to hit for more power as the season progresses. He also makes $18.5 million this season in the final year of his wacky $100 million contract. He has limited positional flexibility and is really a designated hitter relegated to first base by necessity. However, his .335ish wOBA over the last three seasons more closely resembles a league average DH than anything noteworthy. If the Astros ate most of his remaining salary, some American League contender or quasi-contender could find a spot for him, even if he serves as a platoon-DH. But even after taking care of some or most of his salary, the Astros shouldn’t expect to get much back for half of a season of a mediocre designated hitter.
Brett Myers was converted to closer before the season started in a move that figured to increase his trade appeal as the season wore on. He has performed well, with a 5.0 K/BB ratio, 1.86 ERA and 2.57 SIERA. The problem is that he makes $11 million this season and has a $10 million club option that vests based on games finished this season. An acquiring team wouldn’t want to part ways with anything significant to acquire an overpriced closer they would have to use in a setup role to prevent the option from vesting.
Brandon Lyon makes $5.5 million this season and has also pitched well, with a 4.2 K/BB ratio, 2.53 ERA and 3.01 SIERA. His salary is a bit more manageable given that he can close without fear of an option vesting. With various contenders sustaining bullpen injuries, Lyon figures to be one of the more sought after players this summer.
Wandy Rodriguez has the talent of someone that should attract attention, but some National League teams are shying away from his salary, and American League teams are wary of his salary relative to how his skills would translate to the tougher league. Rodriguez makes $10 million this year, $13 million next year, and has a $13 million club option in 2014 that converts to a player option upon being traded. He is certainly talented, averaging around 3 WAR per year from 2008-11, but a significant market might not develop for a mid-30s pitcher owed $26 million over the next two years, who is coming off of a 1.5 WAR campaign. At this point, the Astros might as well just keep Rodriguez in the rotation and look to deal him next year.
Ed Wade took a lot of heat for signing veterans to long-term contracts because it limited roster flexibility and represented a poor use of finite resources. But the bigger downside to issuing these expensive contracts is that the players are even tougher to move as the deals wind down. It has been suggested that perhaps unloading Jose Altuve would better suit the Astros’ rebuilding process but that only makes sense as a worst case scenario, as he has more value to the team as a contributor than a trade chip.
The Astros might not extract a king’s ransom for Lee, Lyon or Myers, but if they eat almost all of their collective salaries, they could bring something back to the organization. Even if it’s a platter of higher-risk prospects representing quantity over quality, the possibility of one or two of them panning out is of more benefit to the club than the relief efforts of Myers and Lyon and the .335 wOBA from Lee.
The Astros are at a point where something is better than nothing, and from a rebuilding standpoint they are currently getting nothing from that aforementioned trio. They might not come out on top in any deal involving these players, but it’s tough to say they “lost” a trade if the end result is waving goodbye to a high-priced veteran and adding interesting prospects to the farm system.