Even at this point in the season, just past the halfway mark and heading into the All-Star break, few teams want to admit that they’re sellers. But with a league-worst 29-57 record, the Astros are firmly sellers in this market. Of course, a team that has the worst record by 5.5 games probably doesn’t have a deep pool of talent from which to deal. Yet the Astros do have six offensive players with 1 WAR or greater, and a handful of pitchers who are either performing well, or who are talented but faltering. That could create a somewhat favorable situation come deadline time, even if it means assuring the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
As Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi note in a recent column, the Astros change of ownership gives the the team an opportunity to rebuild. Outgoing owner Drayton McLane never favored such a strategy, and his insistence on keeping certain players despite fielding a losing team is a big reason why the Astros find themselves in this position. Rosenthal and Morosi note that even if the sale of the club doesn’t close before the deadline, incoming owner Jim Crane will have a say in what the Astros do in the next three weeks. That will almost certainly involve trading players who are not essential to the team’s future.
Who fits the bill for the Astros? Rosenthal and Morosi name two specifically, while downplaying a strong possibility. There are a few others, too, who could entice contenders.
Every team could use another starter at this point, and given Rodriguez’s recent history he could be one of the premier starters available between now and the 31st. His numbers this year — a 2.97 ERA, 3.87 FIP, and 3.54 xFIP — resemble his numbers since his breakout 2008 season (3.31 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 3.59 xFIP). His strikeouts are down about one per nine, but other than that everything looks fairly standard.
The issue with Rodriguez is his contract. This was supposed to be his final season before reaching free agency, but during the off-season he signed a three-year, $34 million extension includes a $13 million team option, with $2.5 million buyout, in 2014. The contract also includes a clause that turns 2014 into a player option, which makes it a bit less attractive. Rodriguez will pitch the 2014 season at age 35, and unless he is spectacular in 2012 and 2013 I’d expect him to pick it up. It’s not terrible, and it could even end up being below market value. But it’s also a significant commitment.
If the Astros were to make him available they would fetch more than if he were simply a rental, but probably won’t maximize their return because of the player option. He’ll still bring home a better prospect package than anyone else the Astros employ, so I’d think his chances of wearing a different uniform by August 1st are high.
It’s not often that a team makes available its WAR leader, but in Bourn it is probably the smart move. He will become a free agent after the 2012 season, and so can provide more value to an acquiring team than a mere rental. He’ll also fetch a decent bounty in prospects, since plenty of teams would love a leadoff-hitting, base-stealing center fielder who plays solid, if not spectacular, defense. He has the remainder of his $4.4 million salary this year, plus a third-year arbitration raise in 2012, and so will not be too great a burden on a reasonably sized payroll.
If the White Sox want to make a run they could find use for Bourn. It would allow them to move the struggling Alex Rios to a corner, thereby removing Juan Pierre from the lineup. The Nationals could be interested, but they probably want someone under team control a bit longer than Bourn, since they’re looking for a long-term answer. But perhaps the most intriguing option is the Braves. They’ve used Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth to little positive effect. In Bourn they’d get both the center fielder and the leadoff man they’ve sought for years. It almost makes too much sense.
Rosenthal and Morosi cite sources who say that the Astros would like to retain Pence, as they see him as a “cornerstone.” That’s quite a stretch, even though Pence is enjoying his best season to date. His success has relied heavily on a .390 BABIP, which is a great deal higher than any season beyond his partial rookie year. His walk rate and ISO remain in line with 2010, and are close to his career numbers. In other words, the Astros might do well to sell high on Pence.
The only issue Pence might present is his price tag. He makes $6.9 million this year and has two more rounds of arbitration to go before free agency. While the team control is attractive, his potential salary in 2012 and 2013 is not. A higher payroll team, such as the Red Sox, could actually find a great deal of use with Pence. He’s a bit pull-heavy, which will play well at Fenway Park. Smacking doubles off the monster could help keep his BABIP up, and also help mask his lack of home run power. The Phillies could also use an outfielder and a right-handed bat, but both teams are said to have payroll issues. But they both have money coming off the books at the end of the year, so an exception might be made for a long-term add.
After a spectacular first season in Houston, Myers has predictably dropped off in 2011. Still, his peripherals didn’t suggest such a drop-off in his age-30 season. His strikeouts are down and his home runs are way up, which play a big part in his 4.67 ERA and 4.94 FIP. Perhaps he’d fare a bit better in a more pitcher friendly park. Then again, we can say that for just about any pitcher. But we know Myers has potential, even if he’s reached it only a few times in his career.
Myers’s home run problem will probably preclude a trade to somewhere like Cincinnati, even though the Reds could use a starter or two. According to StatCorner, The Great American Ball Park has a home run factor of 120/133 (LHB/RHB) to Minute Maid’s 107/117. The same goes for the Rangers (120/109). The one contender that could take on his contract and possibly benefit is the Tigers. Their starters have the ninth-worst ERA in the league despite having a reasonably pitcher-friendly park (87/111 factors). They can take on the remainder of his salary, roughly $17 million through 2012, which includes a $3 million buyout of his $10 million 2013 option.
There are other potential trade candidates, too, which we’ll finish in shorter form.
Jeff Keppinger: He’s hit .328/.346/.424 since his return and is a career .285/.339/.393 hitter. That’s not stellar, yet he could still help upgrade a team such as the Braves, Brewers, Reds, Rays, or Giants at shortstop. He earns $2.3 million this year and is arbitration-eligible for the final time this winter.
Clint Barmes: He’s not as adept with the bat as Keppinger, but he’s slick in the field. A team with a poor-fielding shortstop, such as the Cardinals or Brewers, could find use for him.
Wilton Lopez: Bullpen help is always in need, and in the last two years Lopez has a 3.00 ERA, 2.80 FIP, and 3.02 xFIP. He’s a late bloomer at age 27, so the Astros might try to cash in while they still can.
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