How to make the Astros Even Better (Midseason Review, Part 3)

Astros fans know the team is excellent and arguably the best team in baseball, but there are still ways that the front office could make the team even better. If the Astros make the best upgrade choices, it would propel them not only into a 2019 championship but set the team on the dynastic path legends are made of. The future is that potentially bright.

This article is the third in our midseason review, which examines the following:

  • Part 1: “Astros: The Best Team in MLB” — A position-by-position breakdown of why the Astros are the best team in baseball
  • Part 2: “Astros: The Critical Decisions Ahead” — Examining internal roster management decisions the Astros will soon face
  • Part 3: “How to make the Astros Even Better” — A discussion of key trades that could take the Astros to legendary status

What opportunities should the Astros pursue in seeking legendary status? The team’s main needs are:

  1. Starting Pitcher: One who can outperform Brad Peacock, so that he can go to the bullpen for the postseason
  2. Left-Handed Relief Pitcher
  3. First Base

I put these in order of need. I compiled a list of what I consider possible trade targets.

These trade targets generally come from teams that are out of contention or may be by the end of July. I have specifically not added players with excessively large contracts like Max Scherzer, because those players would not fit in the salary structure.

We shall consider this the menu of options. Of course there are other options, but this framework will provide a way to compare and consider any option, including those not examined here. Given the possibilities, I am not sure any of the 1B options above are worth the trade investment against a Gurriel/Diaz timeshare over the rest of the season. Gurriel states that he has identified (with the help of Carlos Beltran) a way to improve his performance. Whatever Beltran helped Gurriel with may be at the root of Gurriel’s recent hot streak. Additional days off will also help Gurriel. Before we dig into the details of the potential relative value of these menu options, let’s review the available assets that the Astros could offer in a trade.

I asked a couple of folks I consider reasonable and logical to calibrate with me on what we perceived the trade value of each Astros player would be on a scale of one to ten. (Thank you to Clint Irle and longhorndave for their excellent contributions to player evaluations and to the trade target list.) Each of them ouotlined factors they considered when defining their values:

  • What the stats say
  • The Eye Test: what they see beyond stats, raw talent that may not have been realized yet
  • Versatility/flexibility
  • Age: additional development possibilities
  • Value to Astros vs. value to most other teams
  • Options limits
  • Salary
  • Years of control
  • Postseason playing potential

For the rest of this analysis, I will label the scores we have assigned to players as their “subjective value.”

There is also a common valuation method used in front offices called surplus value. It probably helps to illustrate this methodology with an example. Let’s choose the first player on the list: the much-maligned Tyler White. In this exercise, I will only focus on the rest of the 2019 season, 2020, and 2021. This is an oversimplification of what front offices actually do. One can follow along on the table below.

First, identify the years of future control for a player. Tyler is still pre-arbitration and will have his first year of arbitration in 2021. Some players we will consider are only under contract for the remainder of 2019 and are free agents this offseason.

Second, estimate the cumulative salaries that player will make while under control. White will make $582,000 this year; for the remainder of 2019, I rounded this to $300,000. In 2020, he would make roughly $600,000. In 2021, I estimated that his arbitration will settle at $1.5MM. Therefore, his cumulative remaining 3-year salary is $2.4MM.

Third, estimate the cumulative WAR from the remainder of 2019 through the expiration of team control or the 2021 season, whichever comes first. For the period the player is under control, we find the projected WAR. FanGraphs provides a depth chart projection for the rest of the 2019 and ZiPS projections for 2020 and 2021. For White, this is 0.2 in 2019, 1.3 in 2020, and 1.2 in 2021; that gives a WAR total of 2.7.

Fourth, apply a trade risk/reward adjustment factor. The reality is that most MLB teams will not pay for WAR equally. Some projected WAR values are more uncertain than others, and some WAR values are associated with players who have a much higher potential than the WAR projects. I call this the adjustment factor. This factor will multiply with the projected WAR to give the evaluator a risk-adjusted cumulative three-year WAR. For Astros players these factors include:

  • Is the player an established MLB player (probably 2–3 years of playing time)? In general, this is a 1.0 adjustment factor.
  • Has the player not been established, but appeared in enough games to not be considered a prospect? If a player is not established, we will reduce the projected WAR based on whether the experience was:
    • Good or at least average — 0.5
    • Bad — 0.3
    • If a player is not fully established and does not have any more option years — 0.2
    • If a player is DFA’d or put on waivers — 0.1
  • Is the player an MLB prospect?
    • Top 100 MLB Prospects: 2.0 — these prospects can produce a far greater upside than projected.
    • Team top-30 prospects: 0.5 — it is too early to tell.
    • Neither: 0.2 — there is a lot of risk associated with these prospects.

This adjustment factor plays into why teams want the top prospects and not lower-level players.

For White, it is probably not appropriate to label him as an established MLB player. He has both positive and negative results in his playing time. Since he is not established, and since White is out of options, I have applied a 0.2 factor. Therefore the 2.7 WAR * 0.2 = 0.54 WAR.

Fifth, calculate the value of the adjusted cumulative 3-year projected WAR. The value of WAR is set at $9 MM/WAR. For White this would be $4.86 MM in value.

Sixth, calculate the surplus value of the player. The surplus value is the value of the WAR minus the salary paid. For White this would be $4.86 – $2.40 = $2.46MM in surplus value.

It is interesting to compare the surplus value with the subjective value. In general, high surplus values correlate to higher subjective values. As shown, there are a few players the Astros really need to trade — White, Reed, Kemp — to clear roster spots.

A detail-minded person may notice in the above table that I set Tucker’s adjustment factor at 1.0, which does not seem to fit his profile. Tucker may be viewed as both:

  • Having made appearances but not established. We will reduce the projected WAR based the experience being bad — 0.3
  • A top-100 MLB prospect: 2.0 — these prospects can produce far greater upside than projected.

Teams may see Tucker as one or the other, so I chose the middle ground.

Next, let’s apply the same methodology to the list of trade targets we started with. In addition to the surplus value, I took an independent shot at guessing a subjective value based on how the subjective values were set for the Astros. For these players, who are all more established as MLB players, there is no adjustment factor needed. (They would all be 1.)

In this  table, there is a mix of rental players and longer-term players. Between the last two tables, you too can craft a trade! Pretend you are at a restaurant; choose an entrée from the blue table, and pay with the orange. If you desire to evaluate additional players not listed, just follow the process I outlined.

Due to some of the roster constraints laid out in Part 2 — “Astros: The Critical Decisions Ahead” — this menu approach may be used very soon. The Astros run the risk of either trading players or of having to DFA and release them.

On July 2, AJ Reed was DFA’d, so before this article was published, I adjusted his factor to 0.1. As shown below, he still might be useful to get a lower-risk higher-reward RP like Diekman. You may wonder: Why Diekman? Notice that his projected WAR for the rest of 2019 is greater than Tony Watson and his 2020 WAR is better than Amir Garrett’s. While his ERA is 4.76, his FIP is 3.65. He is an LHRP flyer option. If the Astros don’t like what they see, they do not have to renew the mutual option. Given that Reed is DFA’d anyway, let’s see if the Astros reach this kind of deal quickly.

Notice the other more glamourous trades I included. For all the deals below, notice the surplus value of the player the Astros would be getting vs. the package of the players they would be trading. Because it is the trade deadline, I made each deal favor the other team. Buying teams generally overpay in July.

MLB Trade Rumors reported that the Astros were asking about Matthew Boyd. Would you be willing to make the deal listed?

I would be surprised if the Astros did not do something like one of the first three deal listed. Wheeler, Stroman, or Boyd would slot in well as a third starter for the postseason. I would lean more towards Boyd or Stroman in order to have additional years of control.

I would also love to see the Astros get a better LHRP option. The best relievers on the Astros do well against LHB but it might be nice for the postseason to have someone that could be used in the fifth or sixth inning. Of the table of choices above, I would pursue Will Smith per the deal below.

Remember these valuations only cover the 2019–2021 timeframe. By definition, that may be underselling the surplus values of some of the Astros’ younger players.

The MLB Network proposed the Syndergaard deal above. Notice how negative it is for the Astros. It once again comes down to how one values Tucker. I would be shocked to see this deal happen.

While the surplus value methodology is more objective, what about the same trades using the subjective evaluation system? The subjective value method seems to validate the same deals as fair or favoring the other team. Since the subjective value system capped the Astros players at five, the Syndergaard deal that looked bad from a surplus value method looks like a steal in the subjective value method.

Perhaps the Astros would ask for some low-level prospects to better balance the deals.

As a final side note, I do not think it will happen, but if Myles Straw remains on this roster longer than I have predicted here, and if he continues to have and OPS of around 0.800, it could force or enable the Astros to trade Josh Reddick as well. It is a long shot as I write this, but it could happen, and most likely would happen in the offseason. You may want to refer to the Swapping Dead Money article I wrote in February about that.

What does it all mean? The deals I listed are the way to add a good SP and a good LHRP. I chose not to add a 1B, because many of the options are not that big of an upgrade over Gurriel/Diaz in 2019.  These are the deals I would pursue if I were the GM of the Astros.

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