The MLB trade deadline on July 31 was 23 hours and 45 minutes of anticipation, followed by 15 minutes of frenetic, significant action. It was potentially a paradigm-shifting moment of the Jeff Luhnow strategy.
When Luhnow came to the Astros, he had to convince Jim Crane, the fan base, and likely himself that his radical plan to deconstruct the Astros’ entire organization would ultimately have the desired result of winning a championship and sustaining a pipeline of talent that would keep the Astros relevant year after year.
The initial phases of “The Plan,” and the resulting scathing critiques from MLB old-schoolers, were difficult to witness and endure as fans. The tanking label was applied and still resonates with some. Despite other organizations undergoing the same tear-down process, the Astros and Luhnow became the whipping boys for the anti-analytics movement.
As the organization moved into the next phase, Luhnow and Crane shifted to adding free agents and spending the ridiculous amount of money they had saved from 2012–2015. As the farm system became the top ranked and deepest in baseball, capital, in the form of prospects, became the means of improving the club.
In 2017, the club took it up another level, adding Justin Verlander and parting with top-end prospects as well as dollars. In 2018, the club seemed poised to win back-to-back titles, only to fall victim to the injury bug and a Red Sox team destined to win another title.
Back to July 31, when news started trickling in that the Astros had made several last-minute and game-changing trades. The trades didn’t just signify an all-in approach to exploiting the championship window, thus giving the Astros the opportunity to take advantage of the prime years of Bregman, Correa, Altuve, and Springer. They also signified, perhaps, that the Astros were moving into the next phase of “The Plan” — the full utilization of prospect and monetary coffers. In many aspects, “the rebuild” did not end in 2017 with the first World Series title in franchise history. My contention is that it emphatically ended on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.
The Astros officially have joined the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, and Red Sox as uber-franchises, carrying a monstrous payroll and entering the company of those teams that year-in and year-out will compete with the big boys for free agent stars while simultaneously being able to use prospects to strengthen an already strong team.
How did Luhnow and Crane do this on Wednesday? Let’s take a closer look at the trades that went down:
Trade 1: Tony Kemp (DFA’d) traded to Cubs for Martin Maldonado.
El Machete is back! After Maldonado turned down a reported two-year deal to stay with the Astros in the offseason — a decision that backfired — Maldonado signed a one-year, $2.5M deal with the Royals, was recently traded to the Cubs, and has now been re-acquired by Jeff Luhnow. Maldonado has a strong rapport with the Astros pitchers and fits well into the clubhouse. Tony Kemp, of course, was DFA’d, and the fact that Houston was able to get anything for him is a win no matter how you look at it. Kemp’s presence in the clubhouse and in the community will be greatly missed, which is really the only downside to this trade.
Trade 2: Max Stassi traded to the Angels for Raider Uceta and Rainier Rivas.
Uceta is a corner outfield prospect that scouts report as having above-average raw power. He turned 18 in January and was hitting .278 with a .714 OPS in the Arizona Rookie League. Rivas is apparently a Yordan Alvarez clone, standing 6’3” and weighing around 220. The comparisons don’t end there, as the 18-year-old was batting .342 with an OPS of .933 between the DSL and ARL. So Jake Marisnick (rightfully) runs through the primary catcher for the Angels, Jonathan Lucroy, and then Luhnow sells them our backup catcher, Max Stassi, for two impressive 18-year-old prospects that the Angels dropped $700K on just over a year ago? Oh, to be Jeff Luhnow.
Trade 3: Derek Fisher traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini, and Cal Stevenson.
This trade could become one of the more intriguing of the Luhnow era. Sanchez was just 3–14 with an ERA of 6.07 with 97 strikeouts in 112.2 innings before the trade. The hope with the 27-year-old Sanchez is that Strom can tap into the talent that allowed Sanchez to go 15–2 and lead the American League with a 3.00 ERA in 2016. Sanchez has battled blister issues throughout his career and may be best suited for the bullpen. His mid-to-high-90s fastball and quality secondary offerings still flash as plus pitches, but he needs work on his command. If Strom can work his magic, the Astros may have found their middle of the rotation starter for 2020. Biagini is under team control through the 2022 season and, like Sanchez, features the type of repertoire that fits with what Strom and the Astros analytics team looks for. In 2019, Biagini has posted a 3.78 ERA in 50 innings of relief while striking out 50. Stevenson was a 10th-round pick by Toronto in the 2018 draft and has demonstrated a very advanced approach in High-A. He was slashing .298/.388/.393 with 50 walks to just 52 strikeouts on the season. Scouts believe he can stick in CF. Derek Fisher will always have a place in Houston sports lore, scoring the winning run in the memorable Game 5 win versus the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. The reality is that Fisher was blocked in the Astros system and simply didn’t have a permanent spot to get the at-bats he needed to adjust to big league pitching. The fact that Luhnow not only received a prospect for Fisher but also a quality reliever and a former ERA leader is nothing short of amazing.
Trade 4: Seth Beer, Corbin Martin, JB Bukauskas, and Josh Rojas traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Zack Greinke and the remaining $53M in salary owed to him. (The Diamondbacks are picking up $24M of the $77M still owed him.)
This one was a stunner and will cause a ripple effect throughout the Astros MiLB system. I’m not going to detail Grienke’s stats here; you should all know by now who and what he is: one of the best pitchers in baseball. Instead, I want to take this space to challenge the notion that this trade included “too many top prospects” going to Arizona.
Let’s start with Seth Beer. The Astros’ top pick in 2018 has proven doubters wrong, wrecking MiLB pitching and ascending all of the way up to Double-A in his first full season of pro ball. Beer, however, has nowhere to play in Houston. For all his offensive capabilities, Beer is one of the worst all-around athletes in the system. He runs like Brian McCann and was a complete disaster when the organization tried him in the outfield. That leaves first base, where he struggled defensively to the point of being a liability. Any future with the Astros would have been as a DH, a spot currently held by Yordan Alvarez, and he isn’t going anywhere. Beer was an obvious candidate to be dealt.
Rojas has exploded this season, slashing .315/.397/.575/.972 with 54 XBH and 32 stolen bases across Double-A and Triple-A. The 2017 26th-round draft pick is 25 years old and is slated to be a super utility-type player at the next level. He, too, is blocked, as Aledmys Diaz currently fills this role for the Astros, and scouts aren’t sure what to make of his recent surge in offensive production.
Martin, who made his big-league debut with the Astros earlier this season, recently had Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected to pitch again until 2021. He projects as a middle-of-the-rotation starter if it all comes together. This is his upside as well as his floor, a prospect designation that also fits other current Astros prospects, such as Tyler Ivey, Brandon Bielak, Enoli Paredes, and Cristian Javier.
Bukauskas has had an up-and-down season, struggling with the development of a third pitch and failing to command his two plus pitches, his fastball and slider. Though he has pitched well lately, his overall numbers at Double-A this season are less than encouraging, and the consensus among scouts is that his future role in the big leagues will be as a relief pitcher, albeit potentially as an elite high-leverage one.
In sum, the Astros traded a backup DH, a utility infielder, a potential reliever, and a starter who just had TJS to the Diamondbacks for Zack Grienke and $24M in cash. This isn’t in any way a slam of the four prospects going to Arizona. I really like all four of them. But I just believe some perspective is needed when discussing what we gave up for one of the best pitchers of this era.
The final Luhnow scorecard looks like this:
Departures: Derek Fisher (a blocked OF), Max Stassi (a backup catcher), Tony Kemp (a DFA’d utility IF/OF), Seth Beer (a DH only), Corbin Martin (a SP that just had elbow reconstruction surgery), and JB Bukauskas (a future relief pitcher struggling mightily in Double-A).
Additions: Martin Maldonado (Gold Glove winning catcher), Aaron Sanchez (a former AL ERA leader with a controllable contract), Joe Biagini (a middle reliever with three years left of team control), Zack Grienke (a former Cy Young winner with another year of team control), and three promising prospects.
The result: The Astros have now surpassed the Yankees and Dodgers as favorites to win the World Series.
Welcome to the final phase of “The Plan.”