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The Astros should consider trading a reliever

Despite being contenders, the Astros should think about capitalizing on their deep bullpen by making a trade. Who might the potential partners be?

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Astros find themselves in an enviable position: their bullpen is stacked. Day after day when AJ Hinch decides to pull his starter this year, he will have a plethora of good options to choose from among the group that led the majors in fWAR last year. For a team with justifiable World Series aspirations, depth is fantastic, but making sure to use that depth in a productive way is the key.

My colleague Zach Crizer recently suggested that a unique way for the Astros to handle their bullpen depth would be to employ shorter, tandem starts or even a six-man rotation. These ideas are worth exploring as it’d no doubt be fun to see a presumptive contender take a risk to innovate and challenge baseball norms. However there’s another way the team could conceivably deal with its abundance of bullpen arms: trade one.

With their considerable depth, losing one relief arm is not going to make or break Houston’s season. What helps to make this hypothetical imaginable is that there is recent precedent for a team trading a good arm from their bullpen while in a playoff race. We simply look back to last year’s Pirates. They knew closer Mark Melancon was not likely to return in 2017, so they shipped him to the Nationals for emerging lefty reliever Felipe Rivero in an effort to get a long-term asset before he walked. They would miss the playoffs, but it certainly wasn’t because of that trade. Acquiring Rivero, a dynamic, cost-controlled lefty for a closer that they were going to lose in the offseason was incredibly savvy. The move improved their future without hurting their present.

The cost of great relief pitching on the trade market has skyrocketed and certainly the Astros are familiar as they helped set that market. It cost them a king’s ransom to acquire Ken Giles from the Phillies prior to the 2016 season. He initially struggled to find his footing in Houston, but settled down and eventually pitched like the back-end stud closer they had hoped for. Giles was one of the first dominoes to fall in the new trend of big trade hauls for relief pitchers; here’s some of what followed:

Transaction Date Reliever Traded Return
Transaction Date Reliever Traded Return
12/09/2015 Ken Giles RHP Vincent Velasquez, LHP Brett Oberholtzer, RHP Mark Appel, RHP Thomas Eshelman, and RHP Harold Arauz
12/09/2015 Justin Wilson RHP Luis Cessa and RHP Chad Green
07/09/2016 Brad Ziegler RHP Jose Almonte and IF Luis Alejandro Basabe
07/25/2016 Aroldis Chapman SS Gleyber Torres, RHP Adam Warren, OF Billy McKinney, and OF Rashad Crawford
07/30/2016 Mark Melancon LHP Felipe Rivero and LHP Taylor Hearn
07/31/2016 Andrew Miller OF Clint Frazier, LHP Justus Sheffield, RHP Ben Heller, and RHP J.P. Feyereisen
08/01/2016 Will Smith RHP Phil Bickford and C Andrew Susac
08/25/2016 Marc Rzepczynski and cash IF Max Schrock
12/06/2016 Tyler Thornburg IF Travis Shaw, IF Mauricio Dubon, RHP Josh Pennington, and PTBNL or cash considerations
12/07/2016 Wade Davis OF Jorge Soler
Notable relief pitcher trades since Ken Giles to Astros Compiled from MLB Trade Rumors

If you trade a top-tier reliever in this current market, you will get a good young player or prospect in return.

So who should the Astros trade?

Astros Relievers, 2016 Stats and Contracts

Name Age IP K% BB% ERA FIP DRA Contract Status
Name Age IP K% BB% ERA FIP DRA Contract Status
Christopher Devenski 26 108 1/3 25.5% 4.9% 2.16 2.34 3.36 Pre-Arb, Eligible in 2019
Will Harris 32 64 27.1% 5.9% 2.25 2.35 2.67 $5 M total for 2017 & 2018, $5.5 M Team Option 2019
Luke Gregerson 32 57 2/3 29.1% 7.8% 3.28 2.99 2.63 $6.25 M in 2017, FA 2018
Ken Giles 26 65 2/3 35.7% 8.7% 4.11 2.86 2.47 Pre-Arb, Eligible in 2018
Michael Feliz 23 65 35.2% 8.2% 4.43 3.24 3.51 Pre-Arb, Eligible in 2019
James Hoyt 30 22 30.8% 9.9% 4.50 4.92 2.86 Pre-Arb
Tony Sipp 33 43 2/3 20.5% 9.2% 4.95 6.19 6.24 $6 M in 2017 and 2018, FA 2019
Data via FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus

First we can rule out a couple of guys, Ken Giles and Christopher Devenski. They are the two who would most assuredly bring back the biggest return, but they both are pre-arbitration and dominant. For a team that expects to compete for at least the next few seasons, these two are an important part of that long-term plan.

Michael Feliz is just 23 years old, had a 35 percent strikeout rate, a 3.24 FIP, and a 3.51 DRA in 2016. He’s young, affordable, and misses bats. James Hoyt isn’t young at 30 years old, but he too misses bats with regularity. Hoyt’s 4.92 FIP in 2016 was pretty bad, but a 2.86 DRA tells a different story. This pair of 2016 rookies also remain cost-controlled and effective, the Astros are best served keeping them in Houston.

Tony Sipp had a brutal 2016, but did perform well in the two years previous. Coming off a bad year in combination with being the only lefty currently in the Astros bullpen means that he’s staying.

Now we reach the two relievers who the Astros would be smart to consider moving, Luke Gregerson and Will Harris. The 32-year-old Gregerson is in the final year of his contract and has consistently had a FIP between 2.50 and 3.40 in every year of his eight year career. Plus he’s coming off a season that saw his highest strikeout rate since 2010. Also 32 years old, Harris is signed for two more years with an option for 2019. He doesn’t have Gregerson’s track record, but increasing his curveball usage in 2016 seemed to work as he posted a FIP of 2.35, the lowest of his career.

Neither of these guys are at the elite level that brings back a top prospect like Giles, Andrew Miller, or Aroldis Chapman did. But they are high quality arms that can still demand a sizable return.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

So let’s pretend that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow agrees that trading Gregerson or Harris before the deadline this year is a good idea. Here are some teams that fit as potential trade partners.

Detroit Tigers (Projected Standings: FanGraphs 81-81, PECOTA 79-83)

There were some who thought that the Tigers would sell this offseason and begin a quick, on-the-fly rebuild. Instead, Detroit opted to roll the dice for one more year. If they truly do hope to compete for the AL Central this year, the bullpen needs improvement.

According to the FanGraphs depth charts, the two Tigers relievers projected for 65 innings are Francisco Rodriguez, naturally, and Mark Lowe. That’s not great. Last year Lowe had a 5.66 FIP and a 5.62 DRA, unanimously bad. Meanwhile, K-Rod has maintained a relatively high level of performance, but is 35 years old. Father time, as we all know, is undefeated.

Last year, former Beyond the Box Score contributor Spencer Bingol wrote about Justin Wilson’s dominant yet “bad” performance. He, along with Alex Wilson, are two other solid yet unspectacular pieces of this Tigers bullpen. You could argue that Gregerson or Harris would immediately become the best relief pitcher in Detroit, but no matter where their talent would rank, there’s no doubt that either would make this crew significantly more capable of helping what might be the Tigers’ last run for a while.

Pittsburgh Pirates (Projected Standings: FanGraphs 82-80, PECOTA 81-81)

The top two right-handers in the Pirates bullpen are Daniel Hudson and Juan Nicasio. Neither are bad options, but with Hudson a two-time Tommy John recipient and Nicasio’s penchant for wildness, another dependable righty would bring some stability as the Pirates vie for the NL Central crown, and perhaps more realistically, a spot in the NL Wild Card.

They have three stalwart left-handers in Tony Watson, Antonio Bastardo, and the aforementioned Felipe Rivero. Assuming that both the Pirates and the Astros rightly see their bullpens as somewhat unbalanced with regard to handedness, perhaps a challenge trade of Watson for Gregerson would work. Both players are free agents at the end of the year and subjectively reside in the same tier of relief pitchers, just below the elite.

Even if the Pirates would rather maintain their left-handed depth, they should certainly be players if one of these two become available.

St. Louis Cardinals (Projected Standings: FanGraphs 83-79, PECOTA 76-86)

The Cardinals are in the same boat as the Pirates; winning the division against the powerhouse Cubs will be an uphill battle. Bolstering their bullpen with Gregerson or Harris would help in that endeavor a great deal.

Beyond Seung-hwan Oh and promising rookie ground-ball machine Matt Bowman, the Cards’ pen leaves something to be desired from its righties. Trevor Rosenthal and Jonathan Broxton are big names but far from reliable. Rosenthal began to rebound from his disaster 2016 towards the end, but still posted a nearly 15 percent walk rate and Broxton remains serviceable but as homer prone as ever.

It seems St. Louis rarely swings trades for the cream of the crop which is why a deal for one of these guys, who are great but not elite, makes a ton of sense for them. Much like the Pirates, if the Cardinals find themselves within striking distance near the deadline they should do just that.

Los Angeles Dodgers (Projected Standings: FanGraphs 94-68, PECOTA 95-67)

The Dodgers don’t really NEED any bullpen help, but they covet depth and have the resources to get any deal done. The other factor leading to their inclusion here is that beyond Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers right-handed relievers are far from a sure thing.

Despite being 34 years old, new signee Sergio Romo still has a devastating slider but must be shielded from left-handed hitters. Pedro Baez, the human embodiment of watching paint dry, has strong numbers but a penchant for allowing home runs in inopportune spots. He’s also dealing with a hand injury this spring. Chris Hatcher, like Baez, shows flashes of dominance but had a 5.21 FIP in 2016 and has proven unreliable overall. The best Dodgers’ righty, non-Jansen division, might be Josh Fields, who was acquired from the Astros at the 2016 trade deadline. His posted a 3.26 FIP and a nearly 20 percent strikeout to walk ratio last season and looks like a steal for the boys in blue.

The Dodgers’ emphasis on maintaining depth means that a trade of Gregerson or Harris straight up for a left-hander like Adam Liberatore or Luis Avilan, while beneficial to the Astros, would probably be a non-starter. But they have plenty of minor league talent to make a deal should Romo or Baez, the personification of a Zack Morris time out, falter.

The Astros bullpen is formidable, so much so that they’re one of the only teams in baseball that can afford to trade a prominent reliever. No one would blame them for standing pat; all those capable arms makes a potential injury less devastating to their World Series hopes. Still, trading from a strength for a left-handed reliever or some quality prospects would be an interesting way to capitalize on their depth.

It’d be an unconventional move, but as they say, fortune favors the bold.

. . .

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.