By: Justin Millar
It's a pretty rough time to be a Houston Astros fan right now. The Astros are coming off a 106 loss season, which was 7 more losses than any other team in baseball. The 2012 team has looked a little better, but they are still way below .500 and a high 2013 draft pick is a near guarantee. In fact, if it weren't for some unexpected starts by several of the team's players, then this team may have been challenging the Cubs, Twins, and Padres for the worst record in baseball right now.
Despite all this, there is some hope for the fledgling franchise that has yet to win a world series in its 50 years of existence. For starters, a management upheaval has brought some brilliant new minds to a franchise that was practically plunged for its assets by the Phillies thanks to former GM, Ed Wade. New GM, Jeff Luhnow, brings a philosophy that strongly relies on building from within, and the Astros are determined to do that. They had one of the worst farm systems in baseball a couple of years ago, but an influx of talent from trades and the draft has pushed the system to more middle of the pack. The Astros actually have 3 prospects that made my top 100 prospect list earlier this spring in Jonathan Singleton, George Springer, and Jarred Cosart, as well as one who just missed the cut in Jonathan Villar. The Astros also held the top pick in last week's draft, and they added several marquee prospects, such as Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers jr, that could one day start on the next Astros playoff team, assuming the franchise doesn't fall into Pittsburgh Pirates like stretch.
The franchise also has hope in a young group of big leaguers, that have showed signs of potential thus far in 2012. Former Braves top prospect, Jordan Schafer, has emerged as a valuable big league asset at the age of 25. He is on pace to steal over 40 bases, and a decent walk rate along with average defense in centerfield, could allow the Astros to trade him for something of value. 24-year-old left fielder, JD Martinez, has shown that he may be worth keeping for the Astros. He will likely never hit for a solid average, but he should be a 20 home run type hitter that draws a ton of walks. He's on pace for 72 walks on the season. Infielder Jose Altuve is also showing he could belong in the Astros long-term plan.
Standing at just 5-5, Altuve is an offensive threat in the middle of the diamond. Altuve is strong on the base paths, and he has doubles power and speed which allows him to rack up the doubles and triples. Aside from that, he can just flat-out hit. He is likely a perennial 200 hit second basemen, that should compete for the batting title year in and year out. He is probably the lone all-star caliber talent the Astros have at the big league level right now. On the pitching side, Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles could be in the fold for Houston long term. Lyles was rushed to the big leagues, but is still just 21 and could be a number 2 starter. Norris has been a pleasant surprise for the Astros over the past couple seasons. He has been striking out over 9 batters per 9 innings the past 2 years, and the Astros could be forced to make a decision on him soon. He is just 27, so they could choose to keep him to add a veteran presence when some of their younger pitchers start coming up, or they could deal him while his value is high.
The Astros have quite a few guys with decent trade value, that likely won't be around the next time they contend. The 2012 trade deadline may be the time to sell on some of these guys. Another influx of talent could really help this system, much as it helped the Padres restock last year. Here are a few possible trade candidates the Astros should look at dealing this summer:
Carlos Lee, 1B/DH
Lee is a free agent after the season, and the Astros are almost certainly going to let him sign elsewhere. At 35, Lee could still add some value to a contending team down the stretch, likely in a DH role. His hefty salary may be tough to move, but Houston could get a grade B type prospect in return if the Astros pick up some of his salary. Lee has been worth roughly 3.5 wins since the start of the 2011 season, and ZIPS projects Lee to be worth about 1 win over the rest of the 2012 season. Lee could fit well with an AL team in need of a DH or power bat off the bench. Also look for the Dodgers to possibly be interested if they are looking to replace the unreliable James Loney.
Jordan Schafer, CF
Schafer has already matched his 2011 production, despite playing in only half as many games so far this season. Schafer won't provide much with the bat, especially power wise, but he does take walks which should allow him to keep his OBP in the .320-.330 range. Schafer's biggest contribution is on the base paths. He currently ranks 4th in the NL in stolen bases, and projects to steal more than 40 on the year. At just 25, Schafer plays a premium position in center field, and his defense isn't likely to harm his team. The age and position factors make Schafer a potential asset to teams looking for a viable centerfielder. He is cheap too, essentially making the big league minimum. The Astros will probably hold on to Schafer because he is just 25, but I don't think his trade value will get much higher. This might be the right time to deal him and get the most for his value.
Jed Lowrie, SS
Lowrie is having a career season, and at 28, he likely wont be around the next time Houston is playing winning baseball. I don't think he will get moved, but it could be an interesting opportunity to explore. A SS who can hit for power and average can command a premium on the trade market. Look for Houston to keep Lowrie, but if I were Jeff Luhnow, I would be at least taking offers.
Chris Johnson, 3B
Johnson is 27 and has 3 years of team control remaining. This is another case of possibly selling off while his value is at his highest. He is currently hitting .294/.342/.444 and that is likely his ceiling. A contending team looking for a third baseman, or a utility corner infielder should be considering Johnson as a candidate.
Brandon Lyon, RP
A team looking for a veteran bullpen arm could use Lyon should he become available. Lyon has performed quite well so far this season for Houston. His k/9 ratio is at 8.86, the highest of his career. That will likely regress somewhat, but he still should be reliable to pitch 50+ innings and be worth roughly 1 win. There are a number of teams looking for bullpen help and Lyon could wind up with any one of them.
Brett Myers, RP/SP
Myers has pitched entirely out of the bullpen in 2012, but he started 66 games combined from 2010 and 2011. He was worth 5.5 wins over those 2 seasons as a starter, and I could see him slotting back into the rotation and possibly providing value from the 4th or 5th starter spot for a playoff caliber team. As a reliever, he still is valuable, being projected to put up 41 saves this season. Saves are basically irrelevant, but Myers is looking solid in other categories. His strikeout rate has improved, and his walk rate has dropped significantly. Myers will likely have many suitors this July, and whether it be as a starter or reliever, the front office will likely be shipping Myers out of Houston.
Wandy Rodriguez, SP
Rodriguez has actually been one of the most reliable starting pitchers in the bigs since the start of the 2007 season. Wandy is signed for the next 1-2 years (depending on his vesting contract for 2014) at a relatively fair price. Rodriguez has pitched at least 190 innings in each if his last 3 seasons, and is on pace to do so again in 2012. In 12 starts so far this season, Rodriguez has a 3.14 ERA to go along with a relatively low walk rate. Teams looking for a starting pitcher this summer will likely consider Rodriguez as one of their primary candidates. He is probably the most valuable of all the Astros trade candidates, and could potentially fetch 2 grade B prospects.
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