Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Astros on Vacation: An Editorial by Mike Mitchell

[The following is an editorial opinion from WTHB first-time contributor Mike Mitchell. His opinions and mine may not intersect at every avenue, but I enjoy his thoughtful, eloquent and well-reasoned point of view. I hope that you will enjoy it as well. -- Jayne]

The Astros on Vacation

by Mike Mitchell

In his brilliant psychological thriller The Visible Man, Chuck Klosterman has a great line about the psychology of being rich -- the kind of rich the Astros were from June of 2012 until July of 2015:

"The rich can take vacations, which isn't nearly as essential to day-to-day happiness as the process of looking forward to all the vacations you'll experience later."

This concept -- that laying on a beach never feels as great as the security and self-esteem of sitting in your living room knowing that you can lay on a beach whenever the heck you want -- is a fairly common sense way of explaining how hope and imagination work.

From the moment Jeff Luhnow took over baseball operations and began trading every Major League player of any value for guaranteed short-term losses (specfically, the draft picks and pool money that come with those losses), projectable arms and Dominican teenagers, the Astros have been planning future vacations. The official moment we were rich enough for realistic fantasy came after the 2012 draft, one that produced current Astros rookies Carlos Correa (1st overall pick), Lance McCullers and Preston Tucker. Correa was 17 years old, which is exactly how old we wanted him to be at that moment in time.

Things were progressing well enough, despite the Brady Aiken saga and other pre-vacation missteps. Last summer, Sports Illustrated announced: "Astros Depart for Bahamas in 2017!", and we all ate it up.

Then the 2015 team arrived, and all hell broke loose. Outside of hot starts from Jake Marisnick and Jed Lowrie, the team didn't really *look* much better than the 70-92 2014 squad. With half the lineup hitting under .200 and striking out constantly -- including second-year cornerstone George Springer and big off-season acquisition Evan Gattis, the Astros rode a flawless bullpen and a hyper-efficient, shift-heavy defense to an 18-7 record and a six-game lead in early May in a suddenly declining AL West. Were we already rich? Was this paradise?

Eh, sort of. Since then, the division has not gotten much better, with only a brief Angels surge in early July. The Astros have been a .500 team, going 40-39 in their last 79 games as of August 1st. Regulars Chris Carter and Luis Valbuena are still struggling to get their averages over .200, Marisnick has hit like a pitcher since late April, and the bullpen now comes and goes. The additions of immediate impact stars Correa and McCullers -- as well as solid contributions from Tucker and fellow rookie Vincent Velasquez -- have cancelled out the fact that the Opening Day roster (with the notable exception of Dallas Keuchel) has not been particularly impressive. And so, we have sat in the general proximity of 8-12 games over .500 for several months now.

Luhnow had a choice to make. As he acknowledged in interviews, the team's record to date and the extreme parity in the American League meant the Astros could probably coast into a Wild Card playoff game, with no upgrades via trade. Or, with some very significant upgrades to the top of the rotation, the middle of the lineup and the back of the bullpen (read: ALL OF THE THINGZ!!), the 2015 Astros could sustain their somewhat misleading success, likely win the division, and grab a ticket to MLB's Elite Eight.

The decision would not be without costs: the Astros had a second wave of very promising prospects behind the first one. In my judgment, the most elite of those three were, in order:

1. CF Brett Phillips - 5-tool center fielder. A bit undersized, with only average range for center field, and his plate discipline is unrefined. That's it for holes. He has been extremely productive at every level, hitting for average and power with plus-speed and a cannon arm. Was most recently at Double-A Corpus Christi.

2. 1B A.J. Reed - Leads all of minor-league baseball with 28 HRs and 99 RBIs in 100 games between High-A Lancaster and Corpus Christi. Takes his walks. He's the prototype for an elite first base prospect.

3. C Jacob Nottingham - With 14 HR, 60 RBI and a .325 average in 76 games between Low-A Quad Cities and Lancaster, Nottingham is also a prototypical first base pros-- oh, what's that? What? He's a highly athletic catcher!? He's 20 years old, you say? Scouts say his can stick at the position? Oh, wow. We could use one of those!

There were other guys -- this year's three first rounders, plus Derek Fisher, Mark Appel, Domingo Santana, Colin Moran, Josh Hader, Michael Feliz, Francis Martes, etc. -- who had clear future potential. But with Keuchel, McCullers, Velasquez and Collin McHugh all under team control through at least 2018, those three bats listed above --at the three greatest need positions in the everyday lineup -- were the pieces everyone had in their hypothetical 2017 Astros lineups. The guys who would live in paradise.

Luhnow had a clear choice: tweak the roster by trading lesser, non-essential prospects for useful spare parts (a lefty reliever, a platoon outfielder, etc.), or Go For It. You know, Go For It. The strategy that says: these cars are shiny and drive better than my car, and I can afford one. Why am I not buying one of these cars? It's time to Go For It!

The Angels, Luhnow's immediate rival for the crucial division crown, and the team with fewer good prospects and an older core roster, tweaked.

The Astros, with a young roster that is two years ahead of Luhnow's own projection, decided to Go For It.

I disagree strongly with this decision, particularly in light of the fact other teams agreed with my assessment of the Astros system, demanded their elite prospects, and received two of the three from Luhnow.

First, Phillips and Nottingham are not just elite, they are unblocked among our established young core pieces. Jason Castro's recent heroics aside, he has regressed offensively for two consecutive years and is in line to earn more than $5M in his final year of arbitration eligibility in 2016. Hank Conger is a nice roster piece, but he's also getting expensive and not productive enough for a pricey free agent contract.

Nottingham was the most valuable catcher in this organization by a massive margin.

The same is true of Phillips, who is across-the-board superior to Marisnick and Tony Kemp. There is an argument for George Springer as the long-term center fielder, an option that would give the Astros more flexibility to add offense at the corners, but there is no evidence Houston's front office and field staff have seriously considered that path, especially in light of their trade deadline work.

With Chris Carter's implosion and the team's short leash with post-hype prospect Jon Singleton, first base is wide open, currently being manned by a three-headed monster of Carter, all-or-nothing third baseman Luis Valbuena, and utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez. So Reed, like Nottingham and Phillips, is a core piece by virtue of performance, projection and opportunity. He has it all.

The decision to trade two of the three, Nottingham and Phillips (presumably because the Reds already have Joey Votto and thus had no use for a hypothetical Reed-for-Aroldis Chapman swap, thankfully) was stunning. Nottingham was dealt for a straight rental piece, and Phillips for a relatively short-term piece in Carlos Gomez, who is controlled through 2016.

The Astros have gotten better in 2015 and 2016. I have no interest in disputing that. While there is an argument Phillips could be just as good as Gomez by next summer, I won't make the case. It requires an optimistic view of the prospect's immediate impact, and a pessimistic view of Gomez's age-30 season. Nottingham would not be ready to catch regularly before Opening Day 2017, so Kazmir's value down the stretch this year is all profit until then.

But make no mistake: the 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 Astros almost certainly got worse. Even if they acquire free agents or trade for more veteran stop-gaps at catcher and center field, those resources will take away from the flexibility to patch other, unexpected holes that inevitably arise. A.J. Hinch, who has been an excellent addition at manager, has not yet shown a strong embrace of platooning as a creative method of cost-saving in the lineup. Most likely, the 2017-2019 Astros will either carry sub-standard options at catcher and center field, or less cost-efficient veteran players with expensive contracts on the downside of their careers. And then, maybe Daz Cameron?

A standard disclaimer on articles of this type states that if the Astros win a World Series in the 2015-16 window promoted by Luhnow's moves, nothing else matters. Flags Fly Forever. And that's true: I count myself among the fans who would gladly trade Nottingham and Phillips's pre-free agency careers for a championship run, bragging rights, etc. I have season tickets to this year's team. I'll be at every playoff game.

But we did not just buy a ring. We bought a slightly enhanced chance at one. According to Baseball Prospectus, our current World Series win probability is 9.6%, a close third in the American League. Before the Kazmir acquisition, it was around 6%. That's what we bought, folks. That's what Jacob Nottingham's career bought.

The outcome is secondary. We won't win the World Series because of Kazmir, we'll win it because one of the extra 3-4 Astros balls out of 100 in the lottery machine might come up.

It is antithetical to everything Jeff Luhnow has done since taking over that he would sacrifice a dozen years of cost-controlled assets -- and the odds of Phillips and Nottingham becoming at least league-average regulars, and thus extremely valuable to the team, is much higher than 9.6% at this point -- for a marginal upgrade to our short-term potential.

It makes me think other factors are in play. Perhaps owner Jim Crane, underwhelmed by the modest jump in attendance -- only 24,000 fans came out for the first game of the crucial Angels series on Tuesday -- felt the need for a headline-generating all-in pennant push. Maybe a member of the senior leadership team is terminally ill. Or maybe Luhnow just got impulsive.

I mentioned on Twitter right before the deadline that I felt Luhnow got caught in a vicious circle: every time he sacrificed a valued prospect to win in 2015, the urgency to win in 2015 increased, and made the team more likely to sacrifice additional prospects to (foolishly) pursue an outcome it had already declared a bias towards. This is the sentiment I felt was driving Luhnow to pursue Craig Kimbrel and Chapman with his remaining prospects up until the very last minute.

Or, perhaps, we simply place too much value on future vacations. Many fans argue this, and while the math says they're wrong, maybe the math isn't enough. The Astros have given up a big chunk of the savings account that was promising them virtually unlimited future vacations.

That future is less certain than it was two weeks ago. But, hey, we're on vacation right now.

We better bleepin' enjoy it.


Mike Mitchell (Twitter: @MMitchTX) is an Astros fan and season-ticket holder living in Bellaire, Texas with his wife Laura.

4 comments:

  1. After losing nearly 300 games in the last 3-4 years, I'm glad Jeff luhnow did what he did. We still have a *ton* of talent in our minor league farm system. He had the chance to catch light in a bottle, and went for it. We'll see how it shakes out after the last game is played. Sure, losing Brett Phillips, and Nottingham is gonna sting a little, but check the guys out in quad cities....
    They are *30* games over 500, and the talent in corpus is STILL great!! I'm sorry you feel like we sold out the farm, but I don't. Good article!!

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    1. Thanks for your feedback. I agree that the system has tremendous depth, in terms of the 20th-60th best prospects being significantly better than the average organization's. That is what fuels our success at the minor-league level. But it's the blue-chippers who profile as significantly above "replacement level" in the Majors who are truly relevant. I feel like we sold off a lot of that future win expectancy here.

      Thanks again. - Mike

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    2. Although I agree that we didn't want to lose Brett Phillips or Jacob Nottingham, keep in mind that behind Phillips the Astros have Derek Fisher (who I think will prove to be a better player than Phillips), and the recent 1st rounders in Kyle Tucker and Daz Cameron and that Tyler Heineman, who is in AAA now, had similar numbers to Nottingham all the way thru AA. During spring training, Heineman impressed the Astros brass and continues to impress in the minors although his power numbers have dropped off in AAA. As such, I think the Astros dealt from depth - the players I named are just some of the depth -- guys like Teoscar Hernandez and Max Stassi are still learning the game -- low batting averages this year, but still showing lots of power and playing great defense. So, while I totally agree that the farm system was weakened by trading Phillips, Nottingham, Santana, Mengden, Hader and Houser --6 of our top 30 -- there's plenty more from where that came from. And I trust Luhnow and co. will continue to draft well in the years ahead, similar to the Cardinals. Sometimes you just have to go for it, and I'm glad the Astros did so. I think we're a better team with Kazmir, Gomez and Fiers -- that may or may not translate directly to a division title or world series, but even if it helps by a few percentage points, that is better than sitting on our hands and hoping to get there.

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  2. As a season-ticket holder for the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Astros didn't sell off a lot of their future. Trading a "blue-chipper" will not be the end of the Astros. Of the players that we traded the loss of Phillips will hurt but we got players for them in return which is much better than losing said players to the Rule 5 draft and getting nothing in return. Look at it from the 25 - 40 man roster....with the amount of talent that the Astros have in their farm system some of these players would have been left unprotected. (Some people have asked me why Stoeffel hasn't been protected. Most teams have some depth with relief RHP The hot commodity are the relief LHP and you understand why we lost Rollins because he provides a team a good option out of the bullpen. I like the addition of Kazmir because it allows the Astros to be diligent with Velasquez due to his injury history. Having seen both McCullers and Velasquez pitch in Double-A I was more impressed with Velasquez.

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