The 2014 season has gone surprisingly well so far for the Houston Astros. While they're still dwelling at the bottom of the AL West and have just a 0.8% chance of reaching the postseason (according to Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds), they have exceeded expectations considerably so far. At 24-32, they have the 26th best record in baseball, obviously horrible, but for a team that has averaged 108 losses over the past three seasons, a .429 winning percentage is a step in the right direction.
And it's not as if they're avoiding the league's cellar by pure luck, as their pythagorean record is identical to their actual record, and their .482 3rd order winning percentage is actually the 6th best mark in the American League, ahead of perennial contenders such as the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees, and Rangers. In the actual standings, they remain ahead of the Rays and Diamondbacks, who were each expected to contend this season, and they are within two games of six other teams, including 2013 playoff squads such as the Pirates and Indians, as well as the World Series-winning Red Sox.
Of course, Houston is far from being a competitive ballclub, but with recent graduations of top prospects to the big leagues, and a farm system that is considered by many to be among the best in the game, they are well on their way towards contention sometime in the next few years. The Astros' bottoming-out philosophy has caught them plenty of flack in recent years, but as their plan begins to bear fruit, their fortunes should soon change.
Buyers or Sellers?
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Despite all their promise, the Astros are still a team with a clear intent to sell. As they exit the losing-centric portion of their rebuild, Houston is thin on expendable assets compared to prior years. Since their rebuild was initiated in 2010, the Astros have dealt away a number of high-profile names such as Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Bud Norris, Wandy Rodriguez, and Jed Lowrie, among others. In return, they have essentially received a farm system's worth of talent including Jarred Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, Max Stassi, Matt Dominguez, and many others. This year, however, they don't carry any pieces that will be in high-demand the same was as a Pence or Bourn was, so the pendulum of acquiring high level prospects in trades appears to have passed. Unless they move a Dexter Fowler or Jason Castro, Houston is likely set up for a series of smaller moves this summer.
As one of the worst teams in baseball, it's safe to say that Houston's major league club is devoid of talent, so technically, they need quite a bit. Of course, the Astros will not be buyers this season, as they will likely look internally to fill any holes. In trades, they'll certainly target the best player they can get, but they could also choose to address some organizational areas of weakness. As impressive as Houston's collection of minor league talent is, they're somewhat light on outfielders with George Springer now in the majors. The Astros are also thin on left-handed starters, as Dallas Keuchel, Brett Oberholtzer, and Josh Hader are the only southpaws of note in the organization.
The Astros could potentially be a dark horse landing spot for someone like Giancarlo Stanton (pure speculation on my part), who is young, cost-controlled (for now), and would be a piece that Houston could build around for the next decade or so. If Houston wants to go out and get a franchise-altering talent like Stanton or David Price, they most definitely have the talent to acquire him, as well as the financial means of locking him up long-term.
Pieces to Deal
Outside of George Springer, Jose Altuve (the cult hero who they signed to an extension just last year), Jarred Cosart, Scott Feldman, and possibly Matt Dominguez, every player currently on Houston's active roster has a realistic chance of getting dealt in the next two months. So, there are quite a few current Astros who may be playing in different uniforms come August.
Earlier this month, it was reported that Houston had discussed trading one of their catchers to the Baltimore Orioles. Though no deal was completed, it demonstrated the potential possibility of the Astros dealing from their relatively strong catching bin that consists of Carlos Perez, Carlos Corporan, Max Stassi, and starter Jason Castro.
Castro may be Houston's best player, but the team has shown a fondness for Stassi, and Castro has drawn considerable trade interest in the past. Though he has been disappointing so far this season (96 wRC+, 0.7 WAR), Castro was among the best catchers in baseball last season, when he posted a 130 wRC+ and 4.3 WAR. The Astros hold Castro's rights through the 2016 season, so, unless they extend him, they would probably be best served dealing him within the next calendar year, while he is still under multiple years of team control. If dealt, Castro could bring back a very strong return.
If Houston feels stronger about Castro, then they could go in the opposite direction and flip Stassi. Just 23, he is regarded as one of the better catching prospects in the minors due to strong receiving skills and a decent amount of power. Though he probably wouldn't fetch quite as much as Castro in a trade, young catchers with the potential to be big league regulars and at least six years of team control remaining are very attractive assets.
While it is unlikely that they are traded, Perez and Corporan could be sent to a team in need of depth. Corporan is an above-average pitch-framer, which, despite his below-average offensive abilities, could make him an interesting acquisition for a team in search of a solid backup.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
Fowler was acquired in December from the Rockies in a deal that sent pitcher Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes to Colorado. At the time, it was somewhat strange to see Houston acquire an above-average veteran, while surrendering a pair of young assets, but the value appeared to be too much to pass up, and the possibility of flipping him at this year's deadline represented a chance to get an even greater net value.
So far, the 28-year-old has played well, hitting .259/.375/.360 with 0.7 WAR. The Coors Field effect has shown in his power production (he slugged .407 last year), but Fowler is still getting on-base at a high clip, and his 106 OPS+ is the second best mark of his career.
Fowler could be an appealing option for a contender in search of a starting center fielder. A free agent after next season, Fowler probably isn't a part of Houston's long-term plans, so a trade either this summer or in the offseason is likely.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
After blasting 29 home runs and posting a 113 wRC+ last year, Carter's already weak ability to make solid contact has been amplified by an extremely low .242 BABIP this year. His mammoth power has also seen a drop, as he currently has a home run per fly ball rate of 14.3% compared to 20.7% in 2013.
Enormously prone to the strikeout (he led the league with 212 punchouts last year), Carter isn't a particularly useful player unless he's ripping balls over the fence. Due to his performance and nearly five years of club control remaining, Carter probably won't be made explicitly available, but as someone who hit 45 home runs with a 119 OPS+ in 845 plate appearances in 2012 and 2013, and figures to be in his prime at age 27, he could be an excellent addition to a club in need of offense.
Trade Likelihood: Low
The performance of Houston starters Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel has been among the more intriguing stories so far this season. The two 26-year-old are pitching out of their minds. McHugh has a 2.80 ERA, 2.63 FIP, 10.0 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9 in 45 innings despite owning a career 8.94 ERA (granted, in just 47.1 innings) before this season and being cast off by both the Mets and Rockies in the past year. Keuchel has been even better, with a 2.55 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 7.8 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, and league-leading 2.8 WAR in just over 70 innings pitched.
While the Astros have stated that they do not intend to trade either McHugh or Keuchel, it may be wise to cash in on them now before they lose their luster and possibly revert back to their former selves. This is a sell-high situation if there ever was one.
Trade Likelihood: Low
For non-contenders, league-average or better relief pitchers are among the most valuable assets in the game, due to their ability to be flipped in trades. For the Astros, who obviously aren't planning on contending this season, a good bullpen is a luxury, and while Houston's 4.84 bullpen ERA is atrocious (it's the worst in baseball), they have gotten some strong individual performances.
Darin Downs, Matt Albers, and Tony Sipp all have ERAs below 2.20 (Sipp and Albers have combined to allow just one run in nearly 20 innings), while Josh Zeid has a 112 ERA+ and Josh Field's 2.40 FIP represents a far superior performance than his 7.20 ERA indicates. The 35-year-old Chad Qualls has been excellent at the back of Houston's bullpen, with a 2.76 ERA, 2.25 FIP, and 6.33 K/BB in 16.1 innings. Plus, 2013 All-Star Jesse Crain could be back as soon as next month.
All of the names listed above could be gone from Houston by the end of July, and while that isn't likely, it's highly probable that at least one of them is.