When is the last time you woke up to begin a new week and your favorite baseball team was .500 and in first place in the AL West? Come on now! You can get out some ooohs and ahhhs instead of some of “Oh me’s” and ugghs and groans!
In fact, on this Monday, the Astros are one of only six .500 teams in the American League. If the playoffs began today…okay, let’s not get carried away.
Moreover, the roster is the same today as it was on opening day. A .500 team, despite horrific hitting that includes five regulars or semi-regulars hitting .205 or lower and three primary middle of the order hitters with only two home runs and four RBI between them.
So, how did they get there? Pitching and defense. The formula for consistency and the ingredients that win championships.
Only four short months ago, this year’s roster was only a pipe dream in Jeff Luhnow’s mind. Some believe it still a dream — or nightmare — at least in portion. So while the Astros celebrate first place — the first time this late in the season since 2007 — let’s take a look at the trades and acquisitions that got them here.
To be quite fair, it’s probably unfair to grade these at this point, but as turbulent as the late spring and early season have been, it’s only reasonable to review. As an equal opportunity blogger, here’s my pledge to bring back the same review a few more times this season.
The grades, to be sure, are flexible and fluid. A breakout here or injury there could significantly alter the result, and you can even argue that all grades are incomplete. Still, here’s a reminder of the off-season activity and the so-far impact on the Astros.
- Nov 2014: Houston traded Nick Tropeano and Carlos Perez to Angels for Hank Conger.
- One of the head scratchers of the off-season, Conger hasn’t contributed significantly, at least not in a noticeable way. Perhaps he has contributed behind the scenes with Jason Castro and the pitching staff, but the Astros had a serviceable backup catcher in Carlos Corporan. Meanwhile, Tropean0 (5) and Perez (20) are listed among the Angels’ top prospects.
- Early grade: F.
- Nov 2014: Claimed Will Harris off waivers from Arizona.
- One of those under-the-radar waiver claims that has turned into a gem for Houston. Harris didn’t cut it in Colorado or Arizona, but the 27-year-old LSU product has been perfect for the Astros (4G, 6IP, 6K, 1BB, 0.00 ERA).
- Early grade: A+.
- Dec 2014: Signed Jed Lowrie for 3 years, $22 million (plus option).
- Perhaps a surprise since Lowrie and the Astros had a dust-up a year ago, but the former Boston first rounder (originally acquired in 2011 for Mark Melancon) has brought stability to SS. Despite a .205 average, he has had key hits.
- Early grade: B+.
- Dec 2014: Signed Pat Neshek for 2 years, $12 million (plus option).
- Had a career year in 2014, but Hinch favored him due to his ties in San Diego. He’s been serviceable, if not dependable, though not at the same level as others in the pen. Yet.
- Early grade: B.
- Dec 2014: Signed Luke Gregerson for 3 years, $18.5 million.
- From Day 1, he was tabbed as the Astros’ closer though he had never been designated as such in six previous seasons. In six appearances, he has been stellar and shut down (2H, 6K, 0BB).
- Early grade: A.
- Dec 2014: Lost David Rollins, Delino Deshields Jr. and Jandel Gustave in the Rule 5 draft.
- Only Deshields has stuck in the majors, though it may be a question for how long as the Rangers are already searching for outfield solutions. Gustave is back in the Astros’ organization and Rollins was suspended for PED use.
- Early grade: Incomplete, but leaning Astros heavily.
- Jan 2015: Traded Corporan to Texas for Akeem Bostick.
- Seemingly insignificant at the time, but this could be one of the bigger moves of the off-season if Conger’s contributions don’t measure up. Corporan had been a steady hand and is on the same arbitration schedule as Conger, so it wasn’t a money decision.
- Early grade: F.
- Jan 2015: Signed Colby Rasmus for one year, $8 million.
- You can call this move a backup, safety net of sorts. With the early signing of Alex Presley for $1 million to avoid arbitration and the addition of Evan Gattis, the Astros may have been discontent with their outfield options going into the season. While Rasmus was a good defensive addition, he continues to struggle at the plate. If it weren’t for the hard-to-swallow $8 million gig, he might be a decent addition as a fourth outfielder. Still, he is a reasonable place holder for Preston Tucker, Domingo Santana or others.
- Early grade: C-.
- Jan 2015: Acquired Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily from Chicago for Dexter Fowler.
- A solid acquisition, though it rid the Astros of their best leadoff possibility for the season (assuming Jose Altuve is best suited for the two hole). That said, Valbuena may turn out to be the catch of the season for the Astros as he has already contributed both offensively and defensively. The 29-year-old is under team control through 2017 and — along with Lowrie — gives Houston a solid left side to stabilize its defense. With Straily prepping in AAA and freed of Fowler’s $9.5 million, the trade portends well for Houston.
- Early grade: B, though it could become an A easily if Valbuena breaks out as some predict.
- Jan 2015: Acquired Evan Gattis and James Hoyt from Atlanta for Michael Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz and Andrew Thurman.
- The head scratcher of the off-season. Some will never approve of this trade, even if Gattis provides a career season. The three Braves acquisitions are now listed #3, #6 and #20 in their prospect listings. Meanwhile, Gattis is designated exclusively as the team’s DH and may have turned a small corner recently at the plate while Hoyt is in Fresno as the Astros’ #24 prospect.
- Early grade: D, extending a huge benefit of the doubt here, given the unproven prospects and Gattis’ potential as DH.
- Feb 2015: Signed Joe Thatcher for one year, $1 million (originally a minor league contract).
- Another of those players in San Diego with Hinch, Thatcher has provided what the team had wanted. A solid deal as Thatcher had other offers on the table and the Astros didn’t have many solid left-handed options.
- Early grade: B+.
- Feb 2015: Signed Roberto Hernandez for one year, $2.65 million (originally a minor league contract).
- Picked up Hernandez after the Ryan Vogelsong deal went south. He battled well in spring and provided the best option when injuries popped up and others (e.g. Straily, Alex White) didn’t step up. Was part of what was perceived a much depth in the rotation early, but now has solidified his spot for the foreseeable future.
- Early grade: B.
So, let’s see your grades for each one of the above moves and here are some obvious questions and a few others:
- Best acquisition of the off-season.
- Worst acquisition of the off-season.
- Most pleasant surprise.
- Which player traded away will the Astros most regret in the future?
- Which trade or acquisition that looks horrific now could actually turn into a boon for Houston?