You can tout your underage prospects and rookie phenoms all you want. You can praise the high-priced talent signed to shore up the back end of the bullpen if you like.
Me? I’m here to praise those waiver wire claims and cheap free agents that are putting together some solid season for this team. Why? Well, aside from the fact that those players are major contributors to the Astros’ winning ways, they also bode well for Luhnow’s brain trust moving forward. Because this team is going to need that brain trust to make some smart decisions.
Luhnow and his eggheads in the front office aren’t perfect. I still think we got hosed by the Angels on the Hank Conger deal. I mean, someone prove me wrong that his pitch framing skills are worth losing Carlos Perez and Nick Tropeano.
But the Astros have had great luck finding those diamonds in the rough since Luhnow arrived. And it all started with Rule 5 draftee Marwin Gonzalez. Since arriving in Houston, MarGo has put up a total 1.3 WAR and done an admirable job filling in around the diamond. In his fourth year in the big leagues, MarGo is finally getting paid at $1,062,500.
The diamonds in the rough continue with Josh Fields, another Rule 5 guy, who has finally put it together, giving a plus WAR for the first time while coming in with an ERA of 1.00. For bargain finds in the bullpen, Fields is actually not even close to the best deal in 2015. Tony Sipp has already matched his 2014 WAR (0.8) with a 2-0 record and a 0.55 ERA. Think Sipp is awesome? Will Harris, claimed off waivers, has a 0.9 WAR, a 0.47 ERA. He’s given up a run in 19 innings pitched.
Harris and Fields are essentially making MLB minimum at just over $500,000 a year. Sipp is getting paid big money: $2.4 million.
When the Astros picked up the former Faustino Carmona (Roberto Hernandez), I was skeptical. It was a minor league deal where the parties had a chance to opt out prior to Opening Day. But the Astros held on to Hernandez, and he’s rewarded them with five quality starts in eight, and four wins by the team in those eight starts. After his first start, he’s never failed to go six innings. All for the low low price of $2.655 million.
Joe Thatcher might be a miss in this category. His 3.38 ERA and $1 million salary are practically a disappointment compared to the rest.
But then I’d be remiss in not mentioning the best waiver claim of the Luhnow era: Collin McHugh. His ERA might have skyrocketed to 4.09 thanks to one really bad start , but McHugh is still 5-1 and the Astros are 7-1 in his starts. Oh, and he’s signed for league minimum at $516,300. Yeah, I’m gonna say that was a good signing.
Now The Hard Part
Thatcher notwithstanding, it seems the brain trust can be trusted. Well, that’s good, because the Astros — thanks to all this winning — probably won’t have a chance to pick these waiver gems or Rule 5 studs. In both instances, you pick at your last draft order. Houston will be picking a bit higher in the coming seasons. Which, in a way, is good. Because Luhnow and Co. need to focus their attention on some big decisions when it comes to its minor league talent.
There are logjams a-comin’.
Middle Infield: Some time next month, the Astros’ middle infield will be set for the next 10 years at least. Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve will soon be best buds. That leaves a lot of middle infield talent needing to find a home. Whom do you keep as that super sub? Who is trade bait. Here’s a run-down of some of the talent.
Tony Kemp: Currently sporting a .452 OBP in AA, Kemp is a second baseman. He doesn’t have a lot of power, but he’s got a good bat and a world-class eye at the plate.
Nolan Fontana: The “good” news is that Fontana has hit a wall in AAA, making him look expendable. Batting just .206 right now, he’s still got a .359 OBP, meaning he looks like a “Luhnow Guy.”
MarGo: The Astros’ current shortstop is a year removed from an OPS season well over .700. Don’t think he can’t get hot at any moment. Oh, and he’s steady with the glove compared to …
Jonathan Villar: All potential and no … oops, sorry Becky. Villar is up to .229 with the bat, and that throw to the plate Tuesday night is a good reminder of that potential.
Jiovanni Mier: Don’t laugh, but the former first-round pick is now batting .268 in AA, and he’s got an OPS of .819. He’s only 24. And he reportedly has a smooth, steady glove.
Joe Sclafani: Technically listed at 3B, Old Pro’s favorite overlooked prospect is hitting .243 in Fresno — when he gets to play — and he’s walking and whiffing both at about 20 percent.
Outfield/DH: With Preston Tucker now looking at long-term leases in Houston, Luhnow will need to make some decisions about the outfield. While I expect Rasmus to be gone this time next season, that still leaves the likes of George Springer, Jake Marisnick and Tucker in Houston’s outfield on Opening Day 2016. Gattis is probably back at DH. So …
Right now, Domingo Santana, L.J. Hoes and Alex Presley are all hitting above .300 at AAA. The weak link is Presley with a .696 OPS. But that ignores Andrew Aplin, who is scuffling right now, but has performed well at AA and in the AFL.
I really don’t see logjams at third, catcher (unless Tyler Heineman proves me wrong) or pitcher (can you have too much pitching). But keep in mind, I haven’t even looked at Lancaster or Quad Cities here. And both places are loaded with talent.
So I ask:
1. What waiver claim, low-cost free agent or Rule 5 has impressed the most so far?
2. Which one of those will impress the most going forward?
3. Where would this bullpen be without “the cheap three” of Harris, Sipp and Fields?
4. If you’d been told Hernandez would basically amount to an innings-eating, .500 pitcher in the fourth spot, you would have said (blank) when he was signed?
5. Where are the biggest logjams in the minors right now?
6. What players in AA and AAA should not be dangled as trade bait to clear some space?
7. What players at AA and AAA should be dangled?