The Astros wish list could not be in a more different position than it was this time last year. Back then, the bullpen was a glaring, obvious, black hole full of need. This year, it’s far from it. They’re 7 deep in the starting rotation too, maybe 8. The usual requirements – arms – are far from the need. Additionally, the team was bushed right up against the tax threshold in 2021, a line they’re extremely reluctant to cross, especially multiple years in a row. Now the Astros have 30 million dollars worth of space to take on contracts, particularly expiring ones. A splash move is fully on the table. Houston’s major league team has surplus talent to spare, but the farm system is still struggling to recover from all the win-now trades– and stripped draft picks. Who do the Astros target, and what does it take to get them?
I think a likely spot Houston upgrades is in first base production. Yuli Gurriel has been deadful – and at 38, it might be who he is now. There’s a strong case to make that an upgrade here provides the most marginal value. It’s not like Yuli is still the exact same guy under the hood.
Yuli is still making the same swing decisions he did last year. Always a free swinger inside the zone, Gurriel is now markedly worse against both the high fastball and the inside one. In fact, it’s no longer a good decision (by the metrics provided by Robert Orr over at Baseball Prospectus) for Yuli to swing at high fastballs in the zone, a pitch he used to do damage on. His barrel skills have turned into that of an opposite-field singles slapper, without the requisite approach change to make that viable. If you think you’ve noticed a lot of opposite field flyouts against high fastballs, it’s because you have. It would be a tough argument to say this is small sample noise, more than 300 plate appearances in. My own humble opinion is that something has ticked down. The clubhouse dynamic might get a little weird if an established leader like Yuli loses his starting spot, but objectively; it might be time.
No more doom and gloom though, there are exciting players Houston could bring in to earn the unwavering (read; terrifying) love of Astros fans:
#1. Christian Walker (ARI, 31, 3.0 bWAR, .779 OPS, 115 wRC+)
The Player: Walker is perhaps the most offensively unlucky player in baseball this season. He’s hitting .204, but the overall production is still significantly above league average with his 115 wRC+. A .252 xBA belays some park and luck factors, although it’s possible he never gets to his expected stats due to an extremely steep attack angle. It does give a sense for how hard Walker has crushed the baseball. His strikeout rate is below 20%, with walks at a good clip (10%). 22 homers in 2022 would only be increased with the Crawford boxes, as Walker sends nearly half his batted balls in the air and pulls them nearly half the time as well. Additionally, Walker’s underlying plate skills are at a career best – in-zone contact rate is the highest it’s ever been (88%), and he’s chasing less than ever as well (20%). Walker would add to the gauntlet that is the non-chasing Astros lineup, with nearly a 14% lower chase rate than Yuli, and provide an immense upgrade in thump. Add all that to the fact that CWalk is the only option that does not present a defensive downgrade.
The Fit: Christian Walker and Houston are a match made in heaven. Walker is an outstanding defensive first baseman – maybe the best defensively in the game – with plus power who demolishes fastballs. In Minute Maid Park, he’d have 26 home runs already this season, the most of any stadium. It’s not too much of a stretch to project 20 more if Houston were to acquire him. And 30+ annually beyond that. A plus defensive first baseman is important for Altuve and Pena’s fringy arms, and the defense is a big reason why Yuli has always been given so much leash in his downswings. Walker provides that, in the 98th percentile Outs Above Average and with 10 Defensive Runs Saved so far. Defensive metrics are even less useful for first basemen than others, but Walker has very real glove skills and excellent footwork. Dave Peralta is expiring as well, and Houston could certainly kick the tires on both in a package (see the outfield section).
The Trade: Mike Hazen, Arizona’s GM, has stated that Arizona intends to get better at this deadline. He wants his team to gain momentum in the second half and carry it into next year. However, Hazen’s version of “buying” is usually fluid, and subject to money – there are ways that dealing Walker makes the DBacks better now and in the immediate future. Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic reported on the 16th that the Diamondbacks are willing to listen to offers for him. Walker, with two years of arbitration remaining, is projected somewhere north of $5 million for next year, and another significant bump for 2024. That’s not a ton, but for a first baseman might not represent the bargain it used to. Arizona certainly doesn’t need to move Walker this year, so it would have to be the right package and one that likely includes MLB-ready help with years of control. The DBacks don’t have many righty bats, and are likely looking for one in return. They already face an outfield logjam of young talent – Chas McCormick probably doesn’t move the needle here.
ARI Receives: Jose Urquidy + Taylor Jones or perhaps Corey Julks.
HOU Receives: Christian Walker + Jake Rice (LHP, 24, A+, ARI No. 28)
Arizona gets two MLB ready pieces that Houston won’t miss terribly. Urquidy is reunited with Strom in the desert to free the Diamondbacks of their revolving door of 5-starters. The DBacks enjoy three years of control on a legit SP who I love to death, but is expendable with Houston’s 8-deep, majority team-controlled rotation. Jones or Julks have the chance to earn either Walker’s old job, or be a platoon bat alongside any one of Arizona’s 90 left-handed batters. Arizona might have to make some room on their 40-man, but uh, nobody’s claiming Jake Hager or Cole Tucker.
I think both teams could walk away happy with this deal. Houston trades a fair amount (okay, an overpay) of blocked talent for their immediate, cost-controlled future at first base – and a tick up in championship odds with some well-timed power from Walker. They also get a throw-in lefty reliever prospect who maximizes his vertically oriented fastball – Jake Rice has a very legitimate and intriguing profile that fits both Houston’s philosophy and Click’s pattern of snagging an intriguing prospect in trades to fill team needs. HOU keeps their top prospects, perhaps for another move, or just to keep the farm alive. Arizona recoups a more well-rounded roster with a solid SP and an MLB-ready corner bat who can optimistically provide 80 percent of Christian Walker. Urquidy can maximize in something closer to a pitcher’s park, and with his old coach. Perhaps ARI even takes a chance, using Jose’s new cutter as a secondary fastball instead of a slider replacement, as they’ve tried with Bumgarner and Weaver.
#2. Trey Mancini (BAL, 30, 2.0 bWAR, .769 OPS, 119 wRC+)
The Player: More like Trey-d Mancini, am I right guys? There isn’t much to dislike about Trey Mancini. A fantastic human being, he also has plus raw power by exit velocities, hits for a high average, and has posted above average offensive production every year since 2018. He’s making $7.5 million this season, of which the Astros could happily take on the rest of, with a $10 million mutual option for next season that he will most certainly not exercise. Trey’s overall defensive statistics get dragged down by his outfield play, but he profiles as an average defender at first base, and perhaps slightly better if you want to get generous. Like the guy behind him on my list, Mancini is making the best swing decisions of his career smack in his prime, with his highest ever in-zone contact rate (87%) and lowest ever chase rate (31.3%).
The Fit: Trey Mancini solves two problems in one. He’s an on-base machine who The Computers say would have 22 home runs in Minute Maid Park year-to-date, compared to merely 9 real life taters. With an 11% barrel rate that’s held steady for four seasons now, you know exactly the type of above average production Trey Mancini’s bat would generate, especially wedged in the back half of this Houston lineup. Combine the offensive fit with his modest defensive versatility, able to play both corner outfield spots bad-but-capably as well as a slightly more impressive first base. Suddenly, Mancini shines through as the type of luxury upgrade that true contenders make. He’d be an upgrade over Gurriel unless the Gurriel of old surges back, sure, but if you have to look at Trey as an upgrade over JJ Matijevic, you can do that instead. Aside from what should be ample opportunities to slot in at first base, Mancini additionally represents a fantastic insurance policy for Michael Brantley and his ailing, surgically repaired right shoulder. In the playoffs, even if Yuli turns back the clock in the back half, Mancini would still have a place should the Astros want to force him in. They could mimic the ’21 Braves and roll Kyle Tucker out in CF, with Brantley/Mancini/Yordan occupying both COF and DH, and Meyers as a late-inning defensive sub.
The Trade: Baltimore’s competitive window is about to open. 11 of their top 12 prospects are in AAA right now, and they just posted their first winning month (June of 2022) in FIVE YEARS, even rattling off 10 straight wins. Mike Elias, former Astros assistant GM and current Baltimore GM, is about to have his vision tested at the highest level. Accordingly, Baltimore has use for nearly ready talent that fits their rapidly approaching window, and the Astros (among many other teams) have some surplus. Chas McCormick, for example, probably represents an overpay on his own for 2 and a half months of Trey Mancini, since Chas himself has posted nearly 4 WAR over a season’s worth of work. But it might be an overpay the Astros are willing to make, since Meyers is clearly their guy in CF. Baltimore would certainly enjoy 4 more years of team control on a cromulent player from both sides of the ball. Despite their 500 record, Baltimore will probably look to get pieces for the future out of Trey Mancini and Jorge Lopez, both of whom they could always attempt to re-sign in the offseason. Their 1% playoff odds indicate they probably aren’t tracking down that wild card. Alternatively, if Baltimore feels as though Chas doesn’t fit their long-term vision due to his average power in a now-cavernous Camden Yards (and Cedric Mullins occupying the position where Chas would be most productive), they’re likely to ask for a healthy injection of prospects instead. Elias’s modus operandi is to take as many low minors lottery fliers as possible, and a Double-A SP fits Baltimore’s window snugly. Something like…
BAL Receives: Dauri Lorenzo (19, ROK) + Misael Tamarez (RHP, AA, HOU No. 12)
HOU Receives: Trey Mancini
#3 Josh Bell (WASH, 29, 3.5 bWAR, .895 OPS, 148 wRC+)
The Player: Josh Bell is the best pure bat available at the deadline since JD Martinez went to the Diamondbacks in 2017, and it took a healthy prospect haul to get JDMart. Bell should be the priciest option, and he’s got a good case for it. He’s hitting .311 while walking nearly as much as he strikes out, has double-plus raw pop, and can really hit from both sides of the plate. It’s a more than solid middle-of-the-order bat profile. There isn’t quite as much power in Bell’s bat as one might expect – and really, outside of the 2019 rabbit ball, there never was. A 7.6% barrel rate and 13 homers are fairly pedestrian as far as hulking first basemen go. Bell’s also capable in the field, although I would never call him an asset defensively.
The Fit: Bell fits the way any offensive talent fits. His switch hitting tendencies also play up in Minute Maid Park, although not to the extent of the first two names, whom the Crawford boxes benefit more directly. Additionally, Bell has played 26 games at the corner outfield spots in his 6 year MLB career. It’s more of an emergency button than anything, but Bell can stand out there if he really had to. He’d be an upgrade, for sure, but not necessarily my favorite option at the position, especially for the cost.
The Trade: Bell fits better with a team like San Diego, and he might warrant something of a bidding war accordingly. SD, Boston, Tampa, and Milwaukee likely all have more ammo to play with than Houston does. Washington will look for the best prospect package available as they’re deep in a rebuild, and that would mean two top-ten system guys in Houston’s farm, or as close to that as possible. WASH values tools over all else when they look at other systems, so here’s the Astros best offer via their toolsiest prospects not named Pedro Leon.
WASH Receives: Joe Perez (HOU No. 11), Chayce McDermott (HOU No. 14)
HOU Receives: Josh Bell
The team has made it pretty clear that Martin Maldonado is valuable to them, and so he isn’t going anywhere despite a negative WAR, the current league lead in passed balls, and a well below-average stick (that’s been coming around lately, but still. We know what he is over his career and that’s alright). Houston likes the way he handles the pitching staff, and values immensely his game-calling. That doesn’t mean that catcher as a position isn’t a spot that needs to be reinforced, because Houston is currently one injury away at a very physically taxing position from a world of hurt. Korey Lee could have used a full season of AAA at-bats anyways.
#1. Willson Contreras (CHC, C, 30, 2.7bWAR, .839 OPS, 137 wRC+).
The Player: Contreras is having his best offensive season ever in his walk year, posting a 137 wRC+ by doing even more what he has always done best: Swinging the bat a ton. A fantastic bad-ball hitter, his quality of contact is impressive across the board and Contreras is an offensive upgrade at the catcher position for virtually any team in the league. Willson’s defense has never been a calling card, although this year the publicly facing metrics peg him as merely below average back there instead of an actual butcher. He’s almost certain to be traded, and will have plenty of suitors across the league.
The Fit: Again, the Astros have made it clear that they appreciate Martin Maldonado’s intangibles, despite what the numbers show. A Contreras trade would most likely mean Maldonado continues to catch whichever pitchers they feel his presence helps the most, while Contreras alternates behind the plate and occasionally DH’s, or occasionally plays left field, the other days of the week. It would not be exceptionally difficult to fit Contreras into the lineup with an 80 percent timeshare or so. And it would certainly make the team better. I’ve heard some valid concerns about bringing in a brand new game caller with no personal experience with the Houston staff in August, but frankly if you can’t get up to speed on your staff in the 8 weeks before playoff time you’re not a professional catcher. And Contreras was the primary catcher on a World Series winner before (2016), when he graded out even worse defensively.
The Trade: Contreras will have no shortage of potential suitors. This trade will be a bidding war as well. If CHC likes Chas McCormick enough to treat him and his team control akin to a prospect, the trade gets a lot easier for Houston. If CHC has no interest in McCormick, it’s hard to see the deal getting done. Houston would happily take on all of Contreras’s remaining salary, which many competitors, brushing against the tax line, would ask Chicago to eat instead – warranting higher-value prospect packages from those other teams.
CHC Receives: Chas McCormick (26, OF, 108 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR) + Alex Santos II (RHP, HOU No. 10) + J.P France (RHP, HOU No. 31)
HOU Receives: Willson Contreras.
Chicago gets a tweener OF with nearly 4 WAR over his full season of major league time and 4 years of control, and two lottery ticket pitchers that fit the Cubs’ model in trades. Santos and France both even profile as the type of finesse strikeout arm with solid breaking balls that currently constitute the Cubs’ entire rotation. Houston gets an impact bat they can slot in a couple places, including catcher.
Yordan Alvarez has been nursing an injured hand for a little bit now, but the team does not sound all that concerned. More concerning is the shoulder injury to Michael Brantley, the same shoulder that cost him nearly 2 full seasons as he needed multiple surgeries. While Mancini and Contreras represent some corner outfield insurance policies, there are more ways for Houston to improve at the margins – similar to the 2021 Braves, by adding depth to a contending ballclub in case Brantley is out for a significant chunk of time.
#1. David Peralta (ARI, OF, 34, 1.1fWAR .745 OPS, 102 wRC+)
The Player: Dave Peralta is the third longest-tenured Diamondback of all time. That doesn’t really mean anything, I just think it’s interesting. His peripherals are fairly significantly better than the production, with a 45 Hardhit%, and nearly 12% barrel rate. Peralta crushes righties, good for a career .840 OPS compared to only .671 against LHP. At 34, he still has juice, with max exit velocities in line with his career norms, near the upper echelon of MLB. The defense in left field is above average as well (4 Outs Above Average), and Peralta, in the last year of his deal, is a solid rental veteran who can contribute meaningfully down the stretch. Plus, if he’s gonna serve as the insurance to Brantley, he did sort of adopt Brantley’s setup at the plate this year. It was meant to be!
The Fit: Peralta would give Houston a strong-side platoon option with above average defense in LF and would represent a clear upgrade over JJ Matijevic and Jose Siri. It’s one of those unsexy moves that makes too much sense – the reason I think so is in part because he will cost absolutely nothing. Real contenders have veteran depth, and the opportunity to acquire a competent player is not one I think the Astros will pass up on at this deadline.
The Trade: Previous comparable trades for leave average corner outfield veterans would be Eddie Rosario in ’21 (Braves acquired him for Pablo Sandoval, essentially a salary dump for the remainder of Rosario’s $9m contract), Joc Pederson with far less salary to eat to ATL as well the same year (for a low end system flier) and Corey Dickerson in ’19 (Same deal with the money, acquired for an unranked PTBNL). I’ll sound like a broken record, but Houston has the money situation to happily take on Peralta’s remainder of his $8m owed this season. Corbin Carroll is knocking on the door for the Diamondbacks, and they aren’t going to let Peralta block him. Peralta’s moving, and Houston should improve at the margins by capitalizing. If the Christian Walker trade happens, maybe Houston goes and gets both of them.
ARI Receives: PTBNL type (maybe Grae Kessinger, Rainer Rivas, someone that ARI settles on after scouting)
HOU Receives: David Peralta
#2. Andrew Benintendi (KCR, OF, 28, 2.4 bWAR, .786 OPS, 127 wRC+)
The Player: Benintendi is a better player than Peralta, but also has real value. This season, he’s changed who he is as a player, presenting a fantastic on-base presence at the top of the lineup with little to no over-the-fence pop. He’s cut down his whiff and strikeout rates, selling out for hard line drive contact, and walks nearly as much as he strikes out now. Defensive metrics don’t love him this year, but I think everybody here in Houston acknowledges Andrew Benintendi as a plus defender. He could even probably shift over to CF if you really needed him to.
The Fit: Houston needs some juice at the bottom of the lineup more than an on-base presence near the top. Still, Benny has had a fantastic year, and I would be far from upset to acquire someone like him to slot into the 7 spot. If this were a long-term acquisition, Houston might be able to get him to go back to how he was, with a 20 HR outlook and a different plate approach. As a rental bat, you’re getting him as-is though. Not being able to travel to Toronto is also tough (and also very stupid) as Toronto could be a potential playoff matchup. Still, Benintendi would certainly make the Astros better, again as an upgrade over the existing bench bats and would likely start a lot more games than it would seem from glancing at the depth chart.
The Trade: KC hates to trade their fan favorites, but Benny Biceps hasn’t been there very long, so I think he does move. Andrew Benintendi, unlike Peralta, will cost something, due mostly to the caliber of year he is having and stickiness of his plate skills. While Peralta is more of a league average veteran presence who does specific things well, Benintendi is a well-rounded player (and an all-star) in the middle of his prime, the top option for many teams who need outfield help. Despite being a rental, he’ll fetch something real.
KCR Receives: Tyler Whitaker (IF/OF, HOU No. 18), Corey Julks (OF/3B, 26, AAA).
HOU Receives: Andrew Benintendi
I’ll group the starter and reliever here together, because I’m not going to talk about many of them. The team has so many other holes, but every scoreless inning in October is precious. Everybody could always use one more arm.
#1. Joe Jimenez (DET, RHP, 27, 112.5 Pitching+, 33 K%)
The Player: Jimenez has had breakout written all over him for years. His raw stuff is elite, and he avoids walks well enough. There’s a ton of red on the Savant page, and he’s a model darling disgusting relief arm without the closer tag already put on him. Definitely the type Houston goes after. Models love his arsenal, and this year he’s having a good amount of success in a middle relief/setup role. While Andrew Chafin doesn’t move the needle enough for me and Gregory Soto will be too costly with all his years of control, I think Jimenez is the happy medium of acquirable and trustworthy in the playoffs.
The Fit: Houston does not *need* a lefty reliver. They have four right handed pitchers that are incredibly effective against left-handers due to unique pitch shapes (Stanek, Neris, Maton, Montero) – plus Urquidy if he shifts to the pen in October. And Houston has always used right-handers in that role (Devenski, Harris). Getting a lefty just to get a lefty is not as prudent as getting the most shutdown innings as are possible. Jimenez has an extra year of arbitration remaining, and so can fill in for whoever the Astros let walk in free agency next year.
The Trade: Detroit has playoff aspirations as soon as next year, when their injured rotation hopefully comes back healthy. They need bats to do it, as their offense has surprisingly been one of the worst in recent memory. We can make both teams better for the immediate future here.
DET Receives: Joe Perez (3B/1B/COF, HOU No. 11), Quincy Hamilton (OF, HOU No. 27), Enmanuel Valdez (IF, 23, AAA).
HOU Receives: Joe Jimenez.
#2. Luis Castillo (CIN, RHSP, 29, 2.77 ERA)
The Player: We don’t have to get cute with Luis Castillo. He is a great number 2, if not an ace, especially in the second half of seasons, where his strikeouts tick up and WHIP ticks down. He’s an absolute difference maker, with full seasons of excellent production. Huge gas highlights the package, with a devastating changeup and wipeout slider. There’s not much tinkering to be done, but Castillo could benefit from a better defense with his 48% ground ball rate.
The Fit: Luis Castillo would create a quartet at the top of the Houston rotation not seen since 2018. He’s also not even in the final year of his deal, so the Reds would need to be really impressed by any offer. It’s a luxury upgrade, for sure, but let’s at least check in on how costly it might be. He’s unlikely to don an Astros uniform, but man it’d be fun.
The Trade: Other teams are surely vying for Castillo, not least of which being the New York Yankees, who can outbid Houston in pretty much any prospect package if they want to. The Dodgers lurk as well. Of course, Cashman and company have not traded their untouchables pretty much ever. Neither has Houston, but I’m not sure any of Houston’s remaining top prospects are in that untouchable stratosphere.
CIN Receives: Hunter Brown (HOU No. 1), Chas McCormick, Pedro Leon (HOU No. 4) Misael Tamarez (HOU No. 12)
HOU Receives: Luis Castillo
CIN gets back a top 50 overall prospect knocking on (actually, about to truck his way through) the door to replace Luis, a capable CF/corner, a Luis Garcia-esque SP flier up to 97 in AA, and a toolsy stick of dynamite who can play multiple premium positions that still has a shot to crack a top 100 list himself. They don’t even clog up their 40-man, as Chas is the only player on there for this year. Houston gives up their best prospect and some vaguely MLB-ready pieces with real ceilings for a tick up in the championship odds both this year and next. It’s a fairly even trade, but something tells me another team would come over the top – especially if the Yankees were willing to move off Volpe or Dominguez. Houston can’t match that.
Which one, if any, of these proposed deals would you pull the trigger on?
Thank you for reading.
- Ben Zeidman (@midzee4)