In the Right Deal, Trading Bregman May Bring Astros Closer to World Series
If there is one thing that these playoffs have proven more than anything else, it is that pitching is always more of a priority in the postseason than offense. Unfortunately, between injuries to Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers and inconsistency from the rest of our pitching staff, the 2016 Houston Astros did not have the pitching to put together back to back playoff appearances. With the 2016 season in Jeff Luhnow’s rear view mirror, he now has to decide how to improve the pitching staff despite a weak free agent class where the best available pitcher might be Rich Hill (and it falls way off after that).
If you go back and look at the 2016 season, the major league average for runs scored per game was 4.48. Fast forward to the postseason and, thus far, that number has fallen to 3.51 runs per game. Why is there such a difference in runs? Simple, in the postseason you are seeing the best of the best in terms of pitching on a nightly basis. Generally speaking, you don’t see number 4’s or 5’s in the postseason except in a long relief role. For instance, look at the Cleveland Indians, who have already announced that Corey Kluber, who was filthy in game one, holding a very dangerous Cubs offense scoreless, will pitch games 1, 4, and 7 of this World Series. Those same Cleveland Indians have already thrown five shutouts in the postseason. So, coming back to the Astros, when asked if I would trade Alex Bregman for a true ace my answer is simple…Absolutely!
Now, I understand that the level of play that Alex Bregman showed this year is not to be taken lightly. After skyrocketing through the farm system, Bregman proved that he was major league ready on both sides of the ball, and the best may still be yet to come. The problem, though, is that in a window that is clearly open for a playoff run, our pitching staff is just not strong enough to shut down opponents in a playoff series. While Joe Musgrove and Colin McHugh are not bad pitchers, the idea of having to pitch one of them in a game three (presumably after Keuchel and McCullers, assuming health) is pretty unsettling. If the Astros had made it to the World Series this year, that would have been McHugh or Musgrove versus NL ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, at Wrigley Field. That is not a matchup I would want to see. (Note: Musgrove may eventually get to the point where I have confidence in him in that role, but he isn’t quite there yet)
Want more proof of how necessary it is to have another ace? During the 2016 regular season, the Houston Astros major league pitching staff had a collective ERA of 4.06. If you look at the two teams in the World Series, the Cubs’ regular season ERA was 3.15 and the Indians had a 3.84 ERA (both in the top 10). Oh, and by the way, in the postseason, those ERA’s have lowered to 2.90 and a ridiculous 1.65, respectively. As the way the pitching staff currently stands, that is not a level I think our current pitching staff can get to, even with healthy and consistent seasons from Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel.
I like Chris Archer, but with the inconsistent year he had this year, I don’t think I like him enough to trade Alex Bregman for him. Justin Verlander has been at that ace status, but between inconsistency, age and contract I don’t love trading Bregman for him, either. Jake Arrieta has been really solid for the Chicago Cubs and if the Cubs don’t think they can resign him they may look to deal. With that said, though, I would not trade multiple years of Alex Bregman for one year of Jake Arrieta. The Mets might be going frustrated with Matt Harvey, who while healthy is very dominant, but given his health record, I wouldn’t trade Alex Bregman for him either. I bring up these pitchers to note that I would not just trade Alex Bregman for just any really good pitcher.
There are certain criteria that would need to be met to trade Alex Bregman. I would need to see a track record of performance, I would need someone who could help me now and, most importantly, I would need someone who I could control for multiple years. Oh, I would also need someone whose team might be willing to deal him (sorry, no Kershaw or Bumgarner).
One interesting name that I have seen floated is Julio Urias. The Dodgers have a decent amount of pitching depth and would love to have a left side that consisted of Corey Seager and Alex Bregman for years to come. My problem, though, is that I don’t know if he fits all three of my criteria. The Dodgers might be willing to deal him, he would be controllable for several years, but I don’t know if he would help us win a World Series now. Sure, the talent is there to help. In a small sample he went 5-2 with a 3.39 ERA this season in 18 games. The problem, though, is he will likely be on an inning limit next year. At only 20 years old, Urias will probably not be able to hit the 200 inning mark which could mean that, unless his innings are highly regulated throughout the year, he probably would not be able to go deep into a postseason helping us next year. Now, I would not completely hate a trade for Urias because I really do think that he will be that bonafide ace down the road, but without the track record of consistent ace numbers, I don’t know if I would gamble it.
That brings me to two interesting names that reside on the same team…Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Both of these players play for a team that may consider rebuilding at the right price in the Chicago White Sox. Despite having a core of Sale, Quintana, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Carlos Rodon, the White Sox are getting a lot of pressure from their fan base to rebuild. The Astros could certainly be the benefactors of that as they have the chip in Bregman to get a deal done. That takes care of one of the criterias.
Secondly, they both are on remarkably team friendly long term deals. Chris Sale would be controllable for three more years at an insanely cheap rate for a legitimate ace. His contracts over the next three years are 12, 12.5 and 13.5 million dollars. To give some comparison, we paid Colby Rasmus a few million more dollars than any of these prices this year. While that is great, Jose Quintana is even better. Quintana is controllable for the next four years at 7, 8.85, 10.5 and 11.5 million dollars. That makes both of these players relatively cheap and controllable for several years of this current window. Criteria two….check!
That brings us to our last criteria, can they help our team now? This year, Chris Sale was 17-10 with a 3.34 ERA. He also had 233 strikeouts in 226 innings. Even more remarkable was that he only walked 45 batters for a ridiculous 5.2 to 1 strikeout to walk rate. Sale could immediately slot in at the top of the rotation and a 1,2,3 of Sale, McCullers and Keuchel (breaking up the lefties) would be a rotation no one would want to see in the playoffs. Despite how good Sale was this year, Quintana was nearly just as good. In fact, Jose Quintana may be one of the most underappreciated pitchers in all of baseball. Jose Quintana was 13-12 with a 3.20 ERA. He had 180 strikeouts in 208 innings. He would be a legitimate ace on most baseball teams, including the Houston Astros.
According to Fangraphs, both of these pitchers were dramatically better than the top two of the Astros. Looking at WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which calculates how valuable a pitcher is compared to a league average replacement, Chris Sale had a WAR of 5.2 and Jose Quintana was at 4.8 while current Astros’ Dallas Keuchel was at 2.7 and Lance McCullers was 2.1. Clearly, based off of 2016, both Sale and Quintana would have been a significant upgrade.
Again, I am not saying that I don’t like Bregman or that I want to lose Alex Bregman. I am also not saying that I would trade him for just any decent pitcher. He is a tremendous player that is only going to get better; however, we have a bigger area of need at starting pitcher than we do at third base, where we can play Yulieski Gurriel. Additionally, while there are not a ton of high impact players in the free agent market, there are more on the offensive side (Edwin Encarnacion, Yoenis Cespedes, etc) that the Astros could look to acquire to replace the offensive output. With that in mind, and knowing that we are in the window to compete for a playoff spot right now, I think acquiring either of these two would bring us closer to a World Series championship. And, as we watch the Indians and Cubs battle it out in the World Series, that should be the expectation for Astros’ fans.
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