Astros Trade Review: Health Concerns for Velasquez a Blessing in Disguise for Astros
On December 12, 2015, the Houston Astros made a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in an effort to shore up one of the areas that many believed held them back from further postseason success in 2015: a hard throwing closer. In that deal, the Houston Astros received Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz in exchange for what many believed was a king’s ransom for the Phillies. The package included Vince Velasquez, former #1 overall pick Mark Appel, Harold Arauz, Thomas Eshelman, and Brett Oberholtzer. Despite this haul, though, the Astros may have won this trade not only for the players they acquired, but also for the one they didn’t have to give up.
Initially, neither Mark Appel nor Harold Arauz was to be in the deal. Rather, it was supposed to have been Derek Fisher. With Velasquez seen as the main piece in the deal, Fisher was really more of just a solid throw-in. However, after concerns arose in regards to the health of Velasquez, Fisher was swapped out for the duo of Appel and Arauz.
The fact that Fisher was swapped out looks like an absolute steal for the Astros now. Fisher, while playing at AAA Fresno this year, is doing nothing but raking. He hit .335 AVG/.401 OBP/.608 SLG, with 16 HR, 45 RBI, 13 SB and 42 Runs scored. In fact, he ranks in the top 10 in all of the Pacific Coast League traditional offensive categories except for triples and runs scored. He has even caught the eye of Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch, who was quoted as saying in regards to Fisher, “We’re a tough team to crack for all the right reasons, but he certainly has been on everyone’s radar and will continue to be while we consider all our options.” Fisher was recently promoted to the Astros and debuted on 6/14 going 2-for-3 with 2 R, HR, 2 RBI, 2 BB.
Fisher’s success gives a lot of options for Jeff Luhnow and company. With the Astros current outfield of George Springer, Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick, Nori Aoki and Carlos Beltran, there is not a whole lot of playing time to be found for Fisher. Despite this, if Aoki continues to struggle, or if Marisnick regresses offensively, there might be openings to fit Fisher’s bat into the lineup. With a dominant lead in the division, though, the Astros would probably prefer to get Fisher consistent at bats in the minor leagues as opposed to spot starts with the big club at this point.
Fisher could also find his way into a different trade. While Fisher would have been seen as a solid throw-in for a Giles trade, his season may have elevated him to be more of a centerpiece of a trade. With the Astros likely looking for pitching (both a starter and a lefthanded reliever), Fisher could be a major piece to get this done as the trade deadline approaches. Regardless, with Fisher’s emergence, it gives Luhnow more flexibility in trade proposals other than just focusing on Kyle Tucker or Francis Martes.
How does the rest of the trade look a year and a half later?
We all know the struggles Ken Giles had last year in the Astros bullpen. It has also been highlighted how impressive Velasquez was early on in his tenure with the Phillies (many Astros fans had buyer’s remorse immediately after he threw a three-hit, 16 strikeout shutout two weeks into the season last year). But this is why you can’t always evaluate a trade from early results, because now that we are a little over a year and a half removed from the trade, it all of the sudden seems a little brighter.
First, Ken Giles has been a little more like the Giles we expected last year. He currently ranks 2nd in the AL in saves with 15 (in 16 opportunities). He also is sporting a 3.63 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in 22.1 innings pitched. While the ERA is higher than one would like, it has mostly been in non-save situations where damage has been done to him. In fact, according to RotoWire, going into this last weekend, Giles’ ERA was 7.61 in non-save situations compared to 1.29 when a save was on the line.
Jonathan Arauz, the second piece the Astros received, is an eighteen year old shortstop who just recently made his stateside debut with the Quad Cities River Bandits. In four games with the Bandits, he is 2 for 9 with 3 runs and a walk. Jeff Luhnow has a knack for finding hidden gems in rookie ball (see Joe Musgrove, Francis Martes and David Paulino) and Arauz might be the newest member on that list. Already ranked as the Astros’ 12th best prospect (according to mlb.com), it will be interesting to see if he can really make the deal favorable for the Astros.
A year and a half later, the Phillies have not had quite the same success. Velasquez, who showed flashes of dominance last year, has not been the same pitcher this year. In 2017, he is 2-5, with a 5.58 ERA, 1.46 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched. And remember that concern the Phillies had about his medicals, they might have been right. Velasquez had to leave a start last week due to discomfort in his pitching arm and he has been diagnosed with a Grade 1 mild flexor strain. While this is significantly better news than what it could have been, it still likely puts him out until early July at the earliest (and that is assuming there are no setbacks).
Mark Appel is currently pitching for the Phillies’ AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs where he is sporting a 4-2 record, but he has a 6.14 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, .273 batting avg. against, with 31 walks vs. 32 strikeouts. He has also allowed 54 hits in 51.1 innings. Unfortunately, Appel will long be looked at as the mistake of the Luhnow regime (sigh…Kris Bryant), but he may have been able to flip him while there was still some value left. While he may eventually make it to the big leagues, the turnaround that the Phillies were hoping for does not seem to have come to fruition. He currently ranks as their 19th best prospect according to mlb.com, and I could see that sliding even further at midseason.
Of the remaining three, Brett Oberholtzer is actually no longer with the Phillies, having been released in August of 2016. Tom Eshelman has pitched well between AA and AAA, combining for a 6-0 record, with a 2.13 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and a .221 batting avg. against. Harold Arauz is pitching at high-A Clearwater and has a 1-0 record with a 2.31 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, .217 batting avg against in 4 games as a reliever. Despite the success of Eshelman and Arauz, neither of them rank as a top 30 prospect in the Phillies organization according to mlb.com.
Current Grade: B
There are a lot of variables at work with this trade that still may push it in favor of one team over the other; however, a year and a half later, this trade is looking a lot better for the Astros than originally thought. Health and productivity has plummeted for the top pieces the Phillies received and Giles is showing why he was so coveted this season. Jonathan Arauz may be a wildcard as if he continues the trend of smart rookie ball pickups for Luhnow, it will only make the trade seem stronger for the Astros. Add the fact that they were able to keep Derek Fisher and it may end up being a steal.
**Photo Credit: Kiel Maddox/Fresno Grizzlies**