MLB Trade Rumors: Which Houston Astros Are Untouchable (Or Should Be)?
With pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training next week, teams around the league are looking to shore up their rosters and prepare for the season ahead. In Houston, Astros GM Ed Wade has some big decisions not only in the next few months, but also important choices for the future of the franchise.
Wade made a lot of big deals this offseason, notably bringing in Bill Hall and Clint Barmes for veteran support in the middle of the infield and also signing veteran ace Wandy Rodriguez to a new three year, $34 million contract.
However, a long road lies ahead of the Astros. They have a strong core of talent on their roster but are probably another year or two away from being legitimate contenders for a World Series title.
That being said, many players on their roster could be desired by playoff caliber teams with injuries and teams looking for the missing piece to their Fall Classic puzzle.
The ten players on this list should be seen as untouchable by GM Ed Wade this season—players who should not be cut, traded or lost to free agency by the time the season is over. Each of these 10 players has an important role to play in not only the 2011 season, but also the future of the franchise.
Here then are the 10 players who will be reporting to Kissimmee, Florida in as little as eight days who should be reporting there in 2012 as well.
10. Jason Castro (C)
23-year-old Jason Castro is a young catcher prospect out of Stanford. He was the Astros’ first round draft pick in 2008 and played his first Major League ball last year in a backup role.
Castro is solid behind the plate, only committing two errors and allowing seven passed balls in 509 innings caught last season. He also has a strong arm and quick release, having caught almost 37 percent of potential base stealers in 2010.
He struggled at the plate in his limited starts with a .205 batting average over 195 at bats and only two home runs. However, he showed good ability to be patient for a young struggling hitter, drawing 22 walks with an on base percentage of .286
If he can continue to improve in the batter’s box, Castro could be the catcher of the future for the Astros. As it stands now, he is a very solid backup to the aging Humberto Quintero. If he shows large improvement in spring training and early in the season, Castro could also vie for the starting job over Quintero, who has only one year left on his contract.
9. Carlos Lee (LF)
The Astros should keep Carlos Lee around for the rest of his contract if for no other reason than the fact that it is hard to imagine Minute Maid Park without Carlos Lee standing in front of those Crawford Boxes. El Caballo has in many ways become the face of the Astros now that Lance Berkman is gone and is an icon in the MLB.
On the playing side of the coin, Lee is a solid left fielder who can still hit despite his getting on in years. At 34, Lee is an everyday player who hits the ball hard to all fields and gives quality, patient at bats every time he steps into the box. In 605 at bats last year, he hit .246 with 24 home runs and 89 runs batted in.
The other reason that the Astros should ride out the remaining two years on Carlos Lee’s contract is that at $19 million, he is somewhat overpaid for his production last year, and they will not likely get in return anything close to what he is worth if they were to trade him.
If his production were to return to even his 2009 numbers, they could look to deal him late in the season for a few prospects—ideally pitching—but should strongly consider keeping him if that happens, as they could use the offense and veteran leadership on the field.
8. Jeff Keppinger (INF)
Jeff Keppinger may be starting the 2011 season on the bench, but for the $2.3 million the Astros will pay him this season, he is worth the price. At 30 years old, he is still young enough to be a part of the support core of this team for years to come.
Keppinger had one of the better hitting seasons of his career last year, which was also the longest season of his career at 137 games played. He hit .288 with a .351 on base percentage and 34 doubles—all above his career average in each of those categories.
He also is a much stronger fielder than anyone else currently starting in the infield and could become a starter if defense starts to become an issue in the middle infield or third base spots. He may not have the production that Chris Johnson had last year at third base, but if the kid can’t get his defensive struggles in check at the hot corner, Keppinger could be fighting for his starting job down the stretch.
7. Brett Myers (SP)
Brett Myers brings something to the table that only one other opening day Astro can bring—a World Series ring.
There is something to be said about the power of experience. Many will say that it is much harder to get back to somewhere you have been before than to go there for the first time. Myers brings that leadership and guidance to Houston’s rotation, coming off his best year ever.
Myers went 14-8 in 2010, along with a 1.24 WHIP and 3.14 ERA in 33 starts. He pitched over 220 innings and struck out 180 batters while allowing only 66 walks and 20 home runs all season.
He can go deep into ball games, pitch lights out to any batter he faces and knows how to win games. Also, like Carlos Lee, if he can produce at the top of his game, he is a good deal at $8 million this year. If he can’t, however, the Astros will be hard pressed to find a good deal out there for him.
6. Wilton Lopez (RP)
Moving now to the bullpen, we find Wilton Lopez, one of the best young pitchers in the National League last season. A waiver claim from the Padres in 2009, Lopez saw heavy action last year in relief in his first full year in the pen for Houston.
In 67 innings, Lopez posted a staggering 2.96 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. He also struck out 50 batters while only allowing five walks all year on his way to one save and 14 holds.
At 27, Lopez is still a young pitcher with a lot to learn about life in the big leagues, but he is well on his way to becoming a staple in the Astros bullpen, even possibly a closer for the future. He can’t do them any good, though, if they don’t keep him around for years to come.
5. Chris Johnson (3B)
Much like Wilton Lopez, Chris Johnson is the kind of young player you can build a team around. Coming hard out of the gate in his first full season at the major league level, Johnson hit .308 with 11 home runs and 52 RBI over 341 at bats. Not bad for the 26-year-old kid from Naples, Florida.
He isn’t without his struggle, however. He isn’t very patient at the plate, taking 91 strikeouts last season while only earning 15 walks. He also had problems on defense in 2010, with 18 errors and a .908 fielding percentage.
Those troubles will likely be ironed out as he gets comfortable in the league and matures as a third baseman. That being said, even if they don’t get completely fixed this season, he is still a steal at $424,000 in 2011 and could be signed to a cheap, medium length deal if the Astros can get him to agree before his play gets better.
However, young rising stars like Johnson have been known to wait until their play improves to sign the big deal later in the season or in the offseason. If that happens, the Astros had better be willing to pay the big bucks and jump on him early, or someone else will snatch him up in the blink of an eye.
4. Michael Bourn (CF)
Continuing the theme of young talented players on the Astros roster, Michael Bourn exemplifies what Houston should expect out of a fast, leadoff man and centerfielder.
His batting average dipped down to .265 in 2010, well below the .285 he posted in 09. On the other hand, his on base percentage stayed nearly the same at .341.
What Bourn gives the Astros, though, is strong fielding and speed on the basepaths. He has only committed 11 errors in the CF position through over 3,500 innings in his career with 28 assists and over 1000 putouts. He has similarly played very well at possibly the toughest position in Minute Maid Park with the deep, oddly shaped outfield and the hill in straightaway center.
He also swiped 52 bases in 2010, only nine less than the year before, while being caught the same 12 times as in 2009. That’s an average of eight stolen bases every ten attempts.
Bourn is on a one-year, $4.4 million contract with Houston, but if his play continues as it has been, look for him to be offered a multi-year deal late in the season.
3. J.A. Happ (SP)
At a yearly salary of $470,000 last season, J.A. Happ had to be the deal of the century.
The 28-year-old southpaw had a very good year last year, even though his numbers declined after his move from Philly to Houston. He pitched 87.1 innings over 16 starts in 2010 with 70 Ks and a 3.40 ERA.
The Spring Valley, IL native is a solid starter who may not have the wow factor of Wandy Rodriguez, but he can pitch very consistently and could benefit from the relaxation better offensive production would bring.
He—like Brett Myers—also has a World Series ring in his trophy case, and even though he wasn’t much of a factor in the 08 or 09 playoffs, he has seen firsthand what it takes to win it all.
He does not have a contract from the Astros yet this year, but the 2009 Sporting News N.L. Rookie of the Year would still be a relatively cheap, middle rotation starter for the Astros who could become the ace of their rotation in the coming years.
2. Wandy Rodriguez (SP)
From the future ace to the present one, we come to Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez recently inked a new deal with Houston for three years and $34.4 million, with an option for 2014.
Rodriguez has a lot of baseball in him, even at 32 years old, and continues to be one of the bright spots on the Astros’ lineup sheet. He started 32 games for Houston last season and racked up 178 Ks and a 3.60 ERA in 195 innings of work.
He has also averaged over eight K/9 and around three K/BB in the last three seasons with the Astros. Hopefully, as he continues through the peak of his career, he can continue to produce for the Astros and earn his pay. If he does, he’s worth every penny. If he can’t, GM Ed Wade will find it tough to unload his contract on another team.
1. Hunter Pence (RF)
So we come to the last Astros player still eligible for arbitration, Hunter Pence. The Astros are still offering $1.75 million less than Pence wants for 2011 and don’t seem willing to budge now, having set an arbitration date for the 18th of February.
Contract talks aside, though, Hunter Pence is one of the better, if overlooked, young players in the National League. He has averaged a solid 26 home runs and 33 doubles over his first four seasons in the majors, all while batting a .287 average and a .481 slugging percentage.
Pence also brings a little speed to the bases, stealing 18 bags last year in 27 attempts, a 66 percent average. He’s not the most patient hitter in the league, but he put up strong numbers in key at bats, hitting .290 with runners in scoring position, including .265 with two outs and a huge .333 average with the bases loaded.
At his asking price of $6.9 million, Hunter Pence is still a good deal, and in a league without a salary cap, the Astros should cave and pay Pence—which arbitration may likely force them to anyway—before they sour the relationship too much and Pence starts hoping for a trade or planning to shop his contract around when he becomes free agent eligible.