Trade Implications: Stros Finally Get Their Closer

Jeff and I will be covering the fantasy implications of key transactions all winter long here at Rotographs. You can catch up on past deals here. The Winter Meetings wrap up early today with the Rule 5 Draft, but the last full day of action gave us a couple more high-impact trades:

To HOU: Ken Giles

To PHI: Vincent Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Derek Fisher, and Thomas Eshelman

Primary piece(s): It seemed pretty clear that it was a “when” not “if” situation regarding the Astros acquiring a closer. They have been tied to all the available big-time closers and finally landed their guy in Giles. This might actually work out best as others they were targeting either lacked long-term control (Aroldis Chapman – I’m not ignoring his awfulness off the field, but that came to pass when Houston was already out of the running) or cost a pretty penny for said control (Andrew Miller).

Of course in exchange for the team control and youth of Giles they still paid a pretty penny, it just wasn’t in the form of cold-hard cash. But we’ll get to Velasquez shortly. Let’s focus on Giles and his awesomeness first. Giles only has two-plus months of closing experience, but he seems to have a firm handle on the role going 15-for-17 in save opportunities with a 1.71 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 31% K rate, and 5% BB rate in 26.3 IP. He fanned at least 2 batters in 13 of the 24 appearances as closer.

Houston was a surprise team in 2015, perhaps the surprise team, and the driving force was their bullpen. Looking at it simply by ERA, they went from the league worst (4.80) to the 6th-best (3.27) in one year. Their bullpen K/9 jumped a full strikeout as well, to 9.1. The 1.53 runs of ERA was easily the league’s biggest improvement (second-best was StL’s 0.80) and their strikeout jump was third-best (LAD & CWS tied for the best at 1.4).

They probably also realized that they got some exemplary performances in 2015 that might not repeat – I’m looking at you and your .192 BABIP, Will Harris! Luke Gregerson very capably handled the closer’s role, but the like Padres did for so many years, the Astros liked the idea of him setting up a power closer even better.

Power closer. That’s the key here.

Despite their vast improvements, the Astros bullpen averaged just 90.9 MPH on their fastball, dead-last. How do you fix that? Getting the 11th-fastest heater among qualified relievers is a great start. These days it seems like every club has a couple guys who bring it at 95+ MPH, but the Astros had zero. Giles only has the short spell of closing, but he has been a dominant setup man since his arrival in mid-June of 2014.

This isn’t just an upgrade for the Astros, but also for Giles himself. You can get saves on a bad team, but we know that you’ll get more on a better team in most cases so moving from Philly to Houston for the 2016 season is a definite upgrade, even if you think the Astros will regress some from their 86 wins (I do not, so I think he’s in play for 40 saves).

Darkhorse: Like I said, the Astros didn’t have to dole out a ton of cash for this move and they won’t have to start paying Giles for a few years, but they definitely paid for him. Velasquez is a big-time prospect who Phillies fans should be thrilled to have for a closer they don’t really need during their rebuild. I get that Giles is awesome and young, but it’s the finishing piece to a competing ballclub, not the first one.

Hell, just look at the Astros. They didn’t start their rebuild by going after Trevor Rosenthal or Cody Allen. Giles is a finishing touch on a team that already made the playoffs. Velasquez is just a year younger than Giles, but has real potential to be a frontline (1, 2, or 3) starter. Obviously turning into an ace is at the very low-end of the probability scale, but Velasquez has the elements: velocity, a true strikeout pitch (curve), a changeup as his third pitch that was graded as plus coming up.

Perhaps the best part for the Phillies is that his floor looks like late-inning reliever. So if 2-3 years down the road, he isn’t cutting as a starter, they can move him into the bullpen full-time and maybe be their next Giles, except ideally they’ll be much closer to competing so a closer will actually matter. He might not start the season in the majors and he’s unlikely to get 30 starts even if he does after pitching just 88 IP last year (and 77 the year before), but he’s still a solid reserve gamble for the upside alone. In dynasty leagues, I like him even more obviously.

Oberholtzer can be a backend rotation guy, but even at his best there isn’t any real fantasy appeal save super deep leagues where anyone with a pulse in the bigs can matter.

Fisher is a 2014 first-rounder outfielder with impressive raw power that he’s starting to take into games.

Eshelman is a polished college arm taken in the second round this past summer, but only has 10.3 IP of work under his belt as a pro. He walked all of 18 batters in 376 IP at Cal State Fullerton, so of course he walked five batters in those 10.3 IP between Rookie and A-ball.

To CWS: Brett Lawrie

To OAK: Zack Erwin, J.B. Wendelken

Primary piece(s): Who even knows any White Sox prospects? Of course Lawrie is the key here. At least he was never the centerpiece in a trade for Josh Donaldson and then a year later traded for two guys that eight people have heard of. White Sox probably only got Lawrie so they can flip him for Josh Donaldson. Or maybe they just had so much fun with Gordon Beckham that they figured why not run it back again with the Canadian version?

Lawrie, unsurprisingly, saw a dip in offensive production after leaving Toronto for Oakland, but even though it was his lowest OPS ever at .706, it wasn’t that far from the .721 he put up in the previous three seasons. It was, of course, light years from the .953 he put up in those 171 PA that tricked all of us.

Or maybe just me.

At 26, it’s unlikely that Lawrie is just going to become that player we thought he would after a raucous 43-game sample to open his career. Shifting back to a hitter-friendly environment will certainly help, but it isn’t going to make him a .950 OPS player. We’ll take .750 at this point. That sounds lame, but it’d put him in the Neil WalkerBrian Dozier range of 2B.

Darkhorse: Neither Erwin nor Wendelken is a huge prospect at this point, but Erwin probably has a better shot. He was a fourth-round pick out of Clemson last year and the tall (6’5) lefty has a backend-starter ceiling. We’ve seen Oakland extract the most out of these types before, thanks in large part to the park, but at this point neither of these guys needs to be anywhere near fantasy radar.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

newest oldest most voted

Everyone is assuming Giles is the closer for Houston. I’m sure that’s the most likely scenario, but did the Astros say anything to that effect, or anything at all about bullpen roles following the trade?

Mike W.
Mike W.

They have declined to say anything publicly, but that may have also been they had not had a chance to talk to Gregerson and likely did not want to disrespect a well liked veteran.

I see very little chance Giles isn’t the Closer in Houston this year, granted Hinch may treat him like Cash did Boxberger where he enters the occasional high leverage situation in the 7th or 8th, but I think you have to assume considering the cost that they will want Giles to be front and center of their bullpen.