Enough dilly-dallying, time to make a trade

added 7/22/2002 by Todd Brody

You know the line in "The Godfather: Part III". . . the one where Al Pacino says "[e]very time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in." Well, that pretty much sums up my feelings about this Astros baseball season. I keep writing the Astros off, then they make a mini-run and get my hopes up, only to dash those hopes with a bad series loss (getting sweeped by the Pirates and losing two of three from the Cubs, just to name a few examples). Now I hear the Astros are trying to make some deals to improve the team, including trying to get a starting pitcher, particularly a left-handed pitcher. Well if the Cubs series told us anything, it is that the Astros need hitting, not another mediocre starting pitcher like Jimmy Anderson. I think that the Astros can survive with their present rotation (which will get a lift when Dave Mlicki returns). No, the Astros need hitters. So here are just a few suggestions.

First, trade Morgan Ensberg and a decent low-prospect to the Phillies for Scott Rolen. Why do the Phillies do this deal? Because they need a starting third-baseman in exchange for Rolen and they can't get anything better right now. Jason Stark says in his recent "Rumblings and Grumblings" that "one of the big hang-ups [with any potential Rolen trade] has been that the Phillies are believed to be asking most of those clubs for their own starting third baseman in return . . . . That's a price virtually all of those teams feel they can't pay, at least for now." Ensberg would fill this need for the Phillies. And by the way, Ensberg is batting .314 down in New Orleans so the Astros can spin that Ensberg has righted the problems that he was having with the Astros.

Under the terms of this deal, the Phillies would pick up the vast majority of Rolen's remaining salary. Is this possible? I think so. Peter Gammons reports that one GM told him that Scott Rolen is "not going to re-sign with the Phillies. They probably aren't even going to get two draft picks for him. So if they want to trade him and get something for him, they may have to pick up part of if not all of his contract ($8.6 million) in order to get a couple of decent prospects. . . . In the case of the Phillies, they were going to have to pay Rolen anyway, so this is a way to get something to replace him, and the prospects might be closer to the major leagues than draft picks."

Under the terms of this proposed deal, the Phillies would get their starting third-baseman for next year (and maybe the future as well) and another decent prospect. Is this a great deal for the Phillies? Not really. But maybe it's the best deal that the Phillies can get and it certainly can't hurt to make the offer.

Why do the Astros do this deal? Because they desperately need another hitter. And while Geoff Blum is a nice player, and has gotten some big hits over the past month, he is nowhere near the hitter that Rolen is and can be. Rolen is not having a great season, but take a look at his numbers over the past month (.333 BA; 1.043 OPS, 4 HR, 14 RBIs). Rolen is starting to heat up and he could be a real asset for the Astros batting behind Jeff Bagwell. Moreover, the deal fits within ownership requirements because the Astros aren't taking on additional salary. So what are the Astros giving up? Well, they're trading Ensberg. But doesn't it seem like the Astros have already given up on Ensberg? If the Astros really believed that Ensberg was the future at third base, he would be starting for the Astros right now instead of Blum and Jose Vizcaino. The Astros are also giving up another decent prospect. (I'll let you fill in the name.) Sure the Astros might not be able to resign Rolen next season (assuming that there is a next season), but maybe Rolen likes playing with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and decides that Houston is a good place to settle down. Rolen might also take a short-term deal with the Astros, hoping that 81 games in Minute Maid field will boost his numbers and raise his value. And if Rolen doesn't resign with the Astros, the team could resign Blum for next season.

The Astros also have to get another outfielder. Daryle Ward and Richard Hidalgo are playing abysmally right now. There is no other word for it. I have previously stated that the Astros should overpay with prospects to get Brian Giles. But since the Astros have no interest in taking on salary, clearly a Giles deal is not going to happen. The Astros are rumored to be trying to get Randy Winn from Tampa Bay. Winn certainly sounds like a good fit for the Astros. He would play centerfield and bat lead-off. Lance Berkman would be able to move back to left-field, and, perhaps, the Astros would consider giving Orlando Merced the starting right-field job. I think that the Astros can probably get Winn for Tim Redding who, despite, his uneven play this year, is still considered a pretty good pitching prospect and, heaven knows, the Devil Rays could use some pitching. And if you wanted to expand the trade a little more, the Astros could add Charlton Jimerson with the Astros getting back Paul Wilson (who the Rays are shopping) in return. Wilson is not a great pitcher, but he is certainly better than Nelson Cruz and provides some insurance if Mlicki returns but doesn't pitch well.

So where do these trades leave the Astros. Well, the Astros would have Hidalgo and Ward riding the pine and Hidalgo is a very expensive bench player. But let's face it, with a contract that pays Hidalgo $8 million in 2003, and $12 million in $2004, no one is taking Hidalgo off the Astros' hands, except to dump a similar-type contract back on the Astros (i.e. Denny Neagle or Mike Hampton). Perhaps, if the Astros were able to trade for Rolen but were unable to sign him long-term, the Astros would consider trading Hidalgo for Jeff Cirillo during the offseason. Just a thought. The Astros could probably trade Ward right now, but since no trade would bring back what the Astros think is equal value, and since Ward isn't getting paid that much money, I think that the Astros would hang onto Darryl for a while, particularly if Jeff Bagwell is more injured than we think.

I still believe that the Astros have the capacity to compete this season. There are nearly seventy games left to play and the Astros are only 7 games out. But the Astros truly need to make some moves right now, the present players are not getting it done. It is a difficult trading arena right now. The Astros and many other teams are concerned about taking on additional salary because of a looming strike in September. And Drayton McLane doesn't want to spend any more money and has publicly stated that he is ready to give it all up and sell the team. But these proposed deals add little payroll while drastically improving the team. The Cardinals and Reds (who also have payroll limitations) clearly understand that if you want to compete you have to add players and make positive adjustments as the season goes on. If the Astros are going to make a move, they need to do the same.

In this column I suggest that the Astros should trade Tim Redding, who just last year, was the Astros number one pitching prospect. As you have seen from past columns, I am not adverse to trading prospects and, particularly, pitching prospects who are the most difficult to project. In fact, I believe that one of the main reasons for having a minor league system is develop players to trade for more established players -- players for whom who you have a better sense of how they will perform at the major league level. There are several reasons why I would trade prospects: (1) Most prospects don't pan out. The Astros just designated Wilfredo Rodriguez for reassignment. Scott Elarton was traded after suffering injuries from which he may never recover. These two players were, in their own rights, the Astros leading pitching prospects at one time or another; and (2) You can't have a starting rotation consisting entirely of young pitchers, no matter how good they were in the minor leagues. The Marlins tried and it was a failure.

The Astros have two excellent starting pitchers in their rotation that they developed themselves, Wade Miller, and Roy Oswalt. Carlos Hernandez may also turn out to be a very good pitcher, if he can recover from his shoulder problems. The Astros should consider themselves very fortunate that their system produced such players. This recent success, however, should not stop the Astros from trading prospects, even if they are having tremendous minor league seasons. The goal is always to win in Houston, not at Round Rock. If you can trade a prospect to fill a large hole at the major league level (like centerfield), you should make that trade. And with several young starting pitchers already at Houston, I reject the argument that the Astros mortgage their future by trading prospects. The Astros can trade every pitching prospect in their minor league system and still have a young starting rotation.

Before I sign out, a quick story. My brother, who is also a big Astros fan, is moving to Israel. He was down in Houston a couple of weeks ago with his family to say goodbye to my parents and to friends. My parents took his two oldest children to see the Astros. It was the first time that they had ever seen a game in Houston. They were lucky. They saw Gregg Zaun, with the Astros down a run in the ninth, with two outs, and with two strikes, hit a walk-off, grand-slam home run. A game doesn't get more exciting. It is hard being an Astros fan if you don't live in Houston. It's going to be even tougher for my brother and his kids because they aren't even going to be living in the United States. But there is no doubt in my mind that my brother's children will remember this game all of their lives. Memories like the Zaun home run are what made us all hard-core fans.

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