Trade Winds a Blowin’

added 6/30/2005 by Scott Barzilla

It’s that time of year again. When you watch PGA tour events you usually hear Saturday referred to as “movement day”. Well, in the big leagues, July can be referred to as the movement month. As the calendar approaches July 1st, we can see a whole host of teams on the bubble between contending and preparing for 2006. By the end of the month, we will know who is pretending and who is contending.

The Astros find themselves in the same position as last season: on the bubble. There are all kinds of variables between 2004 and 2005. Last year, the team had already made their move at this point, but some thought they should dump at the deadline. Currently, no one is saying they should dump and some are whispering about making another blockbuster move. The Astros were .500 at the break last season, but were scuffling along. The Astros cannot get to the .500 mark at the break this time, but they definitely have more momentum.

The title of the column isn’t just a play on words. This is time of year when the pundits change their positions on almost a daily basis depending on the way the wind is blowing. To spare you the hypocrisy, I will try to remain as consistent as possible with what I have said in the past. In Spring Training and during the stormy first couple of months I said the team needs to think about 2006 and beyond and nothing has happened to change my mind.

I’ve heard people say we shouldn’t make a deal until we reach the .500 mark. I can’t go by that philosophy because we have depleted our minor league system. Don’t worry, we’re not in bad a shape as the Yankees, but they can’t afford to send two or three prospects for a rental. As I said before the season, any player we acquire must be a part of the plan for 2006 and preferably beyond. Following is a list of players that might be available at key position.

Catchers

I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve never been a big Brad Ausmus fan. He has been hovering around a .220 average for most of the season. What’s more, this is an extremely anemic .220. He has one home run (as of press time) and less than ten extra base hits overall. This season is not an anomaly. He came into the season tied for 28th for the worst RCAP (runs created above average at that position) in history for catchers. He lost eleven runs last season when he hit .248. It is very likely he will move into the top fifteen (or bottom) if allowed to finish the season as the regular catcher. This is a horrible situation. There are a number of catchers that are available

Jason Kendall – Oakland Athletics

First of all, Kendall is under contract for 2006 for ten million dollars. He comes with a steep price (financially) but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Kendall stands 17th in history among catchers in RCAP and fourth in on base percentage. You can’t get any different than Kendall and Ausmus. Kendall has struggled this season, but he’s making a comeback and has gotten his OBP up to .352. Kendall won’t be mistaken for a run producer, but he can be a great second hitter. As for the Athletics, I’m sure they would like to deal him when they feel they are out of it because of his contract. They would want cheap prospects in return.

Jason Larue -- Cincinnati Reds

Larue is not a sexy player, but he has had a .700 OPS or better in each of his last four seasons as a regular catcher. Larue is 31 this year and will be a free agent, but he also will come more cheaply than Kendall. He also might be a better fit than Kendall as you can reasonably expect him to sign a reasonable long-term contract (three years and maybe five million per season). He has at least 12 home runs in each of the past four seasons, so he would fit perfectly in the seventh spot in the order. The Reds are looking for younger players, but they won’t command as much for Larue as the A’s will command for Kendall.

Gerald Laird – Texas Rangers

Laird has an OPS of nearly .900 in Oklahoma, but he was called up recently to back up Rod Barajas. Laird would represent a much cheaper option for the Astros financially, but he would be a player you would get if you were a seller and not one you would get if you were a buyer. The Rangers are desperate for pitching, so a prospect for prospect swap might be in the offing.

Shortstops

This is an unpopular position I’m sure, but Adam Everett really isn’t cutting it. He has an OBP under .300 and in his two seasons as a regular he has never gotten on at better than a .320 clip and has never slugged .400. The problem I have is that Everett is 28 years old. The chances of him becoming a productive player at this point are slim. Ah, but the defense right? Well, he stands thirteenth among the 23 shortstops that have played at least 200 games over the last two years in range factor. I realize range factor is flawed, but you can’t tell me he is better than all twelve guys above him either.

Placido Polanco – Detroit Tigers

Polanco is going to be a hot commodity in a month. He can play three infield positions well and unlike Vizcaino or Eric Bruntlett, he can hit at an .800 OPS clip. Polanco is not a superstar so he shouldn’t fetch superstar talent, but teams may overpay for him.

Rafael Furcal – Atlanta Braves

This is one of those “what if” kind of deals. He is an impending free agent, so if the Braves feel comfortable about Wilson Betemit at short and if they don’t feel (or want) to re-sign Furcal they may take someone that can serve in their bullpen in exchange for him. An Atlanta writer wondered out loud about Brad Lidge. I’m sure Purpura would get a good belly laugh at that, but a Chad Qualls or Ezekiel Astacio could potentially fetch that. One problem though, the Astros would not have any guarantees about 2006 and we all know how I feel about rentals at this point.

Others

Shortstop and catcher are our biggest holes right now, but the Astros can upgrade themselves in many different areas. The first thing that comes to mind is another big bat in the lineup. However, the middle game of the Colorado series revealed a potential need for bullpen depth. Then again, I know some people aren’t comfortable with Wandy Rodriguez in the rotation.

Adam Dunn – Cincinnati Reds

The speculation began when the New Caney native admitted he will look long and hard at Houston when he becomes a free agent. No one on the market could bring the excitement that Dunn and his 20+ home runs would bring to Houston. However, he would not come cheap (in terms of the deal itself and his contract after the season). Also, the fallout from Jeff Bagwell’s uncertain situation make this a bit of a risk. If Bagwell returns then someone (probably Lane) will be on the outside looking in before 2006.

Another disadvantage that comes from bringing in Dunn is that it fires the silver bullet. You would probably expend whatever prospects you feel comfortable dealing in this deal alone and the financial terms of a long-term contract would make improving the team beyond him in 2006 more difficult. However, it would give you three big run producers in the lineup (Dunn, Berkman, and Ensberg) along with two pretty good complementary players in Biggio and Lane.

Jose Mesa – Pittsburgh Pirates

He seems to be perennially on the market and this season probably won’t be any different. He would be an impending free agent, but he probably wouldn’t be that expensive either. Mesa might fit well in the 7th inning behind Lidge and Wheeler, but I wouldn’t count on him for much more than that.

Billy Wagner – Philadelphia Phillies

He is in the last year of his contract and the Phillies seem to be on the bubble between contending and dropping out. July will be the key for the Phillies and Wagner. Wagner has been all over the map this season in terms of his future. There are times when he talks about retirement and there have been times when he talked about coming back to Houston. Either way, I can’t seem him returning to the Phillies. This would be a risk because he could up and retire following the season.

Mike Maroth – Detroit Tigers

He was rumored to be a part of a deal to the Astros before the season and he hasn’t blossomed into a great pitcher in Detroit. Of course, he handled losing 20 games in 2002 better than most would have in his situation. Maroth would be fairly affordable (in fact a Polanco/Maroth package could be possible) and would be a decent enough fifth starter for the remainder of the season.

In other news

Willie does this with his columns and I thought I’d give it a try. Don’t look now, but the proponents of the Billy Wagner deal are all in the Round Rock rotation. None of us care about Brandon Duckworth, but both Ezekiel Astacio and Taylor Buckholz are performing well and could be ready for a September call up. In particular, Astacio has an 0.99 ERA since he was sent back down. It’s good to see Astacio doing so well after struggling up on the big club.

My wife and I will be heading to Austin this weekend and will catch a game in Round Rock while we’re there. I’ll come back with a full report next week, but for now let’s enjoy this streak while it lasts and watch the standings to see who will become sellers and buyers.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”