Who would win: players acquired via waivers and trades by Astros GM Luhnow, or a team of players lost?

Bob Costas: Welcome to Minute Maid park for today’s exhibition game pitting bitter rivals against one another in a winner-take-all showdown for supremacy.

With me is broadcast partner Joe Buck. Joe, why don’t you tell the viewers what is at stake in this contest?

Joe Buck: Thank you, Bob. Both of these clubs have something in common – all of the players on the roster were either acquired by or lost by current Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow.

Bob: But not in just any manner, correct?

Joe: That’s right. The only players eligible for these rosters are ones who were gained or lost during Luhnow’s tenure through waiver claims or trades.  The Acquired roster is comprised of players acquired in this manner by the Astros whose contributions on the  roster were meaningful or notable.  Players on the Lost‘ roster are those lost by the Astros.

Bob: That’s somewhat arbitrary, isn’t it? Free agency and drafting are important factors in judging a GM’s performance.

Joe: Very true. Today’s contest is just for fun.

Bob: The home team Acquired take the field. On the mound for today’s matchup is future Hall of Famer, Justin Verlander.

Joe: Verlander was acquired during the Astros’ 2017 pennant run in exchange for some good prospects. His first pitch, to Lost leadoff hitter, second baseman Jonathan Villar, is in there for a strike.

Bob: This is an interesting matchup. The Acquired boast a star-studded pitching staff, but their offense is….well…

Joe: Pitiful is the word you’re looking for, Bob.

Bob. Indeed. Meanwhile, the Lost boast a loaded lineup but a thin stable of pitchers. We get to see Verlander for the Acquired today, but the rest of the rotation is strong as well. Gerrit Cole will be pitching tomorrow, and the rotation is rounded out by Collin McHugh, Scott Kazmir, and Mike Fiers.

Joe: Villar gets on base with a slap hit past diving third baseman Matt Dominguez. Villar isn’t consistent, but has been productive since leaving the Astros. He has turned into a legitimate threat for double-digit homers and forty or more stolen bases every year.

Bob: And now Verlander has an early test. With a base stealing threat on base, he has to navigate through right fielder Domingo Santana, first baseman Eric Thames, and designated hitter J.D. Martinez. Those three batters hit one hundred and six homers last season!

Joe: Frustrating for the Astros, losing these guys. Both Martinez and Thames were waived and released before finding homes with other clubs. One could only imagine what the 2017 Astros would have looked like otherwise. Left Field and First Base were the two weakest lineup positions for them this past season.

Bob: Better luck next time, Astros.

Joe: Verlander strikes out Santana and Thames, and Martinez just misses a home run, with a warning track defensive gem from Acquired center fielder Jake Marisnick.

Bob: That guy can really cover some ground in the outfield. Which is fortunate, as he is flanked by indifferent defenders Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gomez. Fowler, incidentally, is playing for both clubs today, as is shortstop Jed Lowrie.

Joe: In constructing these rosters, it was noted that both players performed well with Houston and after leaving. After much discussion, the organizers of this exhibition decided the easiest solution was to perfect human cloning and accelerated growth through hormone treatments /slash/ time travel so that they could appear on both clubs.

Bob: Simple solutions are always the best, Joe.

Joe: Going into the bottom of the first, the Lost starter J.A. Happ takes the mound. He’ll be followed later in this series by rotation mates Dan Straily, Vincent Velasquez, Mike Foltynewicz and — laff — Jarrod Cosart.

Bob: Not exactly a championship rotation. Looks like the Astros have been more successful acquiring pitchers than they have at acquiring bats.

Joe: To be fair, Happ has pitched well the last few years, though he is five seasons removed from pitching in Houston. And Straily has had a career renaissance as well. Velasquez has a ton of talent, if only he could stay healthy.

Bob: It’s looking like Velasquez is the only one of the five pitchers sent to Philadelphia in return for closer Ken Giles that has a chance of being anything but a complete disaster, Joe.

Joe: Speaking of disasters…

Bob: Yeah, Cosart. Hey, did you hear Foltynewicz no longer throws a one hundred mile-per-hour fastball?

Joe: Shameful.

Bob: Fowler works a leadoff walk for the Acquired, and Valbuena gets a base hit, knocking him over. Evan Gattis, who along with Acquired reliever James Hoyt was…well,  acquired…for Foltynewicz and Lost bench infielder Rio Ruiz, is at the plate.

Joe: Ouch he grounded into a double play. That puts Fowler at third. First baseman Chris Carter is coming to the plate.

Bob: That 2013 trade is the gift that keeps on giving. Brad Peacock, a 2017 rotation hero for the Astros and now lights-out reliever was also included in that trade, as was presumptive 2018 Astros catcher Max Stassi. They were received in return for the Lost‘s shortstop, Lowrie.

Joe: And also the Acquired‘s shortstop, Bob.

Bob: True.  OOOH a meatball down the middle, and Carter crushes a deep home run, scoring two.

Joe: He really got a hold of that one. S(@#*WYT(W*Y!P(UINFOIVUHP WHOA, what was that?

Bob: I believe that was a time warp, Joe. I haven’t seen one that strong since the ’88 games in Calgary. it appears the game is over. The Lost have won the game by a score of 4 to 2.

Joe: Looks like the Acquired just didn’t have enough offense to get the job done.

Analysis

Method: Create the best 25-man roster possible with the players acquired via trade or waiver claim by the Houston Astros during GM Jeff Luhnow’s tenure, which began in 2012. And then, create the best roster using players lost via waivers, release, or trade. Afterwards, pick which one is better?

Goal: Just for fun!

It is important to caveat this exercise by pointing out, good or bad, that this is no way to judge a club’s transactions, or a General Manager’s performance. Circumstance and need dictate how a club acquires or releases players, and even moves that look like glaring mistakes now might have been defensible at the time.

Players acquired via waiver claim or trade: 94
Players lost via waiver claim or trade: 89

To be eligible for selection to the “Acquired” team, a player must have performed better for the Astros than he did after leaving the club. For example, Chris Carter had a better tenure with Houston than he did after leaving. The opposite is true for the “Lost” team, such as how Robbie Grossman broke out with the Twins after being largely forgettable with the Astros.

Two players performed well both with the Astros and elsewhere afterwards, and so I allowed them to feature on both rosters.

Without further nonsense, here are the rosters selected for the comparo.

BATS

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In comparing the best possible lineup created with players the Luhnow Astros acquired via waivers and trades versus a lineup of players lost the same way, the contest is not even fair. The Acquired team managed a paltry fWAR of 21 in 2,262 games (1.5 fWAR per 162 games), compared to 46.6 fWAR by the Lost team in 2,758 games (2.7 fWAR per 162 games).

But fWAR does not tell the whole story, because the Lost team features several players whose pitiful defense as measured by UZR, which is used to calculate the defensive component of fWAR, suppresses their tremendous value with the bat.

Consider: in 2017 alone, the Lost team batted .261/.355/.481 (.836 OPS) with 170 home runs and 59 stolen bases. And that’s with chosen catcher Carlos Perez playing only 11 games. This lineup, even if discounted a bit to reflect a weak-ish bench of Teoscar Hernandez, Enrique Hernandez, Humberto Quintero, and Rio Ruiz, would be easily one of the top five offenses in baseball.

Of course, there are caveats that make some of these players lost excusable. Thames broke out in 2017 with 31 homers after several years playing in Korea, after all of major league baseball declined to sign him. Any shame on the Astros for “missing” on him is shared by 28 other clubs that did the same.

Villar posted a monster 2016 and a flub of a 2017, but his trade to the Brewers in exchange for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers was excusable. Villar was blocked by the best middle infield combo in baseball history (yeah, I went there), and he showed little during his tenure with the Astros except poor defense and a penchant for tootblannery.

Also in the same trade, Santana looked like a nice prospect but was blocked in the majors at the time by George Springer, Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez, and Preston Tucker. Sure, in retrospect that looks silly, but Rasmus surprised the Astros by accepting a qualifying offer, and surely Gomez was due to rebound from his poor 2015, right?

And as for the proverbial elephant in the room, even the release of J.D. Martinez, the goliathian slugger who just cashed in on the greatest un-juiced home run hitting pace in history, is defensible. At the time, Martinez’ release was excused by the Astros as being a “victim of their own success,” a laughable statement with respect to their successive 100+ loss records. But the Astros meant it in terms of player development, and they weren’t wrong.

Martinez was scuffling after his third major league season, had trouble staying healthy, and did not play defense well. Meanwhile, the Astros had an intriguing young outfielder they wanted a long look at in Robbie Grossman, who showed excellent plate discipline, interesting speed/power combo (if nothing special) and perhaps the ability to play center field.

The Astros weren’t necessarily wrong, even with the benefit of hindsight. Compare what Martinez was prior to his release with what Grossman became after leaving the Astros:

  • Martinez before DFA: .251/.300/.387, 87 wRC+ with Astros (-1.1 fWAR)
  • Grossman – .262/.372/.409, 113 wRC+ with Twins (1.2 fWAR)

The Astros thought they already knew what they had in Martinez. They were just flat wrong, and didn’t take seriously his Spring Training claim of reinventing his swing. But they weren’t wrong about Grossman, who despite being a brutal fielder, has turned into a pretty nifty offensive player. But ouch, would Houston have loved to see Martinez back in Houston orange and blue as he went on a 520-game rampage with 14.6 fWAR with the Tigers and Diamondbacks.

On the flip side, the most valuable offensive player acquired by the Luhnow administration has been Jake Marisnick. In 408 games with the Astros, Marisnick has put up a 4.4 fWAR, chiefly due to his All-World defense.

It must be noted that the Astros, during much of Luhnow’s later tenure, didn’t need to acquire meaningful hitters. Their young core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer was supplemented by smart Free Agent signings and the development of Alex Bregman. Where the Astros acquired useful bats, it was to fill in the cracks, as with Luis Valbuena, Jed Lowrie, Evan Gattis, and Brian McCann.

Left off: Hank Conger, Cameron Maybin, Derek Fisher (via a traded draft pick), Yordan Alvarez, Max Stassi

ARMS

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In the pitching department, Luhnow’s waiver/trade record shines.

J.A. Happ and Dan Straily enjoyed the best seasons of their careers after leaving the Astros, but neither has pitched better than Collin McHugh, who was a waiver claim by Luhnow before the 2014 season.

Justin Verlander, even on the down-slope of his career, is one of the best pitchers in MLB and will cruise into the Hall of Fame. Gerrit Cole, who hasn’t pitched in a real game for Houston yet, is nearly of the same quality.

For all the crap that Mike Fiers gets from Astros fans, he was a useful back-of-rotation innings-eater.  While the trade that brought him and Gomez to Houston was a clear loss in terms of value by the Astros, it remains the only trade made by the Luhnow administration that can be classified clearly as such.

And still, both Fiers and Gomez contributed to a surprise 2015 playoff run. It could be argued that without them, the Astros might not have reached the playoffs that season.

Even in 2017, Fiers provided quality innings when the Astros needed him most. His season ERA of 5.22 belies his June and July. While McHugh, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and Charlie Morton struggled to stay in the rotation due to injuries, Fiers started 10 games during those months, putting up a 2.59 ERA with a 10.4 K/9.

Fiers was not a good pitcher overall in an Astros uniform, but his performance in 2017 during the mid-summer should be remembers as one of the top bullet points in the story of that glorious season. He and rotation mate Brad Peacock (also acquired by Luhnow in trade), were key cogs that put the Astros way out in front of the AL West.

In the bullpen good relievers have both come and gone. Mark Melancon became a bullpen ace, one of the best closers in the majors. But the Astros later acquired Ken Giles for what has so far turned out to be a lopsided deal in the Astros’ favor, and did so at a time when they more needed a pitcher of his quality than they did when Melancon was bouncing around in Houston.

Overall

Overall, nothing. You can’t judge a General Manager on trades and waiver acquisitions alone, and especially without context.

However, this fun little exercise has shown that the Astros GM and his staff are capable of identifying talent and acquiring it to improve the major league club.

Can’t argue with the results – a net balance of positive acquisitions, coupled with development of drafted players and savvy free agent shopping ended up with a 2017 World Series championship and what looks to be a playoff dynasty for the next many years.