After a few years of the now-historically remembered, all-out, bottom-out rebuild, 2015 was the year the Houston Astros started to bear the fruits of their endeavors.
The farm system was sufficiently stocked and General Manager Jeff Luhnow had successfully gathered more young, talented parts than he could ever need. That meant a trade.
It was nearly veteran pitcher Cole Hamels, but the Philadelphia Phillies all-star pitcher chose the in-state rival Rangers instead. Future Astros Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick were dealt, but not yet wearing Astros orange, as that would come in free agency following the season.
For their first big splash since tearing it all down in 2011 with the Hunter Pence mega-deal (future trade check-in?!), the Astros acquired all-star outfielder Carlos Gomez and starting pitcher Mike Fiers from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Houston paid a substantial price, dealing top outfield prospects Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips, top pitching prospect Josh Hader, and the respectable 22-year old arm of Adrian Houser.
Substantial, but not critical. The Astros did manage to keep some of the very best young players, like Mark Appel and Vince Velasquez, but would trade both of them anyway in the winter to the Philadelphia Phillies for closer Ken Giles.
First, let’s give Fiers some abbreviated love. In his first month with his new team, the 30-year old delivered a no-hitter. Whatever the reason, Fiers’ magic ran out and his stretch of consecutive productive seasons came to a halt in 2016. After an even worse 2017, he signed with the Detroit Tigers in the off-season.
Gomez came to the Astros with glad tidings as their first big investment since making the organizational decision not to make any. A five-tool player in the MVP conversation from 2013-2014, the original Johan Santana trade headliner (from the Mets to the Twins in 2008) wasn’t as good in 2015, and his strikeout habits were being exacerbated as such.
A player with Gomez’s unrelenting, devil-may-care attitude certainly does a lot better in the polls when he’s producing.
After making the move to the Astros, he proceeded to post his worst numbers since 2011. At age 29, Houston was hoping to get a franchise player. He had one shining moment with the Stros, smacking a solo home run in the victorious Wild Card game against the New York Yankees.
His important contract season in 2016 was a complete disaster. Getting to break camp with his new club wasn’t the antidote, and Gomez actually hit a career-low .210 with a .594 OPS, only better than his rookie year tally. After 85 games in 2016, and just 126 total, Houston completely cut ties with their investment.
Ironically, the jubilant outfielder caught on with the Rangers and bounced right back for the in-division rivals. It would have been a cruel injustice to Houston fans, if not for that their Astros team had clearly passed the Rangers by, and their roster did not at all miss Gomez.
After drawing frail interest in a mild open market, Gomez signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays over the off-season and is challenging his career-worst numbers with the youth-driven team.
So, the Astros side fell flat. What about the rebuilding Brewers?
In many a trades, you can identify the top prospect in a package. With this deal, however, it’s not so cut and dry. For reference, John had Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips and Josh Hader ranked consecutively at five, six and seven on his 2015 Astros list.
Santana was the third-rated prospect in the Phillies Hunter Pence package from 2011, after Jarred Cosart and Jon Singleton. He had quite easily surpassed them, due to his own progression but also the other two experiencing major setbacks.
Now 25, the right-fielder broke out with 30 home runs in 2017 after building gradually each season from 2014 to 2016. He slashed .278/.371/.875 and turned a very promising 2016 into a full-blown success in 2017. He did strike out 178 times, and has already struck out 43 times in 40 games this season.
Over the off-season, Milwaukee made two big moves for Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, leaving a playing time crunch that has many speculating Santana’s future elsewhere. Definitely in the “good problem to have” category, because Santana has fortified himself as a reliable everyday player.
If he was the early winner, Josh Hader has passed up the field.
Another player originally acquired by the Astros via trade, Hader came over with the more often discussed L.J. Hoes from the Baltimore Orioles for Bud Norris. (The Orioles also traded a first-round pick in this ill-fated deal.) He made his debut last season, pushed to the bigs despite struggling for Colorado Springs in the Pacific Coast League.
He was starting there, but has exclusively been a reliever in his big league career. Which has been absolutely lights out.
In 2017, he posted an impeccable 68:22 K:BB ratio with an equally dazzling 2.08 ERA in 35 games. Guaranteed a spot for 2018, he has been one of baseball’s elite relief pitchers this season.
He has 50 strikeouts in 25 innings, and is six for six in save opportunities, filling in while Corey Knebel was hurt. His starting roots have allowed him to go multiple innings frequently, having pitched two innings at a time more than he has one, throwing two frames eight times and getting eight outs and a save on April 30th.
In that game, all eight of his outs were strikeouts. The last pitcher to do something like that was Randy Johnson, who Hader resembles with his velocity, left-handedness, strikeout ability, but most importantly, his lettuce, as Eric Byrnes would say.
Milwaukee has bursted from rebuilders to contenders, and may have their future closer, as well as one of the best young relievers (Hader turned 24 in April) in the game.
Brett Phillips, known affectionately as “Maverick” (it’s actually his middle name) and killing everyone as Smalls, simply hasn’t had the opportunity to give him a proper eval.
A sixth round pick in 2012, he was excellent during his debut season last year, when, at age 23, he amassed 98 at-bats over 37 games and hit .276 with a .799 OPS. He hit four home runs and stole five bases in a small sample size.
Where Santana is pressed for playing time given the Brewers very, very crowded outfield, Phillips is having trouble just staying on the roster. His numbers in 2018 are low in just nine games, but there’s really no chance for the toolsy, talented outfielder in Milwaukee. There will have to be a trade, and it will be exciting to see him get ample opportunity in someone else’s lineup.
Adrian Houser came over as the fourth player in the deal. The Astros second round pick in 2011, he was a September call-up months after the deal with Milwaukee was completed, and turned in two promising relief outings.
Unfortunately, he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery the following summer of 2016. After battling back and even winning a spot on the Brewers 2018 Opening Day roster, he threw two scoreless innings and finished a game off against the Chicago Cubs on April 8th.
He was optioned to Double-A Biloxi soon after and has struggled there so far this season. Like Hader, his best numbers in his pro career have come at the big league level, albeit in just four innings for Houser. At 25 years old, he has actually not yet pitched at Triple-A.
The deal brought Houston a very exciting memory in the form of 27 Mike Fiers outs. However, they made the trade for Carlos Gomez and it couldn’t have been a bigger disaster. Thankfully, they haven’t missed a beat with George Springer taking over, the signing of Josh Reddick, the trade and development of Jake Marisnick and the rapid rise of utility man Marwin Gonzalez.
Milwaukee easily won the deal, and now face a “problem” similar to what Houston had a year or two ago. They have a lot of extra parts, a lot of outfielders. The need for pitching and/or a second-baseman could rectify the excess, and allow Santana and/or Phillips to become regulars elsewhere.