Should The Astros Pursue Cole Hamels?

Cole Hamels‘ name has been on the trade market for the better part of a year, but despite reported interest from teams such as the Red Sox, Rangers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Padres and others, the 31-year-old ace remains in Phillies pinstripes to open the 2015 season. The expectation is that Hamels will once again frequent the rumor circuit this summer, and many of the aforementioned clubs figure to be mentioned as suitors. Struggles in the Red Sox’ rotation and injuries to the Dodgers should place them among the most oft-mentioned suitors, but with an 18-8 start under their belt, the Astros merit consideration as a potential landing spot.

Yesterday, when looking at some items from around the AL West, I briefly explored the idea of a Hamels-to-Houston move when discussing the idea of the Astros making an early move to fortify their rotation. As Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle pointed out, both Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs have the Astros’ playoff odds listed at greater than 50 percent with their 18 wins already banked and the second-place Angels trailing by seven games. While an elite bullpen (2.13 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 2.87 xFIP) and an offense that has collectively batted .247/.324/.446 (good for a fourth-ranked wRC+ of 113) have paired with a decisively above-average defense, the team’s rotation has has been less impressive.

Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have continued their 2014 breakouts and stepped into the No. 1 and 2 slots atop the rotation, but the collective contributions of Scott Feldman, Roberto Hernandez, Sam Deduno, Asher Wojciechowski and Brad Peacock have yielded just a 5.05 ERA. Feldman’s track record of solid innings and contract will keep him locked into a rotation spot, barring injury, but aside from him, there’s little certainty in the team’s remaining rotation options.

Deduno’s solid 2013 effort was bookended by a pair of replacement-level showings. Hernandez was reasonably effective with the Phillies last season, but he hasn’t been a reliable rotation arm since he was still known as Fausto Carmona. Wojciechowski and Peacock are both prospects that have proven little at the Major League level, and neither Dan Straily or Brett Oberholtzer (rehabbing from a blister issue) has ever handled a full big league workload.

While we can make the case that the team has enough arms to patch its way through the season with this mix, the rotation appears to be the clearest spot for an upgrade. Indeed, GM Jeff Luhnow has acknowledged as much, saying yesterday that the rotation is the team’s only “obvious” area to make an addition. He also hinted that the club may ultimately look to add at the top of the rotation rather than just settling for a back-of-the-rotation option. As Luhnow put it, “there are scenarios where we would continue to invest in this team as the year goes on in order to maximize our chances of not just getting to the playoffs, but being better in the playoffs.” 

There’s certainly an argument to be made that a less expensive veteran such as Kyle Lohse would be a better target for the Astros, but Houston showed little interest in giving up talent for one-year rentals this winter when it acquired a long-term piece in Evan Gattis. They, in fact, traded a rental by moving the final year of Dexter Fowler‘s contract for Luis Valbuena and Straily (and replacing him cheaply via free agency with another rental, Colby Rasmus). Perhaps if the price is right, that would end up being the preferred route, but with an Astros team that is seemingly on the brink of what it hopes will be a sustainable run of contending seasons, there may be some additional value placed on adding Hamels at a below-market rate as opposed to spending heavily in free agency this winter on the likes of David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, etc.

The Astros aren’t known as big spenders, but they invested $62MM in Major League free agents this offseason — the 13th-largest sum of any team — and they can’t be criticized for not trying to spend more. Houston reportedly made the largest offer for Andrew Miller and aggressively pursued David Robertson, only to see each sign elsewhere. They also appeared set to add Ryan Vogelsong late in the offseason before questions regarding his physical resulted in a decrease in their offer.

Nonetheless, the $96MM in guaranteed money remaining on Hamels’ contract (not including an option that could invest and bring the guarantee to $124MM) is certainly a level of spending that we haven’t seen the Astros approach since escaping the tail end of what was a disastrous $100MM contract issued to Carlos Lee by the previous front office/ownership group. However, if the sum is daunting for owner Jim Crane, the Phillies have expressed a willingness to include money to facilitate a trade. And, as MLBTR’s Jeff Todd explained on Opening Day, the Astros have the second-lightest swath of long-term commitments among all MLB clubs, with only the A’s having a clearer payroll in the years to come. Houston, then, is arguably better-equipped to add a hefty contract like the Hamels pact than the Red Sox or Dodgers, both of whom would acquire Hamels with the added cost of serious luxury tax implications.

As far as prospects are concerned, there’s no question that the Astros’ farm system has deteriorated a bit following the trade for Gattis and the promotion of George Springer (among others). However, ESPN’s Keith Law still ranked them third, even after the Gattis swap, and Basebal America ranked them a less-impressive 14th late in Spring Training. Carlos Correa is among the game’s very best prospects, and while he’d surely top GM Ruben Amaro Jr.’s wishlist when discussing Hamels deals, I’d imagine the Astros consider him untouchable. Moving on from Correa, however, the Astros have a host of Top 100 prospects, with Mark Appel likely considered the second-best among their ranks. Appel ranked between 30th and 35th on the Top 100 lists of BA, Law, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, while Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel ranked him 18th entering the season. A deep farm system beyond that top two reveals the likes of Vincent Velasquez, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Domingo Santana, Josh Hader and Brett Phillips, among others. And while parting with a significant portion of that talent would come as an unequivocal blow to their organizational depth, the Astros are positioned to add more high-impact talent in this year’s draft, with two of the top five picks and four of the top 46.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a somewhat reactionary response to a 25-game sample, but with 18 wins accounted for, the Astros could play sub-.500 baseball (68-69) over the rest of the season and still finish with 86 wins. Another five months of ~.500 ball will have them firmly in the mix for a playoff spot. At that point, an early or midseason swap of Hamels for the group of occupants that would’ve otherwise provided innings from the fifth slot in the rotation could prove an upgrade of two or three wins.

Hamels, of course, hasn’t looked himself to open the season, but his 91.5 mph average fastball velocity is in line with his 2012-13 levels, and a fluky homer-to-flyball ratio has plagued him thus far. Overall, his bottom-line results through six starts aren’t entirely dissimilar from the first six outings of his 2014 campaign. Perhaps the one area for concern with Hamels is his increased walk rate, but with a rebound in his control, Hamels still appears plenty capable of providing a significant jolt to any big league rotation.

With my perhaps unnecessarily long-winded preamble aside, let’s open it up to public debate…


Quick Hits: Myers, Salty, Correa, Appel, Draft

Right-hander Brett Myers, who spent parts of 12 Major League seasons with the Phillies, Astros, White Sox and Indians, said in an interview with Section215.com that he’s enjoying retired life and believes that his playing days are likely over. Myers explained that over the final few years of his playing career, he missed spending time with his children, but he now is enjoying coaching his 10-year-old son’s baseball team. In his career, the former 12th overall pick posted a 4.25 ERA a 97-96 record, 40 saves, 7.3 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 1710 big league innings spent as both a starter and a closer. His playing days were also marred by off-field issues, including charges of domestic violence that were eventually dropped at his wife’s request, and an expletive-laced tirade aimed at a Phillies beat reporter whom he ultimately threatened with physical violence.

Some more notes from around the league…

  • Though Chris Iannetta has struggled tremendously with the bat in 2015, the Angels don’t consider Jarrod Saltalamacchia a fit, reports MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez. The 30-year-old Saltalamacchia cleared release waivers earlier today and is free to sign with any club. Gonzalez also adds that the Angels are hopeful that fellow catcher Drew Butera will clear waivers, giving them a chance to keep him in the organization following his recent DFA.
  • Astros GM Jeff Luhnow discussed the timelines for prospects Carlos Correa and Mark Appel with Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle, and Drellich notes that the 20-year-old Correa could very likely beat the 23-year-old Appel to the Majors. Luhnow acknowledged that Correa has a good chance of being promoted to Triple-A this month, once they see a bit more of how he reacts to facing teams and pitchers for the second time in Double-A. Appel, meanwhile, has struggled a bit at Double-A, and the GM said he’d like to see some consistently dominant outings from Appel before moving him up the Minor League ladder.
  • Brendan Rodgers of Florida’s Lake Mary High School is the first of three shortstops perched atop Keith Law’s list of Top 100 Draft prospects at ESPN.com (Insider subscription required and highly recommended, particularly for draft followers). Arizona’s Kevin Newman and Vanderbilt’s Dansby Swanson add a pair of college shortstops to the mix, while UC Santa Barbara righty Dillon Tate and prep lefty Kolby Allard round out the top five. Former No. 1 overall consideration Mike Matuella has dropped to 19th, as the Duke right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this spring. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken sits 26th on Law’s list following his own Tommy John surgery.

Minor Moves: Baker, Ortiz, Tolleson, Bello, Sands

The day’s minor moves will be tracked right here:

  • The Dodgers have outrighted Scott Baker to Triple-A Oklahoma City following his DFA, tweets J.P. Hoornstra of the Los Angeles News Group. The 33-year-old Baker was designated on Sunday following a pair of starts in which he allowed seven runs in 11 innings of work with an 8-to-3 K/BB ratio. The former Twin has yet to establish himself as a credible mid-rotation starter, as he was in Minnesota from 2007-11, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012.
  • Left-hander Joseph Ortiz has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A Iowa after being designated for assignment by the Cubs over the weekend, MLBTR has learned (Twitter link). The 24-year-old Ortiz enjoyed a solid season with the Rangers in 2013 at just 22 years of age, working to a 4.23 ERA with 27 strikeouts against eight unintentional walks in 44 2/3 innings. Ortiz was involved in a freak accident prior to the 2014 season when was struck by a motorcyclist while walking down the street in his native Venezuela. The resulting fractures in his left foot cost him much of the 2014 season. Ortiz was claimed off waivers by the Cubs this winter and has a 3.38 ERA in 10 2/3 Triple-A innings, though he’s struck out just one hitter despite a career K/9 of 8.6 in the Minors.
  • Steven Tolleson has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A by the Blue Jays, Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca tweets. The infielder could find himself back on the active roster in short order, per Davidi, as the club is currently lacking a reserve middle infielder after today’s roster moves.
  • The Padres have purchased the rights to catcher Yenier Bello from the independent league’s Joplin Blasters, according to Mark Schremmer of the Joplin Globe (via Twitter). Bello, 30, was released by the Braves just one year after signing out of Cuba. It seems rather likely that he will be looked upon as an organizational depth piece by the San Diego organization.
  • The Indians announced that outfielder Jerry Sands has accepted an outright assignment to Triple-A. Sands could have declined the assignment and shopped his early-season .348/.400/.435 batting line on the open market, but apparently felt his best opportunity remained with the Cleveland organization.


Injury Notes: Rendon, Johnson, Walden, Albers, Lucroy

Anthony Rendon‘s return to the Nationals appears to be on hold, as the infielder has suffered a strained oblique muscle during his rehab assignment, manager Matt Williams told reporters, including James Wagner of the Washington Post (Twitter link). Rendon was on the mend from a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee but had his rehab assignment shut down after the oblique issue popped up. The severity of the issue and timeline of his return are unknown at this point, per Williams, but the plan for now is for Rendon to rest more.

More injury news pertaining to the Nats and from around the league…

  • Nationals outfielder Reed Johnson underwent surgery to repair a damaged tendon in his foot over the weekend, Wagner wrote earlier in the week. Wagner writes that the 38-year-old Johnson is expected to be able to rejoin the club later this summer. Williams didn’t sound sure, however, as MASNsports.com’s Dan Kolko tweeted yesterday. Asked whether Johnson would be able to return to the Nats this season, Williams simply replied, “I don’t know.”
  • Cardinals GM John Mozeliak expressed some concern over the shoulder and biceps of setup man Jordan Walden, who is currently on the disabled list, writes MLB.com’s Jen Langosch. Walden is getting a second opinion of the MRIs taken on his arm, but surgery has not been ruled out as a possibility. Mozeliak said at this time, Walden is leaning toward pitching through the injury.
  • The White Sox will be without right-hander Matt Albers longer than expected, tweets Scott Merkin of MLB.com. Albers injured a finger on his right hand in the Sox’ benches-clearing brawl with the Royals earlier this season, and the digit ultimately wound up requiring surgery which will keep him on the shelf for six to eight weeks.
  • After a slew of bad news in this post, we’ll touch on some good news for the Brewers; Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel tweets that the early signs on Jonathan Lucroy‘s broken toe are positive, and he currently hopes that he can return on the low end of his projected four- to six-week timeline for recovery.

AL East Notes: Pirela, Travis, Paredes, Red Sox

The Yankees are set to bring up second base prospect Jose Pirela, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News reports on Twitter. It remains to be seen how the playing time will be sorted in the middle infield, but the club has received scant production to date at both second base (Stephen Drew and Gregorio Petit) and shortstop (Didi Gregorius). With the Yankees otherwise looking good atop the AL East, it is fair to wonder whether Pirela and/or Rob Refsnyder will get extended early looks to help inform the club’s decisionmaking over the summer.

Here’s more from the competitive AL East:

  • Meanwhile, things are headed in quite a different direction at the keystone for the Blue Jays, who have received stunning production from offseason acquisition Devon Travis. As Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca explains, while Travis’s incredible start is obviously not sustainable, he has exhibited a series of skills — hitting the ball long and hard, and showing quality strike zone control — that bode well for his future. While Toronto obviously hoped he could become a long-term answer when it dealt for him, the club now has good reason to believe that he will be installed at second for years to come.
  • Another infielder off to a surprisingly hot start is Jimmy Paredes of the Orioles. As Eduardo Encina of the Baltimore Sun writes, the 26-year-old has traveled a long road through five organizations to get to this point. Still a work in progress in the field, Paredes has shown real promise at the plate this year. With Jonathan Schoop still working back from injury and Manny Machado having missed significant time in each of the last two seasons, Paredes could be an important piece for Baltimore if the team hopes to stay in the playoff hunt.
  • Things have gotten bad in a hurry for the Red Sox, writes Rob Bradford of WEEI.com. Bradford opines that losing Hanley Ramirez for any significant stretch would be a huge blow for Boston; while his injury does not appear to be as serious as it looked, any loss of production could be problematic in a tough division. Of course, the club has plenty of options in the outfield, and the bigger concern remains a rotation that has struggled badly. Though it is reasonable to hope that the results will begin to better match the underlying peripherals, Bradford says that the team does not have any obviously promising internal candidates to add quality innings in the near term.

Cubs Designate Blake Parker For Assignment

The Cubs announced today that they have selected the contract of lefty James Russell from Triple-A Iowa and designated right-hander Blake Parker for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster. Chicago’s press release also notes that outfielder Chris Denorfia has been placed on the 15-day disabled list, and recently claimed righty Anthony Varvaro has been added to the 25-man roster.

The 29-year-old Parker has seen Major League action with the Cubs in each of the past three seasons, working to a 3.68 ERA with 10.4 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and a 30.6 percent ground-ball rate. Most of that work came in an excellent 2013 season during which he racked up 46 1/3 innings in the Chicago ‘pen. Parker’s velocity dipped from 91.9 mph in 2013 to 90.5 mph last year, however, and his ERA spiked to 5.14 in 21 innings . His K/BB numbers from that season and FIP, xFIP and SIERA all indicate that his ERA was quite misleading, however. Parker had thrown 3 1/3 innings this season at Triple-A but hadn’t appeared since April 15. Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times tweets that he has been on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

Russell, of course, recently returned to the Cubs after being released by the Braves in Spring Training. The 29-year-old was traded from Chicago to Atlanta at least year’s trade deadline, alongside teammate Emilio Bonifacio, in exchange for catching prospect Victor Caratini. Aside from that brief appearance in Atlanta, Russell’s entire career has been spent in a Cubs uniform. Over the past three seasons, he’s notched a combined 3.26 ERA with 6.7 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 in 179 2/3 innings while holding opposing lefties to a .235 average and .289 OBP, though they’ve still slugged .392 against him — good for a .157 ISO.


Alex Cobb Has Partially Torn Ligament In Elbow

Rays right-hander Alex Cobb‘s 2015 season is in jeopardy, as is much of his 2016 season, as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports that an MRI has revealed a partially torn ligament in his right elbow. For the time being, Cobb will rest and undergo treatment in an attempt to pitch through the injury, but he’ll be facing Tommy John surgery if that route proves unsuccessful.

Cobb, 27, has already received a platelet-rich plasma injection in the elbow as part of a visit with Dr. James Andrews. President of baseball operations Matt Silverman told Topkin earlier that the team was in “wait and see” mode and that speculation regarding surgery was premature, though that appears to have been before Topkin learned of the MRI results.

Over the past two seasons, Cobb has looked the part of a front-line starter when healthy enough to take the hill. He’s worked to a 2.82 ERA with 8.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and a 56 percent ground-ball rate in 309 2/3 innings. He has also, however, missed time with a concussion and an oblique injury, and this season he opened the year on the disabled list due to what was originally termed right forearm tendinitis.

Losing Cobb would be a significant blow to a second-place Rays team that has been anxiously awaiting his return to the rotation. However, Tampa successfully weathered the storm after losing Matt Moore to Tommy John surgery last year and trading ace David Price, as their new-look rotation currently features Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Nate Karns and Alex Colome.

Moore is expected to rejoin the club sometime in June or July, and there are other depth options on the 40-man roster including Erasmo Ramirez and Matt Andriese. Another potential depth option, righty Burch Smith (acquired in the Wil Myers trade) is already lost for the year due to Tommy John surgery, however, and Ramirez’s struggles over the past year-plus have been extreme. Further injuries in the rotation, then, could lead to some trade consideration this summer, but adding Moore to the current crop of healthy starters would seem enough to carve out a competitive rotation, even if Cobb is unfortunately lost for the next year.


Devin Mesoraco Likely To Require Hip Surgery

Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco has acknowledged that his hip injury will likely require surgery that will sideline him for up to four months, reports MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon (via Twitter). For the time being, Mesoraco is trying to exhaust all possible alternative treatments before undergoing an operation, according to Sheldon.

The 26-year-old Mesoraco has taken just 28 trips to the plate this season and hasn’t started a game since April 11. Brayan Pena and Tucker Barnhart have handled the bulk of the catching duties in his stead, although the Reds curiously have not placed Mesoraco on the disabled list despite the fact that he has made just six pinch-hitting appearances since his last start.

Mesoraco inked a four-year, $28MM contract extension with Cincinnati this offseason on the heels of a breakout 2014 campaign in which he batted an excellent .273/.359/.534 with with 25 home runs in 114 games/440 plate appearances. Mesoraco’s ability to recreate that outstanding production — valued at 4.5 fWAR and 4.8 rWAR — was considered by many to be a key component as to whether or not the Reds would be able to compete in the NL Central this season. While Cincinnati sits in third place at 12-13, the potential loss of a star-caliber catcher certainly dampens their chances of staying afloat in a highly competitive division. Many pegged the Reds as eventual sellers even when assuming that Mesoraco would be healthy. One would imagine that if Cincinnati does end up looking toward the future come July, names like Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, each of whom is in his final year of club control, would be among the most desirable assets on the trade market.


Braves Designate Donnie Veal

The Braves have designated lefty Donnie Veal for assignment, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on Twitter.

Veal, 30, has given up four earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings pitched this year, striking out and walking two batters. Over parts of five years in the big leagues, he owns a 5.16 ERA with 9.5 K/9 against 6.5 BB/9.

Atlanta hopes that Veal will make it through outright waivers and accept an assignment in Triple-A, per O’Brien. The southpaw would have the ability to decline an assignment and elect free agency, however, as he has previously been outrighted.


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Nationals Acquire Darin Mastroianni

The Nationals have acquired outfielder Darin Mastroianni from the Phillies in exchange for cash, Philadelphia announced. Mastroianni was signed to a minor league deal over the winter.

It seems likely that the Nats’ interest in Mastroianni relates to their recent loss of Reed Johnson to surgery. The team has top prospect Michael Taylor available to serve as a right-handed-hitting, center-field-capable bench option, but probably prefers that he receive everyday playing time with Denard Span back in the lineup. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Taylor won’t accrue service time while at Triple-A.)

It remains to be seen whether Mastroianni will head right to the big league roster. The fleet-footed 29-year-old has four seasons and 306 plate appearances under his belt at the MLB level. This year, at Triple-A, he has slashed .293/.333/.362 over 64 turns at bat.


Rangers Claim Mike Kickham

The Rangers have claimed lefty Mike Kickham off waivers from the Mariners, club executive VP of communications John Blake announced. Outfielder Ryan Rua was transferred to the 60-day DL to create space.

Per the release, Kickham will be optioned to Triple-A to start his tenure with Texas. The 26-year-old has struggled badly with his control in the early going this year, issuing 28 walks in just 21 innings for Triple-A Tacoma.

With the Rangers, Kickham will have a chance to get back to being the swingman option he was earlier in his career with the Giants. He has 30 1/3 big league innings under his belt, all with San Francisco, over which he struck out thirty hitters while walking eleven. But the long ball has proved problematic thus far, as nine batters have left the yard against Kickham in his brief MLB time.


Blue Jays Designate Jayson Aquino

The Blue Jays have designated lefty Jayson Aquino for assignment, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca reports on Twitter. His 40-man spot will go to Chris Colabello, with Jonathan Diaz being optioned to open a place on the active roster.

Aquino, 22, was acquired from the Rockies this winter in exchange for fellow southpaw Tyler Ybarra. Previously rated as one of Colorado’s ten best prospects, the youngster had something of a rough 2014.

Sent to repeat the High-A level with Toronto, Aquino was off to a solid start. Over 25 2/3 innings, he owns a 2.81 ERA with 5.6 K/9 against 2.1 BB/9.


Marlins Release Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Miami has announced the release of struggling catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Marlins were not able to find a trade partner for the recently-designated backstop, as Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported on Twitter. He will hit the open market after clearing release waivers.

The news rates as at least a mild surprise. Miami had hoped to find a team to pick up at least some of the approximately $6MM left on his 2015 salary, to say nothing of the $8MM owed next year. Several clubs were reported to be in talks with the Fish, but apparently none were willing to offer enough value to warrant a deal.

Salty is a virtual certainty to clear release waivers and reach free agency, given that any claiming team would need to take on his contract. That will afford the clubs with prior interest an opportunity to add him at a pro-rated portion of the league minimum salary.

It has been a swift fall from grace for Saltalamacchia, who like several recent free agents before him simply never panned out in Miami. He has slashed a meager .209/.310/.351 over his 468 plate appearances since joining the club, a far cry from his .243/.307/.455 output over four seasons with the Red Sox.

Despite his troubles on offense and generally poorly-regarded work behind the plate, Saltalamacchia has a rare track record of useful production from the left side of the plate. The switch-hitter managed a .707 OPS last year against right-handers, making him a potentially appealing platoon mate for multiple teams around the league.

While several young backstops (J.T. Realmuto, Austin Hedges, Blake Swihart) have been promoted in recent weeks, there is still a dearth of offensively-useful catchers in the game. Among those who have seen at least twenty turns at bat this year, just 19 have registered above-average batting production. Meanwhile, injuries to players such as Matt Wieters, Travis d’Arnaud, Ryan Hanigan, and Christian Vazquez have sapped the overall depth around the game.