Raise your hand if you expected the Houston Astros to be in first place in the American League West. This is an Astros franchise that fully committed itself to tearing the roster down to bare bones, and rewarded its fan base with three consecutive 100-loss seasons from 2011 to 2013. An uptick followed in 2014, with a 92-loss season. Progress was made, but there was no earthly way to predict that only four games from the halfway mark of the 2015 season the Astros would hold a 43-34 record and a four game lead over the Los Angeles Angels.
The Astros are clearly well ahead of schedule in their rebuilding process, and that has caught the eye of Cole Hamels, the Philadelphia Phillies’ ace who will be traded before the July 31 deadline. In an article written by Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com last week, Hamels made it clear he would be willing to consider a trade to any team, including the Astros, a team that did not make the list of nine teams he initially gave the Phillies’ front office at the end of last season.
On the Astros, Hamels said, “They just didn’t make the nine-team list. When I made the list in October — who knew?”
No one knew. An 81-win season would have been seen as a success for the Astros in 2015, but now, expectations should be raised for the rest of the season, especially when considering the fact that the rest of the Astros’ division playmates have significant flaws. The Angels cannot hit, and the Texas Rangers cannot pitch. The Seattle Mariners have been disappointing on all fronts, and the Oakland Athletics appear poised to continue tearing things down from Billy Beane‘s most recent run of odds-defying roster construction wizardry. With those facts in mind, how aggressive should the Astros be in pursuing a playoff race-changing asset like Hamels?
The Astros shot out of the gates with a 15-7 month of April. Since then, they have essentially played .500 baseball, at 28-27. The month of June has already included a seven-game losing streak. The Astros are in first place thanks to one thing — their ability to mash home runs and doubles. They lead the league with 110 home runs, and have five players in double figures, and their .425 slugging percentage ranks fourth in the league. They also, to some detriment, strike out at an alarming rate. The Astros have struck out 720 times this season, and have only two regulars — Jose Altuve and George Springer batting above .250.
The Astros starting rotation has been headed by Dallas Keuchel, who should start the All Star Game for the American League. Beyond Keuchel, the rest of the rotation is cobbled together. Lance McCullers has a 2.33 ERA in eight starts, and Vincent Velasquez has a 3.72 ERA through the first four starts of his Major League career. The rest of the rotation is loaded with retreads like Scott Feldman, Roberto Hernandez, Collin McHugh, and Brett Oberholtzer. The sum of these parts has added up to a 4.12 ERA that is mostly dragged to a middling level by Keuchel.
The chance to upgrade that starting rotation in a hope of getting back to the playoffs well ahead of schedule will tempt the Astros to begin dipping into their prospect pool. It was only a few years back that the Phillies made the Astros their own personal Triple-A squad, trading for players like Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. Those trades were the Phillies’ attempt to claim a second World Series title, but they bankrupted their farm system and now find themselves in the same position the Astros were in only a few years ago.
A player like Hamels could change the fortunes of the Astros this year, and into the future as well. Hamels is under contract through at least 2018, and would not be a rental like Jon Lester was in Oakland a year ago, and Johnny Cuteo will be for someone this year. The chance to build a rotation around Hamels and Keuchel for the next few years should be extremely tempting to the Astros.
The Astros, however, must be willing to trust the process they set out upon back in 2011. The Phillies will not settle for anything less than a massive haul for Hamels, and why should they? He is under their control for three more seasons. The Phillies would likely want one of the Astros’ young starters who have already reached the big leagues — McCullers or Velasquez — or their top pitching prospect Mark Appel. It’s too early in these players careers to project their future performance, but parting with them for three or four years of service from an aging Cole Hamels may not be wise. Although the Astros have hit the cover off the ball at times this season, there should still be significant questions about many of their young players thanks to extremely high strikeout rates. Beyond Springer, Altuve, and Carlos Correa, is there anyone the Astros can absolutely trust beyond this season? The Phillies will want Major League ready positional players in a deal as well, but the Astros are still in the process of determining which of their many players under 25 actually fit into their long-term plans.
The Astros have gotten where they are this season by collecting a large pool of young talent. They are a nice story through 77 games this season, but they are a second half slump away from regressing back to sub-.500 baseball like the Milwaukee Brewers a year ago. To say that the Astros would be poised to suffer a similar demise could be a stretch, or it could not be. They are still largely riding a hot opening month of the season, and have seen their record decline in each subsequent month. While Cole Hamels looks attractive this year, the Astros are already playing with the house’s money this year. The true future of this club lies beyond 2015. The Astros have a process in place, and it appears to have them on the right track, but it should not be interrupted just because the team has gotten ahead of itself.