Trade Analysis: Astros Get Their Closer in Ken Giles

I drafted Ken Giles in one of the later rounds of a fantasy baseball draft I did at the beginning of the 2015 season. For some reason, I didn’t know too much at the time, but the ESPN fantasy blurb about him raved about his upper 90’s fastball and his status as Philadelphia’s closer-in-waiting once Jonathan Papelbon inevitably got shipped out. Spoiler alert: my team stunk (thanks, Jeff Samardzija!), but Giles ended up being one of my wiser picks. He was phenomenal in his first full big league season, posting a 1.80 ERA, 2.13 FIP and 87 strikeouts over 70 innings pitched. Once Papelbon was traded to the Washington Nationals, Giles also converted 15 of 17 save opportunities. He was a bright spot on an otherwise dismal Phillies team in 2015, which ironically is kind of the reason why he was traded to the Houston Astros on Wednesday night for a four-player package of intriguing prospects and major-league talent.

Make no mistake: Giles is 25 years old and still under contract for five more seasons. He doesn’t even start arbitration until 2018. By the time he’s set to hit free agency after 2021, the Phillies could be a halfway decent or, dare I say it, good team again. In fact, they probably will be. And while an elite closer like Giles is essential to any good team, his value is wasted on a team in the fairly early stages of rebuild like Philadelphia currently is. They absolutely made the right decision by trading him for a steep price to further their rebuild while his value was high. Likewise, the already-rebuilt Astros absolutely made the right decision by paying that steep price to address their biggest need.

Several months after that fantasy draft, I joined Baseball Essential and wrote, for my first opinion piece, about how the Astros needed a closer. Back then, I strongly suggested they pursue Aroldis Chapman, which, well… yeah. Chapman was traded to the Dodgers, and then he wasn’t, and then reports surfaced about a domestic violence issue that was disturbing to say the least. Houston never really seemed that interested in him, something I’m sure they consider as a blessing in hindsight. What I wrote about Houston’s need to upgrade its bullpen in November, however, still very much applies:

Look, it’s not as if the Astros were the only postseason team to be victimized by an epic Royals rally. By the time the Royals won the 2015 World Series a few weeks later, they had completed similar comebacks against the likes of David Price and Matt Harvey, not to mention their teams’ respective bullpens. Meanwhile, the dominant Royals relief corps outdid them all, led by star closer Wade Davis.

Thanks to the Royals’ example, every fan and every team saw the importance of having strong relievers in the playoffs – none more so than the Astros after their ALDS collapse. That said, building an elite bullpen is one of the hardest tasks for front offices to accomplish. All too often relievers suddenly become seriously injured or ineffective, which makes signing them to large contracts a very bad idea. Many teams choose instead to sift through promising minor league arms or failed starters not unlike miners used to sift through sand and rock to find gold nuggets. (Davis, a failed starter himself, is a perfect example of such a nugget.) There are very few sure bets when it comes to assembling a bullpen, yet it’s clearly become essential to any championship-level team. The Astros are almost at that level.

Giles, just as Chapman was thought to be, is one of those sure bets. Like many closers, his calling card is his dominant fastball, which sat at 96.5 miles per hour last year and occasionally touched triple digits. Where he separates himself from the pack, however, is with his wipeout slider. Giles held opposing batters to a .171 average on the slider in 2015, recording 58 of his 87 strikeouts with the pitch. It was particularly effective against right-handed batters, who swung and missed at 41 pitches off the lower outside portion of the strike zone according to Baseball Savant. The one-two combination, which accounted for all but 5 pitches Giles threw last year per Fangraphs.com, is his key to success – and opposing hitters can do little to stop it.

Of course, the Phillies weren’t giving up such a good, controllable reliever without a major haul in return and they got exactly that. Vincent Velasquez is the main piece going to Philadelphia, and he can best be described as a wild card with tremendous upside. He’s a power arm who still needs to demonstrate that he can stay healthy and be a consistent rotation presence – but if he can, the sky’s the limit. In just 55.2 major league innings with the Astros last year, he had a 4.37 ERA but also a 3.46 FIP and averaged an impressive 9.38 strikeouts per 9 innings. The signs of improvement are very much there; however, the Astros are very much in win-now mode after last season and already have a great one-two punch in reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, who’s basically a more proven version of Velasquez. Shipping Velazquez off to a team like the Phillies, who can afford to give Velasquez more of a chance at developing as a starter, is the best move for both the man and the team.

The other players headed to the Phillies include Brett Oberholtzer, another starter who didn’t log too many innings at the major league level with Houston last year. Unlike Velazquez, however, Olberholtzer’s ceiling is more of a back-end rotation guy. If healthy, his role with the Phillies will be soaking up a lot more of those major league innings, albeit far less meaningful ones, because somebody’s gotta do it. Derek Fisher is an outfielder in A-ball who will probably end up as an everyday major leaguer eventually and instantly becomes one of the top prospects in Philadelphia’s system. The only question is how good of one he’ll be, and that answer should come sooner rather than later now that his offense won’t be masked by the hitter-friendly Cal League. Thomas Eshelman has barely started his pro career – he was drafted by the Astros in the second round of the 2015 draft – but so far his value appears to be built on his ability to control pitches instead of his raw stuff. That bodes well for his chances of eventually pitching in the big leagues one day.

The bottom line is that this is a win-win for both clubs. The Astros are a contending team, and someone like Ken Giles is exactly what a contending team needs. The Phillies are a rebuilding team, and the four players they got for Giles are exactly what a rebuilding team needs. Sure, this trade could turn out a variety of different ways. Giles could excel, and none of Philadelphia’s new young players could pan out. Or Giles could decline/get hurt, and Fisher could become an All-Star. Or Velasquez could become the next Noah Syndergaard. We really don’t know. But right now, this trade looks great all around on paper, and that’s as good a sign as fans of these teams could hope for as we count down the long winter months until baseball season.

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