Up by four runs with six outs to go on the verge of seeing the American League Championship Series for the first time in franchise history, the Houston Astros bullpen imploded. That lead and any hopes of knocking off the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals quickly evaporated. The Astros bullpen, solid as it may have been throughout the regular season, was in need of an ace. Houston got one on Thursday in Ken Giles. Giles is a flame-throwing righty who has struck out a third of the batters he has faced in his brief two years in the majors. He enters his Age 25 season in 2016 with five years of team control still left – two years of league minimum and three years of arbitration. In 115.2 major league innings, the former 2011 seventh-round pick has been nothing short of incredible.
— Ace of MLB Stats (@theaceofspaeder) December 10, 2015
It seems like Philadelphia had its eyes on Velasquez from the get-go. A second-round pick by the Astros in 2010, Velazquez has flashed flame-throwing brilliance of his own in five injury-riddled minor league seasons. After missing all of 2011 with Tommy John surgery, Velasquez seemed to finally have his full strength back at Double-A Corpus Christi, posting a 1.91 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 33 innings before earning a ticket to the big leagues.
For all the hype that Lance McCullers deservedly earned this season, Velazquez was just as dominant for the Hooks. McCullers put together a much better campaign for Houston, but make no mistake – Velazquez was praised with the same superlatives by scouts all year long in Corpus Christi. This is a big loss for the Astros and a huge gain for a Phillies team that is starved for young stars.
Acquired by the Astros in the 2011 Michael Bourn trade, Oberholtzer has been exactly league average in parts of three big league seasons, with a 100 ERA+ in 253.2 innings pitched. The southpaw was shuttled back and forth between Triple-A Fresno and Houston in 2015. With the emergence of McCullers and the proof that 2014 wasn’t a fluke for Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, Oberholtzer was, at best, seventh or eighth in line for a starting job out of spring training. The Phillies, meanwhile, had one of the worst starting rotations in major league history in 2015. Just one (one!) pitcher threw more than 130 innings for Philadelphia. Oberholtzer should give the Phillies 150 decent innings without breaking a sweat in 2016, which is already a massive upgrade.
When Bud Norris, the Astros de facto ace, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles at the 2013 deadline, Houston got the Orioles’ 2014 competitive balance pick among other players. When the 37th pick rolled around, the Astros selected Virginia outfielder Fisher. Never regarded as a toolsy player, Fisher has split time between right and center, posting a .283/.369/.486 slash line in two minor league seasons. Scouts tend to agree that the 22-year-old will most likely have to settle in left field as neither his speed nor his arm carry in center and right. He has shown flashes of power, but 16 of his 22 minor league home runs have come in the hitter-friendly California League. Fisher is still a few years away from contributing at the major league level, but for a Philadelphia team that played Jeff Francoeur 119 games in 2015, that’s fine.
Armed with command that might make Greg Maddux jealous, Eshelman walked 18 batters while striking out 321 in 52 games for Cal State Fullerton. His school-record 1.65 career ERA was enough to make the Astros want him with their second-round selection in the 2015 draft. Already the fourth player traded less than a year after he was drafted thanks to the so-called “Trea Turner Rule,” Eshelman threw all of 10.1 innings for an Astros affiliate before being dealt.
With his pinpoint command and the lack of arm strength to really develop any other plus pitches, many scouts have said the Eshelman is as ready for the major leagues as he’ll ever be. Though he has thrown in just four games between Rookie Ball and Low-A, don’t be shocked to see Eshelman and his throwback mustache in a Phillies uniform in 2016.
Great closers don’t come cheap; just ask the Boston Red Sox, who traded two top-100 prospects plus two lottery tickets for three seasons of Craig Kimbrel earlier this offseason. Jeff Luhnow and Co. gave up a fortune to get their man, but this is a great trade for the Astros, not because they didn’t lose a substantial amount of talent (they did) but because they exclusively parted with players who do not alter the franchise’s competitive window.
Luhnow knows all about prospect “waves.” He knows that to field a truly competitive team you need more than just individual talent, you need a roster full of talent. Houston has built a roster that is loaded with talent that can help the Astros win in the next five years. On their current 40-man roster, just five players are age 30 or older.
Take a look at this roster and tell me Luhnow doesn’t know how to make a wave of prospects appear out of thin air:
[table caption=”Astros Youth”]
Player,Current Age,Team Control Left,2015 WAR
Jose Altuve,25,3 years,4.5
Carlos Correa,21,7 years,4.1
George Springer,26,6 years,3.8
Carlos Gomez,29,2 years,2.3
Preston Tucker,25,7 years,0.3 in 98 games
Collin McHugh,28,5 years,3.1
Dallas Keuchel,27,4 years,7.2
Lance McCullers,22,7 years,2.4
Mike Fiers,30,5 years,2.1
Jason Castro,28,2 years,1.3
Evan Gattis,29,3 years,0.5 (-1.8 dWAR)
Jake Marisnick,24,5 years,2.2
Marwin Gonzalez,26,3 years,1.8
Ken Giles,25,5 years,1.9 (221 ERA+)
That’s not a wave of prospects – that’s a tsunami. And that chart doesn’t even take into account the players who are on the precipice of contributing to the big league club. Tony Kemp, Michael Feliz, Jon Singleton, Tyler White, Max Stassi, Tyler Heineman, Jon Kemmer, A.J. Reed, Mark Appel, Travis Ballew, Juan Minaya, Jandel Gustave, Chris Devenski, Kent Emanuel, Riley Ferrell, Alex Bregman and Joseph Musgrove could all play roles for the Astros in the next two seasons.
The Astros aren’t just planning on making a World Series run in 2016; they’re prepping for World Series runs for the next five years with this “wave.” That’s why Luhnow made this trade. Yes, they lost talent, but other than Velazquez, none of the players in the Giles deal had any chance of making an impact during this five-year run.
But here’s the crazy thing: once these five years are up and this wave starts to die down, Luhnow already has another wave waiting in the wings. Daz Cameron (18), Kyle Tucker (18) and Francis Martes (19) already have the makings of another wave of prospects. Luhnow has another three or so years to reload and prepare his system for the next wave.
The Astros don’t have the makings of a “win now” team. This is a “win now and keep winning” team. The first wave is just about to peak. Surf’s up.