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If Houston Trades Oswalt

May 15, 2010

The rumor mills have started already with regards to the Houston Astros and their trio of aging and highly paid stars (ok, I use that term liberally considering at least one of the three really can’t be considered a star anymore). Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee are all players the organization would ideally want to trade in the event that ownership decides it is time to blow up the team and begin the full blown rebuilding efforts that are highly needed at this point. Of course, if you look at the track record of the team’s majority owner, Drayton McLane, such a scenario is unlikely to happen. But, it’s worthwhile to speculate anyways.

There are, of course, hurdles that will have to be overcome in the event that any of these players are to be moved. For starters, each has a good deal of money remaining on their respective contracts. Oswalt is owed $16 Million next season with a club option for the same in 2012 (with a $2 Million buyout), plus the remainder of the $15 Million he’s being paid this season. Berkman has a club option for $15 Million ($2 Million buyout) for next year on top of the remainder of his $14.5 Million salary this season. Lee has $37 Million owed over the next two seasons on top of the remainder of his $18.5 Million salary this season. From solely a fiscal standpoint that is a lot of money for any team to take on in a trade for any of the three players and likely more than the Astros would be prepared to swallow just to move one of them for some useful pieces. In addition to the financial hurdle, each of the three players have no-trade clauses built into their current contracts. So, in the event that a trade could be worked out with another organization, the players ultimately would have the power to veto such a deal if the destination was somewhere they didn’t want to go. Trading any of them will not come easy for the Astros but it’s safe to say that Oswalt is the one that’ll command the most interest. So, for the purposes of this argument, I am just going to focus on him here.

One thing seems pretty certain when it comes down to the type of package that the Astros should seek if they do decide to move Oswalt – the team will ideally receive a couple of solid pieces in return for their longtime ace and face of the franchise. Houston could ideally use serviceable players at every position other than center field and right field. Center fielder Michael Bourn and right fielder Hunter Pence are probably the only two players on the team’s current roster that aren’t in jeopardy of losing their jobs. But that still leaves six other positions with room for improvement, not to mention a pitching staff that could use an upgrade or several. For example, the organization needs a future first baseman in the likelihood that Berkman will not be in Houston following this season (even if he isn’t traded I presume the Astros will not exercise his option).

If you take a look through the organization’s minor league rankings there are no obvious choices to eventually take over at first. At AAA Round Rock manning first is Chris Shelton. Shelton had some brief success with Detroit in 2005 and 2006 during which time he averaged 17 HR, 53 RBI, a .286 BA, and a 119 OPS+ in just under 400 at-bats per season. Shelton’s initial claim to fame came when he mashed 10 HR in April 2006. Yet despite a few signs of promise he was traded to Texas after the season only to spend all of 2007 in the minor leagues. He’d spend part of 2008 in Arlington and part of 2009 in Seattle only to find himself without a job once again. The Astros signed him as a minor league free agent this past December. All in all Shelton has had opportunities to prove himself at the Major League level (930 at-bats total) and has shown little to suggest he can develop into a regular first baseman.

Beyond Shelton, the only other notable player within the organization who is currently manning first base would be Koby Clemens (yes, Roger’s son) who is currently working at AA Corpus Christi. Clemens, drafted in the 8th round of the 2005 draft, has toiled away in the minor leagues for the past six seasons and has only reached AA this season (not counting a brief 5 game cameo at the end of the 2009 season). One of the problems with Clemens is that he’s bounced around the field a bit, spending time at third base, catcher, left field, and only now first base. He too, like Shelton, isn’t exactly an answer for the team’s future need at the position.

With no viable depth coming, it has to be a position the organization targets in the event that one of their stars are dealt within the next few months. Which brings me to one location that would seem ideal as a trade partner – the Texas Rangers. Of course, there’s another major roadblock to such a trade actually happening but I’ll get into that shortly.

To begin, if we continue with the thought process of fixing the Astros long term first base problem the Rangers have two players who could conceivably be available via trade – hyped prospect Justin Smoak and the player he pushed back to AAA, Chris Davis. Both players have similarities to their abilities in that they are solid defenders (although not potential Gold Glove winners), can hit for power, and have shown poor plate discipline in their young careers. Smoak has only been in Texas for a few short weeks and really hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove himself yet. He’s batting a mere .197 through his first 20 games (79 at-bats) but has already hit 4 HR. Davis, meanwhile, has struggled to a .253 BA in just under 800 at-bats over the past three seasons. Davis has been a bit Adam Dunn like in that time as he either hits the ball to (or over) the fence or strikes out. Either player could benefit from a move to Minute Maid Park which has been notoriously homer-friendly. In an atmosphere like Houston, either could potentially thrive.

One other area where the Rangers currently have an excess that could be used to acquire Oswalt is behind the plate. Sure, the catching situation in Texas right now appears a little unsettled considering the two players who began this season on the active roster are currently in AAA but there are multiple options to consider right now within the organization. Opening Day starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia is crushing AAA pitchers while trying to work out a mental problem that prevents him from being able to throw the ball back to the pitcher accurately. Taylor Teagarden has struggled at the plate but has never really been given consistent at-bats to harness his potential. Max Ramirez has battled injury concerns but seems to finally be putting things together. And Matt Treanor finally seems to be putting some things together after spending the early part of his career moving from one organization to another.

Some within the Astros organization think that Jason Castro will ultimately end up as their answer behind the plate but there were also some that felt that way about J.R. Towles. Castro just reached AAA at the start of this season and is off to a slow start at the plate (.255 BA through 113 at-bats) while Towles has been so inconsistent he was sent back to AA earlier this season when he couldn’t produce in Houston.

Ultimately a package built around Davis, Ramirez, and one of the Rangers’ young pitchers could be an attractive package to the Astros. This would give the team three players to start the rebuilding process while satisfying some of the team’s more pressing needs. Plus it would allow Oswalt to remain in Texas and play for a contender – two factors that would likely lead him to waive his no-trade clause.

However, there is a major roadblock preventing such a move from being discussed (as I briefly alluded to earlier). The Rangers current
ownership situation is completely handcuffing the organization from making any significant moves. Current ownership is being forced to sell the franchise and stadium after defaulting on $545 Million worth of loans this past season and after extensive negotiations they finally came to an agreement to sell the team to a group led by a Pittsburgh lawyer and current Team President Nolan Ryan. Yet, the creditors aren’t happy with the agreement, arguing that it ultimately isn’t a high enough offer, and the whole process has seemingly come to an alarming hault. Major League Baseball will likely have to step in to facilitate the transfer of ownership. Either way, until this mess is resolved the Rangers will not have the ability to take on a contract such as Oswalt’s (even partially) and the situation could prevent them from making a move that’ll put them over the top this season.

Ultimately the Astros will have to at least start to listen to offers for Oswalt as the next few weeks and months go by. A pitcher of his caliber will likely entice every team but not all will have the resources (or have a strong enough chance to win to entice Oswalt) to make a deal happen. It will be an interesting few months leading up to the July Trade Deadline.

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