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Houston Astros: Should Luhnow Explore Trading Jose Altuve?

mmitchell
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He led the American League in hits and stolen bases in each of the past two seasons. Earlier this month, he was honored with his first Gold Glove. His diminutive stature and aggressive style of play make him a guaranteed fan favorite. He’s under team control for four more seasons for a total of only $20.5M, roughly what he would command for one year on the open market. At 25 years old, he is just entering his prime years. And his strikeout-averse style serves to balance a whiff-happy Houston Astros lineup.

With all this in mind, one of the best ways to maximize the Astros roster for a World Series run in 2016 and a longer-term window of contention is to explore trading Jose Altuve.

In his recently concluded age-25 season, Altuve posted 4.3 Wins Above Replacement (according to FanGraphs), good for 15th among American League position players and 22nd among all American Leaguers. He unquestionably has strong value to the club. However, there is some reason to believe the Astros would be selling high.

The first argument comes on defense. From 2011-2014, Altuve was a truly horrendous fielder by most advanced measures, with a UZR of minus-28.4, making his 28 runs worse than the average second baseman. In 2015, he spiked to a plus-3.2 UZR, slightly above average. While he did not deserve his Gold Glove, he dramatically increased his range, at least statistically.

From what we know of player aging, defensive value peaks even earlier than hitting. It is hard to believe Altuve went from being a poor fielder to a pretty decent one due to a sudden surge in agility and arm strength. It seems more likely that the Astros positioned him well enough to increase his activity, and that boost would benefit any second baseman in the scheme. That said, the perception that Altuve is now an above-average second baseman is out there. Even if other executives rightly dismiss the Gold Glove distinction, gone are the days when Altuve was considered a liability in the field. He’s at a sell-high moment in the field.

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There are also some underlying concerns in Altuve’s offensive profile: his increased focus on home runs was coupled with a line drive rate of 18.1%, easily a career low. His 25 unintentional walks were also a new low, as Altuve swung at 71.9% of pitches inside the strike zone and 36.7% of those outside the zone, which led to an overall swing percentage of 53.0%, ninth in the American League. Unlike many hitters, Altuve is becoming even less selective as he ages, and doing so in a lineup that could use an infusion of on-base percentage.

Worse, Altuve was thrown out on the bases (not counting caught stealings) an unbelievable 27 times in 2015, with 19 outs attempting to advance on a batted ball, and eight pickoffs. That’s just over once per week for an entire season. Throw in his 13 CS, and exactly 40 of his 242 times on base ended with him eventually giving a free out to the defense. One out of every six!

Altuve, who also led the league in TOOTBLANs (Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop) in 2013, has a documented pattern of getting in trouble after he reaches. Due to his notorious baserunning adventures, I have jokingly referred to Altuve as a pioneer for those with Attention Deficit Disorder – a category I belong to – though obviously I am merely speculating. Those outs count, though, and must be factored into his already-mediocre on-base percentage, especially for a hitter whose place in the batting order tasks him with scoring runs more than driving others in.

Moving forward, these minor warning signs – fluky good defensive season, reckless on the bases, too many fly balls – are not a value-crushing set of flaws. Altuve still has a very high contact rate, the added power has been beneficial in canceling out some of the lost line drives, and he has not shown any sign of losing bat speed.

But when we’re talking trade value, that’s the point. The flaws can’t be glaring. Other teams are smart. Nobody is paying a premium via trade for a player who is clearly in decline. It wasn’t long ago – 2013, to be exact – when Altuve’s baserunning, defense and lack of patience conspired to make him pretty much useless in terms of value. The past two years have shown the peak of his powers in overcoming those flaws.

Most importantly, though, the Astros have holes to fill, a depleted farm system to nourish, and a surplus on the Major League roster at certain positions. Middle infielder Alex Bregman, the #2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, is likely to open the season in Double-A and is projected to arrive by early in the 2017 season.

In a world without Altuve, the Astros could adequately cover with Marwin Gonzalez and/or Tony Kemp at second base for this season, and Bregman going forward. This might represent a two-win hit in 2016, off-set by the gains from the Altuve package. Long-term, Bregman’s arm does not project to work at third base – neither does Altuve’s – so the logjam is inevitable by 2017.

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Meanwhile, the Astros have needs. Most notably, it appears that General Manager Jeff Luhnow intends to acquire an elite closer via trade shortly. Much of the discussion has centered around which prospects Luhnow will ultimately surrender. The Craig Kimbrel-to-Boston trade provided San Diego with a bounty of top prospects, a precedent that sets the bar uncomfortably high for Houston in a similar move. And this is a system that has already parted with Brett Phillips, Jacob Nottingham, Domingo Santana, Josh Hader and Adrian Houser in the past few months to maximize a short-term window of contention.

Because of Altuve’s contract and the needs of their potential trade partners, interest would be high. The Yankees, dangling Andrew Miller, are an obvious fit. The Rays, who have Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger on the block, would be able to fit Altuve’s cost-controlled deal ($3.5M in 2016) into their thin budget.

And keep in mind that Altuve would be the most valuable asset in those trades. In a deal shipping him out, the Astros could theoretically gain an extra asset or two along with a back-end reliever: either a coveted prospect at a long-term need position — catcher? center field? – or additional quality depth for the Major League roster.

Since the Nottingham-for-Kazmir swap, I have had an uneasy feeling about Luhnow’s transition from the rebuilding phase to contention. Specifically, Luhnow seems to be impatiently shrinking the Astros window by parting with too many key prospects, and not allowing the team’s return to respectability to flourish organically over a longer period.

Next: Houston Astros: A look at a deadline deal gone bad, Scott Feldman

If Luhnow would like to break free from the false paradigm of the contention cycle, parting with Altuve for a return that addresses both short-term and long-term needs would be the type of efficient, ahead-of-the-curve masterstroke that rebuilt the Astros in the first place.

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