One of the trades that steered the Astros towards winning the World Series in 2017.
On July 31, 2014, the Astros dealt pitcher Jarred Cosart (along with utility infielder Enrique Hernandez and outfield prospect Austin Wates) to the Miami Marlins. In return, the Astros got outfielder Jake Marisnick, minor league third baseman Colin Moran, a low-level pitching prospect named Francis Martes, and a competitive balance pick in the 2015 draft. The Astros would use the pick, the 37th overall selection, on Daz Cameron. He was a speedy high school outfielder and son of former Major Leaguer, Mike Cameron.
It is not the best trade in franchise history* but in terms of significance, it is arguably the most important. Not only would Marisnick, Moran, Martes, and Cameron become – either directly or indirectly – driving forces behind the franchise’s first World Series championship. They’d also be significant pieces of the upcoming defense of that championship.
(*That honor almost certainly still belongs to then-General Manager Bill Wood’s fleecing of the Boston Red Sox, who, in 1990, swapped an eventual Hall of Famer named Jeff Bagwell-something or another, for 22 innings of (admittedly very good) middle relief from Larry Andersen.)
At the time, the deal was rather unremarkable.
But in 2014, everything about the Astros was rather unremarkable. The lineup featured Mark Krauss, Matt Dominguez, and L.J. Hoes. Their starting pitcher on the day of the trade was Jake Buchanan. Collectively, those four would total -1.0 bWAR for their careers. The team would eventually lose 92 games that season. Here’s the crazy thing: it was seen as genuine progress because it snapped a three-year run in which they managed to lose 324 games.
That hapless stretch began in 2011 when, after a long and successful run, the Astros found themselves at what they hoped was rock bottom. Franchise icons Bagwell and Craig Biggio were long-retired. Aging superstars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt had been dealt the previous season.
The Astros were in the process of losing a club-record 106 games in 2011.
That sobering reality was throwing a bucket of cold water on the Astros’ rebuilding plans, which they had hoped would center on a promising young outfielder named Hunter Pence. In his first four seasons, Pence had totaled a respectably good 13 bWAR after mounting a near-Rookie of the Year campaign and making two All-Star teams. But years of neglecting their farm system in an urgent effort to build around the Bagwell and Biggio foundation had left the Astros’ cupboard bare.
It was Pence and… no one else. Desperate to breathe life into their lifeless farm system, then-general manager Ed Wade played the only legitimate chip he had left. At the 2011 trade deadline, he traded the 28-year old Pence to Philadelphia for four minor leaguers, including one of the Phillies’ top prospects, a right-handed power pitcher named Jarred Cosart.
Cosart would immediately jump to the top of the Astros’ prospect list.
A new building block for the next generation of Astros. Combining a plus fastball that topped out at 97 MPH with a wicked curve, Cosart had the requisite pitches that would cause scouts to drool. He would make his Major League debut on July 12, 2013, and pitch eight shutouts innings, allowing just two hits. His next outing lasted seven innings; he gave up a single earned run and struck out four.
Altogether, in his first six big league starts, Cosart allowed five earned runs. He would finish the year with a 1.95 ERA, which on the surface looked very impressive but masked concerning peripherals: he was walking too many batters (35 in 60 innings) and not striking out enough of them (33).
The ups and downs of Cosart.
Cosart made the team out of spring training in 2014 but continued to walk batters. Making matters worse, he was now giving up lots of hits, too; 119 in 116 innings. Nearly 35% of the batters he faced were getting on base, ballooning Cosart’s WHIP to an ugly 1.46. It’s not uncommon for power pitchers to struggle with their control (Nolan Ryan, perhaps the greatest power pitcher in baseball history, famously walked 4.7 batters per nine innings), the neutralizer is often the strikeout. Swings and misses make it difficult for runners on base to score. But Cosart wasn’t striking batters out either, totaling just 75 (5.8 K/9). The runners he was putting on were most definitely scoring – his ERA was a swollen 4.41.
By this point, general manager Jeff Luhnow and his cavalcade of stat nerds and mathematicians (bless them, everyone) had taken over the Astros’ front office. They could clearly see the blinking, neon-glow-colored writing on the wall. Cosart wasn’t a building block. If they were lucky, he was a middling back of the rotation starter who created messes and lacked the requisite skills to clean them up. Before the word could spread and damage Cosart’s trade value, the Astros started fielding calls.
We have a match.
On July 31, 2014, the Astros ended the Cosart era, sending their former top overall prospect – the cornerstone of their future – to Florida.
In those days, the Astros were, well… not terribly concerned with winning. Having inherited a minor league system almost entirely bereft of talent, Luhnow’s initial plan was to flood the Astros’ system with as many prospects as he could get his hands on. They came in droves; players like Marwin Gonzalez, Evan Gattis, Marisnick, Moran, and Martes. They were soon joined by high drafts picks Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Jr., and Alex Bregman.
Over a three-year period, the Astros had transformed their system from a laughing stock into one of baseball’s best. By 2015, years ahead of schedule, the Astros were a playoff team. Two years later, they were a juggernaut.
The Astros were riding the contributions of players like Marisnick who, before being injured and lost for the year, was having his best offensive season (122 OPS+) in 2017. Also, the young Martes, by now the team’s top pitching prospect, who made the jump to the Majors at 21 and struck out 69 batters in 54.1 inconsistent but promising innings.
But after a sluggish August in which the team went 11-17 and saw their lead in the race for the league’s best record slip from 11.5 to just three games, the Astros needed reinforcements. It was time to cash-in on the now-bountiful system by adding additional weapons to its arsenal.
The Astros would do so on the back of the Cosart deal.
On August 31, the Astros packaged three players, including Cameron – who after a sluggish start to his professional career, posted a .351 on-base percentage and stole 32 bases in A-ball in 2017 – to land Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers.
A former Cy Young and MVP winner, Verlander would post a 1.06 ERA in five regular-season starts with Houston before pitching 16 innings in the ALCS, allowing just one earned run and striking out 21 en route to earning MVP honors. Altogether, Verlander would pitch 36.2 postseason innings, allowing just nine earned runs, striking out 38 and posting a 4-1 record during the Astros’ championship run.
Not content to win just the one championship, the Astros have aggressively improved their team this offseason, culminating recently with the acquisition of Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates, a 27-year old starting pitcher with Cy Young potential.
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Once again, the Astros were able to dip into assets acquired in the Cosart deal to land Cole, building a package around Moran, a former top six draft pick. After briefing flashing in a Major League stint last year (.818 OPS), Moran finally put things together in the minors, posting a .916 OPS with 18 home runs in 338 plate appearances for triple-A Fresno, reigniting the excitement around his once-promising prospects.
The Cosart trade keeps giving.
Cole, meanwhile, joins a pitching staff that will feature a full-year of Verlander as well as Martes, who, a year older, has a chance to harness his enormous potential and fills the valuable middle relief role vacated by Joe Musgrove (who was also part of the Cole deal).
Altogether, on an otherwise unassuming warm night in late July that would, like so many other summer nights in those days, end with an Astros’ loss, the team won a trade that planted the seeds for its first championship as well as the optimism behind the viability of the team repeating.
What do you think has been the most important acquisition in the Luhnow era? Let me know on Twitter.
***Stats from Baseball-Reference***