The Astros have made the first big splash before the trade deadline, acquiring Houston native Scott Kazmir from the Athletics for a pair of A-ball prospects, righthander Daniel Mengden and catcher Jacob Nottingham. In doing so, they paid what seems like an affordable price for a two-month rental of a player who is a perfect fit for their needs. The A’s, meanwhile, have sent a clear signal that they will be sellers at this deadline by sending their second-best starting pitcher to a division rival for a pair of prospects in the low minors.
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At the beginning of the month, I identified the Astros’ primary need as “a mid- or even back-end starter who can slot into the fifth spot and eat the innings that young arms such as Lance McCullers and Vince Velasquez may have to yield later in the season.” In acquiring Kazmir, they’ve done better than that. Nearing the end of a two-year, $22 million contract, Kazmir has re-emerged as a front-end starter for the A’s over the last two seasons, making the All-Star team a year ago and currently boasting the fifth-best ERA (2.38) among qualified American League pitchers. In the three seasons since mounting his comeback with Cleveland in 2013, Kazmir has struck out 8.4 men per nine innings with a 3.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 1.20 WHIP and a 110 ERA+, and in his final seven starts for Oakland, he posted a 1.35 ERA with a 0.79 WHIP and 4.44 K/BB.
With fellow lefty Dallas Keuchel—who leads the AL in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP and the majors in innings pitched—well-established as Houston's ace, Kazmir can slot into the No. 2 spot in the Astros' rotation, pushing righty Collin McHugh into the mid-rotation role for which he seems best suited. What’s more, with the recent additions of Kazmir and veteran Scott Feldman, who was activated from the disabled list on Saturday after missing nearly a month after tearing the meniscus in his right knee, the Astros now have the rotation depth to allow them to finesse the workloads and exposure of rookies McCullers (2.52 ERA, 9.9 K/9 after 11 major league starts) and Velasquez (4.03 ERA, 9.0 K/9 after seven major league starts) as needed.
The timing of this move is also ideal for Houston. After finishing a series against the lowly Red Sox on Thursday, the Astros head to Kansas City to face the Royals, who have the AL’s best record, then return home to face the Angels, who lead Houston in the AL West by two games. With Kazmir having been scheduled to pitch for Oakland on Thursday, the Astros now have the option to slot him into their rotation wherever they see fit and will likely be able to have him pitch in both of those series, as a start in Kansas City on Saturday night would put him on regular rest for the final game against the Angels next Thursday. The relatively early move for a relatively small return also gives Houston time to explore additional moves between now and next Friday’s non-waiver deadline.
As for that return, Nottingham is the more compelling of the two players sent to the A’s. A 20-year-old catcher drafted out of a California high school in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, Nottingham has been raking this year in his first full-season exposure, hitting .326/.387/.543 in 59 games for Quad Cities in the Midwest League before moving up to Class A Lancaster, where he has continued to do well, putting up similar numbers over 17 games. Per a scouting report by Baseball Prospectus’s Wilson Karaman published early last week, the 6'3" Nottingham has a strong arm, but he’s a work-in-progress behind the plate in terms of his actions (pitch-blocking, footwork, hands). Still, Karaman describes him as strong and athletic, suggesting that he has the physical tools to develop into a viable major league catcher. Still, he’s likely a minimum of two years away from the majors, has not made the often tell-tale leap to Double A and was not among the Astros' top-20 prospects coming into the year.
Mengden, a Houston native like Kazmir, was selected by the Astros in the fourth round of the 2014 draft out of Texas A&M University. The mustachioed 22-year-old righty possesses a mid-90s fastball and a solid assortment of secondary pitches (curve, slider, change), the latter of which he fine-tuned in his final year of college due to a stress fracture in his lower back that sapped the velocity on his fastball. Like Nottingham, he is making his full-season debut this year, one split between the Midwest and California Leagues, but while Mengden had been excelling for Quad Cities, he has pitched in bad luck for Lancaster, with his opponents hitting .372 on balls in play in an already hitting-friendly environment. The the 6'2" Mengden has mid-rotation potential in the majors, but like Nottingham, he’s still at least two years away from the majors and was not among the Astros' top prospects coming into the season.
For a two-month rental on a 31-year-old non-ace with a sketchy long-term history, the A’s did also did reasonably well in this trade, but the bigger story is that they’re selling at all. Oakland held the worst record in the AL for most of this season, but the team moved out of last place in the West with its win over the Blue Jays on Wednesday night and now boasts a better record than the Mariners, Red Sox and White Sox. More significantly, the A's have the second-best third-order record in the AL, and since May 23, only the Angels and Yankees have had better records in the league than Oakland's 30–22 mark. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see the A’s, who are just five games behind the Twins (from whom they took two of three over the weekend) for the second AL Wild Card spot, hold the line for a few more days. Ultimately, it seems the value of their trade chips proved more enticing than the prospect of a big second-half comeback. With Kazmir already gone, look for Oakland to shop its two other major pending free agents, Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard, both of whom could be very valuable to a contender down the stretch.