The Astros, who have reportedly been pursuing a trade for an elite closer since July, finally got their man on Saturday, sending five young pitchers including Vince Velasquez and Mark Appel to the Phillies for 25-year-old righty Ken Giles and a minor league infielder. Giles didn’t take over the closer role in Philadelphia until late July of this past season, but he converted 15 of 17 saves from that point forward and has posted a 1.56 ERA with 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings in his two-year major league career. He also has five years of team control remaining and won’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2017 season, making him a much better fit for the young, mid-market Astros than the kind of high-priced veterans they had previously discussed.
Consider for a moment the alternatives. Among the closers the Astros had inquired about were Aroldis Chapman, who, legal issues aside, is due to become a free agent after the 2016 season; Craig Kimbrel, who is owed $24 million for the next two years with a $13 million option for '18; and Andrew Miller, owed $27 million for the next three years. Giles will cost less over the next three years than any of those three will in 2016 alone and will be under Houston's control two years longer than any of those three. Now consider how he stacks up against them in terms of performance over the last two seasons:
Giles held his own against that group of the game’s best closers over the last two years despite being more than two years younger than any of them and in his first two major league seasons. Given that track record, his arsenal (including triple-digit heat and a wipeout slider), his ability to suppress home runs (he has allowed just three in those 115 2/3 innings) and the improvement in his control at the major league level (he was wild in the minors, walking 5.4 per nine innings), I have no doubt about Giles’s ability to be one of the game’s elite closers in Houston.
So what did the Astros give up to get him? The big pieces are the right-handers Appel, who was the top overall pick in the 2013 draft, and Velasquez, both of whom were top-100 prospects prior to the 2015 season. Velasquez made his major league debut just after his 23rd birthday in June, but was jerked around by the Astros this past season: Called up in early June directly from Double A, where he had made all of six starts in his career, he was moved to the bullpen in late July despite a respectable showing in seven major league starts (4.03 ERA with a strikeout per inning and three of his last four starts being quality). He pitched exclusively in relief over the remainder of the season, even during a brief return to Double A in August, but he never had a defined role in the bullpen and, perhaps in part because of his occasional use as a long man, didn’t experience the velocity jump typical of a hard-throwing starter working shorter relief outings. All of that made 2015 something of a lost year for Velasquez, who nonetheless has mid-rotation potential and should get a chance to re-establish himself as a starting prospect with the Phillies.
Appel, who turned 24 in July, has thus far failed to live up to the hype that accompanies his draft position. Selected eighth overall by the Pirates in 2012, Appel refused to sign and returned to Stanford for his senior year after which the Astros made him the top overall pick in 2013. As one might expect, Appel has all the tools to be a front-line starter, he’s a solid 6’5” with good mechanics, a mid-90s fastball and an impressive collection of secondary pitches (slider, change, two-seamer), but the results have not been there thus far in parts of three minor league seasons. Appel has a 5.12 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 2.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a professional, and wasn’t much better than that in a 2015 season split between Double and Triple A (4.37 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 2.16 K/BB).
There’s certainly still potential there, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus still had him listed among the top 40 prospects in baseball on their mid-season top 50 lists, but he no longer looks like a future ace. Now in win-now mode, the Astros have clearly lost interest in trying to fix Appel, who proved to be a divisive presence in 2014 when he was viewed as receiving special treatment based solely on his draft position.
As for the other pitchers heading to the Phillies, if Velasquez wasn’t going to get a shot at cracking an Astros rotation that currently consists of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman (with prospects Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz waiting in the high minors), Brett Oberholtzer had no hope at all. A soft-tossing–26-year-old lefty with a reverse split, Oberholtzer is back-end-rotation filler even for the Phillies, though he does have with five years of team control remaining, two of them coming prior to arbitration.
Soft-tossing righty Thomas Eshelman, was facing a similarly difficult climb to the majors. The Astros’ second-round pick last June, the Cal State–Fullerton product has thrown just 10 1/3 innings as a professional and will turn 22 in June. Renowned for his pinpoint control, Eshelman appears to be a typical college pitcher: very refined in approach but lacking major league stuff. That’s a back-end rotation projection, useful for a rebuilding team like the Phillies but plenty expendable for a win-now team like Houston with other, better pitching prospects in the pipeline.
The last man in the deal is Panamanian righty Harold Arauz, who will turn 21 in late May, has yet to pitch in full-season ball, and is coming off a short-season campaign sullied by a .404 opponents batting average on balls in play. Coincidentally, the minor league infielder accompanying Giles to the Astros organization is 17-year-old Panamanian Jonathan Arauz, no relation to Harold. Jonathan hit .254/.309/.370 as a 16-year-old in rookie ball this past season while splitting his time between second base and shortstop.
In addition to trading for Giles, the Astros also bolstered their bullpen by re-signing 32-year-old lefty Tony Sipp on Thursday morning, coming to terms on a three-year, $18 million contract. After bouncing around the league a bit, Sipp came into his own with Houston over the last two seasons and was arguably the best lefthanded reliever on the free-agent market. Over the last two years, he posted a 2.66 ERA (149 ERA+, 2.93 FIP) in 116 games with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings and a solid 3.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Better yet, he was as effective against righties and lefties over those two seasons: He held lefties to a .184/.259/.292 line and righties to a .184/.240/.337 line and struck out righties at a significantly higher rate (37.5% vs. 22.8% against lefties). Sipp was also Houston’s most effective reliever in the 2015 postseason, leading the Astros with 5 1/3 innings pitched over six appearances and allowing just one hit and one unearned run.
With Giles closing, Luke Gregerson moving back into the setup role in which he excelled for the Padres and Athletics and Sipp back in place as the primary lefty, the Astros’ bullpen should once again be a strength as Houston looks to return to the playoffs in 2016.