Less than 24 hours after being told he was traded to the Mets, only to have the deal fall through for still-disputed reasons, Carlos Gomez has been traded, officially this time, to the Astros. Gomez will bring starting pitcher Mike Fiers with him to Houston, with the Brewers receiving a four-prospect package built around 21-year-old centerfielder Brett Phillips and an international bonus slot worth $287,500.
As would have been the case for the Mets, a key aspect to this trade is the size of the hole Gomez will be filling in centerfield. The Astros’ primary centerfielder to this point in the season has been 24-year-old Jake Marisnick, who has started in center in 72 of the 87 games for which he has been on the active roster. Acquired from the Marlins at last year’s deadline in the deal that sent Jarred Cosart to Miami, Marisnick nailed down the centerfield job with a hot April but has hit just .180/.210/.269 since May 4, a performance so dismal no level of play in the field could compensate for it. Thus, despite the fact that Gomez has not been as productive this year as he was over the previous two seasons, he still represents a massive upgrade for the Astros given his season line of .262/.328/.423.
Still, it’s worth noting that the Astros are not getting the MVP-quality player the Brewers enjoyed for the last two years and in the second half of the 2012 season. A speed-and-defense centerfielder earlier in his career, Gomez began to change his swing in his age-26 season, adding significant power in the second half of 2012 (14 home runs after the break compared to a previous full-season high of eight). The next year, he emerged as a middle-of-the-order power threat, an All-Star and an MVP candidate. In '13 and '14 combined, he hit .284/.347/.491, making the All-Star team both seasons and averaging 24 home runs but maintaining his speed and defense as well, averaging 37 stolen bases per season and deservedly winning the Gold Glove in the former.
Gomez has not been the same player this year, stealing successfully in just seven of 13 attempts, grading out as fairly ordinary in the field, losing some power and having that drop compounded by a 20-point dip in batting average. Even before word leaked out that the Mets objected to his medicals Wednesday night, it seemed that some, if not most, of that decline could be traced to nagging injuries. Always a bit fragile (he hasn’t played 150 games in a season since 2008), Gomez missed the second half of April with a hamstring strain and nine games in June due to a hip issue (more on that in a moment) and was hit in the wrist by a pitch in early July. Gomez will arrive in Houston in the midst of a slump which has seen him go 12 starts without a multi-hit game, hitting .171/.333/.220 in his last 51 plate appearances with just two of his seven hits over that span going for extra bases (both doubles). However, even that would be an upgrade on Marisnick’s performance since May 4, and there’s reason to believe that Gomez might enjoy a surge down the stretch.
Gomez is just 29, too young to be in decline without a serious injury issue, and has the sort of eccentric personality that could find him rejuvenated by a move out of the NL Central basement and into first place in the AL West, which the Astros reclaimed with a sweep of the Angels in Houston this week. The Brewers' season has effectively been over since before Gomez returned from his April disabled list stint, with Milwaukee going 2–13 to start the season and falling 10 games out in the Central after their 18th game of the season. The Astros, meanwhile, have been one of the season’s most compelling stories, a talented young team that surged into first place by the season’s second weekend and has remained there for all but eight days since while adding talent via both its farm system (Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Vince Velasquez, Jon Singleton, Preston Tucker) and trades (with Scott Kazmir preceding Gomez and Fiers to Houston last week).
Gomez, even in a diminished state, should be a huge part of the Astros' continued improvement, though I do have to stop here for a moment to address the hip issue mentioned above. When the trade with the Mets fell through Thursday night, it was reported that it was New York that nixed the deal over concerns about the condition of Gomez’s right hip. Gomez’s agent, Scott Boras, quickly denied that Gomez had ever had a hip issue of any kind, but, as mentioned above, he did miss nine games in June due to an injury located near his right hip and even had an MRI on it on June 16. It’s difficult to parse out the truth here. Boras is clearly somewhere between overstating his case and lying. At best, he appears to be splitting the difference between the hip joint and the hip adductor muscle, the latter being the source of Gomez’s absence in June. He correctly pointed out that Gomez’s MRI came back clean, but Gomez did still miss time in June due to an injury located at least in the immediate vicinity of his right hip.
Complicating things, subsequent reports suggest that money, not medicals, was the reason the Mets killed the trade. Meanwhile, it’s telling that the Astros—who just last year lost three draft picks, including the top overall pick, after a problematic medical report prompted them to drop their bonus offer to the top pick by a mere $1.5 million—had no problem taking on the roughly $12 million Gomez is owed over the remainder of this season and next despite seeing the same medical reports the Mets saw Wednesday night. So maybe Gomez’s hip really is sound, or at least sound enough for the Astros to believe Gomez can still be a significant upgrade in center and an asset worth his $9 million salary for next year.
Of course, Gomez is only part of this deal. The Astros are also adding Fiers, a 30-year-old late-blooming righty, to their rotation in an effort not only to upgrade their current starting five but also to control the innings of rookies McCullers and Velasquez, the latter of whom was moved to the bullpen with the acquisition of Kazmir. Best known for throwing the pitch that hit Giancarlo Stanton in the face last September, Fiers, a 22nd-round pick in 2009, seemed to come out of nowhere as a 27-year-old rookie in '12 and appeared headed back to oblivion amid an awful '13, but has since stabilized as a valuable major league starter, posting a league-average ERA+ in 21 starts this season and striking out more than a batter per inning. A fly-ball pitcher whose fastball tops out in the low 90s, he’s not much more than an innings eater, but that can be valuable, and with Dallas Keuchel and Kazmir leading the rotation and McCullers continuing to impress with filthy stuff and good results, all Fiers, Collin McHugh and Scott Feldman have to do is eat innings on the back end. One of them, likely Feldman in the near term, will eventually slough off to long relief until McCullers needs another respite. Fiers also comes with four more years of team control and won’t hit arbitration until after the '16 season.
As for the prospects heading to the Brewers, the most compelling is Phillips, whom Baseball America ranked 21st on its updated list of the top 50 prospects in baseball earlier this month. A potential five-tool centerfielder, Phillips was drafted out of a Florida high school in the fifth round in 2012 and experienced a breakout in his first year of full-season ball in '14, hitting .310/.375/.529 with 17 home runs, 14 triples and 23 stolen bases between low A and high A. He was even better in a repeat of high A to start this year and has hit .321/.372/.463 since his promotion to Double A in late June, totaling 16 homers and 11 triples to go with 15 stolen bases. Phillips seems unlikely to be a serious stolen base threat in the majors, as his percentages have been low in the minors, but he’s still fast and athletic, a fine outfielder with a strong arm, and there’s obvious potential in his bat. Look for him to take over in center for the Brewers in '17.
Joining Phillips are fellow outfielder Domingo Santana and pitchers Josh Hader and Adrian Houser. Santana, a 22-year-old Dominican rightfielder, has already had a few major league looks but proved unable to stick in the Astros' lineup. A classic rightfielder with a powerful bat and a strong throwing arm, he has put up some impressive numbers in the minors, including 25 home runs in his Double A debut in 2013 and a .320/.426/.582 line in Triple A this season, but he’s a bat-first player who has struck out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances in the minors and in 31 of his 60 major league PAs. It remains to be seen if he can close the holes in his swing enough to succeed at the major league level.
Of the pitchers, the 21-year-old Hader, whom the Astros acquired from the Orioles in the 2013 deadline deal for Bud Norris, is the more compelling. A lanky lefty originally taken in the 19th round in '12, Hader was rated the Astros' No. 10 prospect prior to this season by BA (Phillips was sixth; Santana and Houser did not make the list). Hader has pitched well as a starter in Double A this season (3.17 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning), but because of his limited repertoire, low three-quarters delivery and potential to reach the mid-90s with his fastball in short stints, his future may lay in relief. As for the 22-year-old Houser, a big country righty, his stock has dropped since he was a second-round pick out of an Oklahoma high school in '11. He just missed Baseball Prospectus’s list of the Astros' top 10 prospects prior to the 2013 season, but he has failed to impress since moving to full-season ball and heads to Milwaukee sporting a 6.21 ERA and 1.53 K/BB after his first month in Double A.
For the Brewers, who are trapped behind the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs—likely for years to come—in the NL Central, landing Phillips for a year and a half of Gomez, who will turn 30 in December, is a nice get, and Santana and Hader’s upside plus the international slot are worth the relatively fungible Fiers, who turned 30 last month.
The big impact, however, will be the upgrade Gomez represents in the Astros' lineup. If there were any lingering doubts about Houston’s ability to reach the postseason this year, this trade should erase them. The Astros may have gotten to the party earlier than expected, but make no mistake, they have arrived.