Houston Heats Up: Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers Make the AL West–Leading Astros Even BetterThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Just short of 24 hours after he was told he’d be heading to Queens and joining the New York Mets, Carlos Gomez found out he’d be on his way to Houston — for real, this time. Along with Gomez, the Brewers traded starter Mike Fiers and an international signing slot to the Astros in exchange for a four-prospect package of outfielders Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana, left-hander Josh Hader, and right-hander Adrian Houser.
For Houston, the logic is pretty simple: Gomez and Fiers upgrade two positions of weakness.
In 2015, Astros center fielders rank 19th in the majors in Weighted On-Base Average, and Jake Marisnick, whom Gomez will be replacing, is hitting just .235/.272/.370. Meanwhile, Gomez was the best center fielder on the market by a wide margin. Granted, the 29-year-old has seen his power numbers tumble this year, as he’s batting .262/.328/.423 and sporting a wRC+ only 7 percent better than league average. But his strikeout, walk, and line-drive rates are nearly identical compared to his big 2013 and 2014 campaigns, and much of Gomez’s statistical regression has come from an increase in doubles and a decrease in homers. He’s nowhere near the defensive monster that advanced metrics claimed him to be two years ago, either, but Gomez remains a slightly better-than-average gloveman, too.
It’s possible that Gomez’s decline phase has begun, but even if it has, he’s still a quality player at a tough-to-fill position. Landing someone who’s better than average offensively, defensively, and on the basepaths — in addition to being owed less than $12 million through the end of next season — is a major coup for the center-field slot. It’ll be doubly so if Gomez can rediscover some of the form that made him a six- to seven-win player in 2013 and 2014. If the hip problems the Mets claimed were severe enough to scuttle their deal flare up in Houston, this trade could become a bust, but neither the Brewers, Gomez, nor Gomez’s agent, Scott Boras, saw anything wrong with the center fielder’s health, and multiple signs point to money being what really derailed the Mets deal, not any problem with his hip. Go-Go’s an Astro.
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While center field was a clear problem with Gomez an obvious fix, Fiers functions as an incremental improvement to a subtle concern. Yes, even with a group of starters that’s top 10 in FanGraphs WAR and just added Scott Kazmir, there are still questions about Houston’s rotation.1 Scott Feldman spent nearly two months on the disabled list, owns below-average ERA and FIP numbers, and misses bats more infrequently than nearly any other starter in the majors. Lance McCullers has been a revelation and is a worthy Rookie of the Year candidate, but the Astros have said they’ll consider limiting his innings as the season continues. Plus, starting pitching depth always comes in handy come October, and based on this trade and the Kazmir deal, Houston is trying to win it all this season.
Fiers isn’t just another arm, either. Despite averaging just 90 mph on his fastball, the 30-year-old2 righty strikes out a batter an inning. He has looked especially strong over his past seven starts, flashing a 2.86 ERA and limiting opposing hitters to a meek .195/.272/.325 line over 44 innings. Fiers also goes from pitching in front of the Brewers defense — which ranks 13th in the National League with minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved3 — to the AL-best Astros defense, which sits at plus-50. That could help remedy the 92-point jump in batting average on balls in play that helped inflate his ERA from 2.13 last year to 3.89 this season.
The acquisitions of Kazmir, Fiers, and Gomez might not match Toronto’s flashy haul of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, but by addressing two needs, they’ve augmented a talented and deep core. Toppling the Angels in the AL West won’t be easy, but after this week’s home sweep of Mike Trout & Co., FanGraphs now has Houston as a sizable favorite to take the division.
Just as the Rangers leveraged a deep farm system to land Cole Hamels, the Astros gave up multiple quality prospects to get Gomez and Fiers. Phillips is a 21-year-old outfielder who has blossomed from a sixth-round draft pick into a polished hitter, winning Astros minor league player of the year honors in 2014, then compiling a .320/.377/.548 line across two levels this year.4 He’s now the no. 2 prospect in the Brewers system, according to MLB.com. Santana is a 22-year-old outfielder and is now Milwaukee’s no. 4 prospect. He has put up even gaudier numbers at Triple-A Fresno this year — hitting .320/.426/.582 — than Phillips has at lower levels. Hader was named Houston’s 2014 minor league pitcher of the year, but he isn’t considered in the class of Phillips and Santana as prospects go, now at no. 14 for the Brewers. Still, the lanky 21-year-old has looked good at Double-A Corpus Christi this year, fanning 69 batters in 65.1 innings in a swingman role. As for the 22-year-old Houser, he’s the lowest-ranked prospect of the four (no. 27 in the system) and has struggled with command problems en route to posting a 5.10 ERA pitching at Lancaster and Corpus Christi.
Although the Brewers can’t claim any elite prospects in the trade, their ability to land two quality young hitters is impressive in its rarity. The pitching-stocked returns for Price and Johnny Cueto represent a far more common occurrence in the current offense-challenged environment. We might still see GM Doug Melvin cash in Adam Lind and one or two others between now and the August 31 waiver deadline, a necessary approach given how far the Brewers need to go to grow into a legitimate challenger against the stacked Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs organizations. They’ve got a ways to go, but remember: Not too long ago, we were saying the same thing about Houston.