As the 2011 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, we look back to last year when the Houston Astros dealt away two of the biggest names in franchise history. Ace Roy Oswalt and slugger Lance Berkman were sent to contenders for packages mixed with major and minor leaguers. Oswalt had an immediate impact with the Phillies, who went to the NLCS where they lost to the Giants. Berkman was less-than-effective with the Yankees as they went to the ALCS and fell to the Rangers.
Given that the Astros received youth in return, as expected, it’s much too early to give a final grade. But here is a breakdown, one year later, of the players involved as the Astros became sellers and traded experience for mostly unproven talent.
OSWALT TO PHILLIES
On July 31, 2010 the Astros, under first-year manager Brad Mills, were 44-59 and had just traded Berkman to the Yankees. Oswalt had been dealt to Philadelphia two days earlier for P J.A. Happ and a pair of minor leaguers, OF Anthony Gose and SS Jonathan Villar. Many expected the worst as the Astros appeared to wave the white flag, but one good month later they sat at 61-71. The club played .500 the rest of the way to finish at 76-86.
Oswalt made a big splash in Philly, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA along with 21 BB, 73K and a 0.90 WHIP while opponents batted .186 against him. He had a rough start against the Reds in the NLDS but the Philadelphia bullpen along with the high-powered offense bailed him out and the Phillies went on to win in a sweep.
In the NLCS, Oswalt went 1-1, with two strong starts and a ninth-inning relief appearance that resulted in a Game 4 loss.
In 2011, the 33-year-old Oswalt is a part of one of the most celebrated starting staffs in recent memory, as Cliff Lee has returned to Philadelphia to join Oswalt, Roy Halladay and a return-to-form Cole Hamels in the starting rotation. At this point, Oswalt is on the DL after having posted a 4-6 record over 13 starts. His WHIP has jumped up to 1.33 and his batting average against is .276.
In exchange for Oswalt, one piece the Astros received was Gose, who was promptly shipped to Toronto for Brett Wallace. Wallace was a 1B prospect who was closer to being major-league ready than Gose. After the trade, Wallace played 51 games for the Astros the rest of the way, posting a .222/.296/.319 line with 2 HR and 13 RBI. He drew 8 walks against 50 strikeouts. This season Wallace has improved to .282/.360/.401 and he has 4 HR and 25 RBI as the everyday first baseman. His BB/K numbers have also improved to 34/75.
The other minor leaguer acquired in the Oswalt deal was SS Jonathan Villar. Baseball America had Villar listed as the Astros’ number 3 prospect. He finished up 2010 at hi-A Lancaster with a line of .259/.353/.414. But at AA this year Villar struggled mightily initially. He’s been on the uptick lately but his numbers still look unimpressive .216/.287/.395 with 15 BB and 53 K in 41 games.
On the major league level, the Astros received J.A. Happ and plugged him into their starting rotation. Over 13 games after the trade, Happ went 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA as he posted 35 BB, 61 K and a 1.32 WHIP. This season, the bottom has dropped out for Happ, who clocks in at 4-11 with a 5.88 ERA in 19 starts. The WHIP is up to 1.59 and the BB/K ratio sits at 57/91.
Oswalt was making $15M for 2010 and as part of the trade, Houston paid $11M of that. This season Oswalt is owed $16M and he has a $2M buyout for 2012.
Wallace and Happ are both on one-year deals that combine to total less than $1M, while Villar is toiling away in the minors.
BERKMAN TO YANKEES
Berkman, another iconic name in Astros history, was in his age-34 year and it appeared that his big years were winding down. His slash line was .245/.372/.436 and that was a big dropoff from his golden years of 2001-2008. He was sent to the American League where the Yankees were fighting for the AL East title in return for P Mark Melancon and minor league 2B Jimmy Paredes.
Berkman played in 37 games for the Yankees with unimpressive numbers. He hit .255/.358/.349 with just 1 HR and 9 RBI. His BB/K remained positive at 17/15. After the playoff run of the Yankees that ended with a loss to Texas in the ALCS (Berkman went 5-19 with a homer and 4 RBI in the two playoff series), Lance’s 2011 option was declined (Houston paid $4M) and he became a free agent.
Melancon, 26, comes out of the Houston bullpen and has a record of 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA in 46 appearances this season. The right-hander has a 1.25 WHIP and has issued 17 BB against 38 Ks in 46 1/3 innings.
Paredes posted a .281/.315/.440 line at AA Corpus Christi with 9 HR and 34RBI as he made the Texas League all-star team this season as a second-baseman. Baseball America has him listed as Houston’s number 7 overall prospect while listing him at third base. The switch-hitting Paredes moved to 2B due to a shoulder injury and may become an offensive-minded utility player in the future.
Of the $14.5M Berkman was owed in 2010, the Astros picked up $4M. In the offseason Berkman signed with the Cardinals for 1Yr/$8M and is now enjoying one of the great renaissance seasons of all time. An in-shape Berkman is posting numbers from the middle of the St. Louis lineup that has him drawing MVP consideration, much to the dismay of Astros fans who thought he was close to done.
Melancon is on a one-year deal that pays $421,000 while Houston’s obligation to Paredes is nearly identical at 1Yr/$414,000.
As the 2011 deadline nears, it has been an awful year for Brad Mills’ Astros as they have the worst record in baseball and sit more than 30 games under .500. The trades certainly didn’t hurt over the second half of last year, but if they were looking for affordable help in the long run, it’s too early for the club to have realized much of it.
The Astros were in the World Series in 2005 and they’ve been on a slide ever since, with 2008 being the only good year in that run (86-75, 3rd place). When a club finds itself in this position while retaining some of their star power, the ghosts of World Series past aren’t of much use in the current season. To ship them out will almost always bring immediate relief on the financial side as huge veteran salaries are exchanged for those of prospects and journeymen.
But the ideal scenario is to leverage that star power for as much talent as possible.
GM Ed Wade said goodbye to two of the greatest Astros of all time. What he has gotten back, so far, are three major leaguers (Happ, Melancon and Wallace) and two minor leaguers (Villar and Paredes). Melancon is solid in an unspectacular, maybe undervalued, position. Wallace is still trying to live up to the hype he had as a much-ballyhooed prospect, now with his fourth organization at age 24. Happ, 28, had a solid second-half last year but has been a big disappointment in 2011.
There are wildcards all over this deal. Berkman’s recovery in St. Louis has to be seen as unexpected, but Oswalt is also hard to figure. Spectacular last year, struggling with ineffectiveness and injury this year. And who knows what is beyond for both?
In return, the Astros got a mixed bag and the futures of Wallace and Paredes appear to be the best harbingers of success at this point. Happ could be an effective lefty and Villar may very well pan out.
And there could be future trades where any of these pieces could be parlayed into good or bad assets. But, as stated above, it’s too early to tell. In the here and now, Houston got payroll relief and marginal contributions on the field of play. Let’s see if Wallace can really rake and if he’s still there when and if Paredes and Villar arrive. Wade shouldn’t be judged on what he’s getting from Wallace, Melancon and Happ in 2011.