Astros return from road trip with a new look and a blueprint for the future. Onward.
Michael Bourn sat at his locker Saturday afternoon and chuckled as he watched everyone walk by him, or walk near him, or just look at him from across the room. They all wore the same expression, a mixture of curiosity and sympathy, with a touch of that frozen deer-in-the-headlights look. They had all heard the rumors and they all had the same question: was Bourn the next to go?
Having paid attention for weeks, Bourn knew he was on the trade block. After watching his teammate Hunter Pence depart the day before, he also understood the speculation would probably turn into reality, and that in all likelihood, he was headed out, possibly to Atlanta.
Dealing with trade speculation while trying to focus on playing baseball isn’t easy, but Bourn was actually grateful that the whispers were loud enough for him to hear. It gave him time to prepare himself emotionally for the change, a luxury he wasn’t afforded the first time he was traded. When he got the call in early November of 2007 that was dealt from the Phillies to the Astros, he was absolutely floored. He never saw it coming. And even though he was traded to Houston, his hometown, there was still plenty of anxiety involved.
The second time a player is traded is much, much easier. And this time, Bourn had time to prepare for it, even if he wasn’t positive where he’d be going, or when. But still, on Saturday, the eve of his departure from the Astros, he was wistful. In ’07, he wasn’t sure playing in the same city where he grew up and lived was a great idea. But over time, he grew to enjoy it very much, and even though the Astros are losing with alarming regularity this season, the thought of leaving saddened him.
Going to a contender is exciting. Leaving what you know is scary.
The Astros received four players in the Bourn deal: outfielder Jordan Schafer, who is recovering from a fractured finger and should be ready to join the Astros in a couple of weeks, and three pitching prospects: left-hander Brett Oberholtzer and right-handers Paul Clemens and Juan Abreu.
The reaction to this trade ranged from muted approval to all-out crucification. One national writer said the Astros were going to be happy with the four players they received, all of whom were thought of highly in the Braves organization. Another writer wondered if Ed Wade was looking at the rankings of the Braves’ top 25 prospects upside down.
One thing just about everyone agreed on is that of the three prospects, Oberholtzer has the highest ceiling and the best chance for longevity in the big leagues. Jonathan Mayo, MLB.com’s Draft and prospect expert, broke it down this way:
* Clemens was ranked No. 8 on the Braves’ Top 10 at the time of the trade, an eighth-round pick out of junior college in 2008 who was in Double-A Mississippi’s rotation. A swingman in the past, Clemens has always impressed with his power stuff, though he hasn’t always been consistent with it.
A Southern League All-Star this season, Clemens was outstanding over the season’s first two months, posting a 2.08 ERA. He’s scuffled a bit lately, with ERAs of 6.85 in June and 4.81 in July, though he was still ninth in the Southern League in ERA for the season. He’s already surpassed his career high for innings pitched in a season, perhaps a reason he’s hit a bit of a wall.
Clemens, 23, can run his fastball up into the mid-90s, and the development of his breaking ball and changeup give him the weapons to be an effective starter. Most scouts see him as a No. 3 or 4 starter at the Major League level. If he doesn’t reach that level, the Astros know they can always move him back to the bullpen if needed.
* One talent evaluator felt Olberholtzer was the best player in this deal. The Braves selected the 22-year-old left-hander in the eighth round of the 2008 Draft from the junior college ranks as well. He was right behind Clemens in the Southern League with his 3.74 ERA.
Oberholtzer has the chance to have at least three average pitches at the big league level. He’ll throw his fastball in the 87- to 92-mph range, with a solid cutter and an above-average changeup. All of his stuff plays up because he has above average to plus control and command. He may not dominate, but he fits the profile of a “pitchability” lefty who can make a major contribution in the middle or back end of a rotation.
* Abreu, 26, has been around the block a time or two, but he’s still got the kind of power arm people covet in the bullpen. Originally signed in 2003 by the Kansas City Royals, he joined the Braves organization in 2010.
Abreu is all about arm strength. He’s got a plus fastball that has hit triple digits several times and he couples it with a good breaking ball. He misses plenty of bats, with a 10.9 K/9 ratio in his career (12.8 in 2011). Command has been an issue — he’s walked 5.4 per nine (5.1 this season) — and he has had some injuries in the past. He’s having the best season of his career now, and the Astros think he’ll be able to compete in the big league bullpen moving forward.
I’ve been asked many times over the last two days about my opinion of the players the Astros received in the Pence and Bourn trades. I’ll repeat now what I said after Pence was dealt to the Phillies: I really do not know. That’s not a cop-out. I have never seen any of these players in person. I read the stats and the evaluations from observers who are a lot more well-versed on prospects than me. Judging from the scouting reports listed above, these players sound pretty promising. But we won’t know if they’re Major Leaguers for quite some time. For most, it’ll take a couple of years, at the very least.
All I can do is hope the Astros got enough and that the insiders who gave their stamp of approval are right and those who blasted the trades are wrong. Anyone who says they can say with 100 percent certainty how these players will pan out is lying. Were these good deals for the Astros? We’ll have those answers — someday. But not yet.
During his press conference in Houston on Sunday, Wade talked at great length about progressing the organization back to respectability, and keeping it there. Winning tomorrow is important, sure. But winning long-term — season after season after season — is a greater priority. The only way to sustain long-term success is to have a healthy Minor League system. If the organization made the right decisions in the last week with the trades of Jeff Keppinger, Pence and Bourn, the process to rebuild the system might take less time, and be a little less painful in the interim.
* Here’s something I didn’t know — according to one person “in the know,” the Astros may have had a trade in place for Bourn sometime during the 2007 season, but it was scrapped because Bourn got hurt. Wade had not taken over as general manager yet, so that means even before he arrived, the former Phillies up-and-comer was on the Astros’ radar.
* The most bizarre moment of Trade Deadline Day had to be when a few of us were in the Astros’ clubhouse Sunday morning, watching coverage on MLB Network. The baseball universe was abuzz with rumors that Wandy Rodriguez was a hot commodity, being pursued by a few teams, most notably (at 11:30 a.m.), the Yankees. As we watched Mitch Williams and friends speculate whether Wandy-to-the-Yankees would be a good deal, Wandy wandered in from the field, casually looked up at the television and then realized they were talking about him. “Oh no!” he said. Then he cracked up and walked away.
I would imagine for the players whose names keep coming up in trade rumors, this has to be a stressful time. Players try to block out as much as they can but they’re human, and their lives are potentially about to be completely uprooted, even if they are heading to a much better situation (professionally speaking). I’ve never seen Wandy looked even remotely stressed-out and Sunday was no exception. He watched a couple minutes of MLB Network, chuckled and went to the lunchroom to grab a sandwich. Good old Wandy.
* The roster shuffle continued after the Astros landed in Houston Sunday night, when Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace were optioned to Triple-A and Brian Bogusevic and Jimmy Paredes were called up. Bogusevic comes up from Triple-A and Paredes arrives from Double-A Corpus. Paredes will play third, and presumably, Carlos Lee will play first base full-time.
And so it begins. The youth movement is in full swing and the last two months of the season will be about letting the kids play and finding out if they can do exactly that. I can’t guarantee wins, but I can promise you this: it will not be boring. Onward.
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