The Astros decided to retool their team recently, trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman for a load of prospects. The nice thing about this modern era of baseball stats is we have many different ways to analyze trades We can look a the surplus value a prospect will provide. We can look at how many Wins Above Replacement (WAR ) a player provides for the trading team. More than any time before in baseball history, we can look at trades objectively and see if they helped or hurt a team.
The question then becomes, when does a trade hurt a team without actually hurting it in value? Let's look at one of hte most controversial trades the Astros have made in the past five years.
On December 12, 2006, the Astros traded center fielder Willy Taveras, right-handed pitcher Jason Hirsh and right-handed pitcher Taylor Buchholtz to Colorado for right-hander Jason Jennings and Miguel Ascencio.
It was a bit of a gamble trade, but Jennings at his best could team with Roy Oswalt to replace Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens in the Houston rotation. Things didn't quite work out like that.
Still, let's review what the Astros actually gave up.
Willy Taveras played two seasons with the Rockies, totaling 0.9 WAR in 2007 and -0.2 in 2008. Jason Hirsh played two seasons with the Rockies, totaling 0.9 WAR in 2007 and -0.1 in 2008. Taylor Buchholz totaled 1.7 WAR in 2007 and 1.2 in 2008. Adding all that up, the Astros gave up 4.4 wins above replacement over two years, which means Jason Jennings cost the Astros two wins a year in the two years immediately after the deal happened.
That's with Buchholtz WAR slightly inflated because he's a reliever. Without getting too technical about the difference in the systems (mainly because I'm fuzzy on the math behind some of them), just know that Buchholtz is listed with a WAR of 0.4 for that 2007 season using Baseball Reference's numbers. That's a pretty big jump from 1.7 to 0.4, but that's life with replacement level calculations with relievers.
So, let's adjust down for Buchholtz. Let's assume he was worth one more win for the Rockies over both of those seasons. That's still just three wins over two years the Astros gave up. The problem becomes what they got from Jason Jennings.
Jennings threw 99 innings over 18 starts for Houston in 2007, going 2-9 with 71 strikeouts and 34 walks. He was shut down halfway through the season with arm trouble and never played for Houston again. His stats were good for a 0.2 WAR total for 2007. That's basically replacement-level, meaning the Astros could have signed a dude off the street and gotten similar results.
Well, that's not entirely true. The concept of replacement level is that it's the talent that is freely available. When the Astros needed a shortstop after Tommy Manzella's injury, they had to look to what talent was out there. Whether it's the minor leagues, free agents, waiver wire guys or bench players available in trade for a PTBNL, these are guys who any team could acquire for little to no cost. In the Astros case, they got Angel Sanchez for Kevin Cash, a catcher who they had designated for assignment a few weeks before and who they refused to release so he could sign with the Red Sox. Instead, they traded him to Boston for a useful piece.
There are some problems with the concept, though. For one, shortstops are harder to "replace" than left fielders or first basemen. If Houston's Carlos Lee suddenly got hurt, the Astros have multiple guys they could call up to take his place. They could also have gone out and gotten Jose Guillen or Pat Burrell for pennies on the dollar. It's just harder to do that with shortstops or starting pitchers.
The other problematic part of replacement level calculations is that a 0.0 WAR is average. If you look at guys like Pedro Feliz, who has been terrible this year, but is also eminently available for other teams, their WAR may be negative by quite a bit. Feliz, for instance, has a WAR of -1.4 this season. If Chris Johnson had come up and done nothing spectacular, he'd have been worth more than a win in value over Feliz. That's the same for Angel Sanchez replacing Tommy Manzella. While Sanchez is the definition of replacement level, he's still a bit better than Manzella's -0.9 WAR, both bringing better defense and an average bat.
But, that gets away from our main point, which is that Jason Jennings was okay in value for Houston. 0.2 WAR is like a fifth starter. The trouble is, Houston wanted him to be a No. 2 starter and he wasn't that. They didn't give up a ton for him, but they got even less in return. The deal was probably a wash on the value side, with Houston giving up little and getting little in return. Certainly, their surplus value in trading away a top prospect like Hirsh was pretty high, but that surplus didn't translate to actual value over the past four seasons.
No, the real problem with this trade was public perception. Past all the valuations and performances, that fan backlash against Purpura led to many people losing their jobs. The deal itself wasn't terrible, but with Jennings awful, awful starts and his injuries and his pending free agent status, the Astros got no help from the media or the fans. Talk shows buzzed with people ripping Tim for making the trade. When Taveras went crazy in the beginning of the season, it made things worse.
Would Purpura have been fired if he hadn't pulled the trigger on this trade? Maybe, maybe not. Would the Astros have traded for Michael Bourn following the 2007 season if Taveras had still been there? Who knows? What I can tell you is that as bad as I remembered this trade, it wasn't as terrible as some of the trades I've reviewed.
I'm still glad it helped bring in Ed Wade and Bobby Heck, though.