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I’m going to preface this entire post with the statement that putting together a Houston package for James Paxton was extremely difficult and, for that reason, I now find Big Maple opening 2019 as a member of the Houston Astros even less likely than when Ken Rosenthal broke that Houston was one of many teams discussing the Canadian hurler with the Mariners.
#Astros on list of teams talking to #Mariners about a trade for LHP James Paxton, sources say. Market described as “active,” including HOU, NYY and a wide variety of other clubs. Paxton in his career against HOU: 2.89 ERA in 71 2/3 innings, .605 opponents’ OPS.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 11, 2018
Like Los Angeles and Atlanta, Houston possesses an impressive farm system featuring prospects the Mariners would love to add to the fold, but unlike those two organizations, the Astros’ system is notably top-heavy, perhaps to a point that it makes it hard to find a match between the two sides. With Houston likely being unwilling to part with the likes of Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley, Jerry would likely be forced to opt for quantity over quality when acquiring future assets from the Astros--not unlike the Pirates did when shipping Gerrit Cole to Houston last offseason.
Astros receive: LHP James Paxton
Mariners receive: RHP Josh James, RHP Rogelio Armenteros, C Garrett Stubbs, 3B Abraham Toro
Mariners fans might remember James from his performance back on September 18 when he fanned seven Mariners over 5.1 innings. Other than that, you might not have heard of any of these guys (in fairness, I hadn’t either before conducting the research for this piece).
James, 25, impressed over 23.0 big league innings last year, racking up 0.4 fWAR in a month of service time. A former 34th round selection, the Hollywood, Florida native pitched fine enough through his first four minor league season, but failed to do much to establish himself as much more than organizational filler. The 2018 season was a different story for James however, as he posted 13.5 K/9 through 23 games (21 starts) across Double and Triple-A. The jump in strikeouts came as a result of seeing his heater jump from the 92-94mph range to a consistent 95-97mph last season, which he credits to addressing his sleep apnea and he dedicated himself to conditioning, per Prospect Pipeline. James’ recent track record and success at the Major League level (albeit in limited opportunities) make him the de facto “headliner” of this deal. Despite his encouraging mid-career bloom, the Astros may prefer somebody with a more established track record to fill the void left by the departure of Lance McCullers (Tommy John), Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton (free agency). Pax would also provide Houston a left-handed option for a rotation that otherwise features exclusively right-handed arms. Furthermore, the club’s top two starters in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole qualify for free agency following the 2019 season and Paxton, who doesn’t hit the market until 2021, would ensure at least one ace-level arm remains in their rotation for the 2020 season. Conversely, the Mariners would be adding a high-upside starting pitching candidate to the system who would immediately slot not only into the upper echelon of Mariners’ prospects, but also likely the starting rotation for the 2019 season. It’s worth noting that the 142.0 innings pitched last season was a personal best for James, so the club could potentially use him in a role similar to that they used Marco Gonzales in last season, periodically skipping his turn in the rotation.
Although James has already found success as a starter at the big league level, Cuban right-hander Rogelio Armenteros is thought to be a safer bet to stick in a big league rotation throughout his career. Rather than surviving on pure “stuff”, Armenteros has been described as a fairly ordinary arsenal consisting of a mid-90’s heater ahd sinking low-90’s two seamer as well as a curve and slider/cutter that are both 50-grade pitches to compliment his deceptive change-up. The key for Armernteros is he’s got elite command of his pitches, which makes him a near lock to stick as a back-of-the-rotation starter. After dominating through 10 starts at Triple-A to the tune of a 11.1 K/9 strikeout rate and 2.16/3.45/3.43 pitching slash line in 2017, he opened the 2018 season repeating the level due to a lack of openings in the Houston rotation.
His performance dipped slightly as he played out a full season for Round Rock, logging 118.0 innings over 21 starts, posting 10.2 K/9 and a line of 3.74/4.42/4.02 as he saw his walk rate jump almost one full point to 3.7 BB/9. Despite his big league-readiness, the Astros likely remain hesitant to plug an unproven prospect into their rotation in what figures to be a “World Series or bust” season. With Seattle, Armenteros would compete for a rotation spot throughout the spring and likely be used in a role similar to James should the two come over together.
Catcher Garrett Stubbs is the third and final player involved in this package that would likely move straight onto the Mariners’ opening day roster, in all likelihood as the team’s starting catcher. Jerry has made no secrets about target talented but blocked players with success at the upper levels of the minors, and Stubbs fits that bill to a t. A lefty-hitting catcher, Stubbs was an 8th-round selection out of USC back in 2015, where he won the Johnny Bench Award as the top collegiate backstop as well as Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Since joining the professional ranks, he’s spent time meticulously molding himself into Jerry Dipoto’s dream catcher (no pun intended), never posting a walk rate lower than 10.2% or a strikeout rate higher than 16.5%. Most recently, he posted marks of 10.3% and 15.6% respectively at Triple-A in 2018. His advanced approach and ~50-grade hit tool allowed him to slash .310/.382/.455 while posting a 120 wRC+ through 84 games.
Who wore the backstop better?!— Fresno Grizzlies (@FresnoGrizzlies) September 8, 2018
Garrett Stubbs on Friday night... pic.twitter.com/WR1QTq6e3n
Even with the impending departure of Brian McCann, there doesn’t appear to be at-bats headed Stubbs’ way anytime soon for the Astros with 27-year old Max Stassi, who racked up 1.2 fWAR in just 88 games, under team control through 2022 and Chris Herrmann joining the mix after the Mariners placed him on waivers earlier this month. The Astros also demonstrated a willingness to move Stubbs (as well as Josh James) via trade when they reportedly had included the duo among a trade package for Bryce Harper back in July in a trade that was eventually nixed. Stubbs would get a chance to receive consistent major league at-bats in Seattle, providing an offensive skill set that’s almost the exact inverse of the dearly departed Mike Zunino and aligns much more closely with Jerry’s expressed desire for his lineup.
The “lottery ticket” of this package comes in the form of 21-year old third baseman Abraham Toro, a versatile switch-hitter who has discovered some serious pop after revamping his swing to include his lower half prior to the 2017 season. He’s gone on to smack 31 homers over four levels since then, topping out at Double-A for 50 games to end last season. After consistently running walk rates north of 10% and strikeout rates under 20%, he posted an 8.4% walk rate and 22.8% strikeout rate in his first go ‘round the Double-A circuit last year and struggled at the dish, finishing with a wRC+ of just 89, although he posted a 136 wRC+ through 83 games at High-A. Still just 21 years old, he’s got plenty of time to adjust as he continues to progress, and repeating Double-A wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him after moving fairly rapidly over the last two summers. Defensively, he’s a good athlete with a plus arm at the hot corner, and has even caught sporadically throughout his college and professional careers, however he didn’t appear behind the dish in 2018. With the left side of Houston’s infield locked down for the foreseeable future, Toro may be best served elsewhere, and the Mariners might just be in need of a new third baseman by the time he’s big league ready.
#Astros No. 21 prospect Abraham Toro, who has been working on elevating the ball from the right side of the plate, had a big offensive day as he continues to impress in the @MLBazFallLeague: https://t.co/VX0ZzZjwEa pic.twitter.com/jtOII1dpSG— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) November 10, 2018
It’s never easy to deal a fan favorite and budding superstar, and it’s made only more difficult when said player is being shipped off to a division rival, but with the departure of The Big Maple growing only more inevitable by the day, the Mariners’ front office will feel the pressure to send him to the highest bidder, and if that happens to be Houston, then so be it. While the Astros lack the ability--or accurately the willingness--to send any of their frontline prospects to Seattle, they can still assemble a tempting package of players that could fill voids for the Mariners immediately and into the future, drastically expediting the formation of a talented and controllable young core.