Astros fail to reload in Roy Oswalt deal

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They were in a bad position all along, but the fact that the Astros had to kick in $11 million of the $23 million that Roy Oswalt is guaranteed and still didn’t get a top talent in return has to be viewed as a failure on GM Ed Wade’s part.
J.A. Happ isn’t nothing. The 27-year-old finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting after going 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA in 166 innings last season. He was declared off limits when the Phillies went after Roy Halladay both at the trade deadline last year and over the winter. However, the elbow injury he suffered in April changed things dramatically. It was called a strained forearm, but Happ still hasn’t fully recovered more than three months later. While he returned to the majors this week, his velocity fluctuates and his command has been off.
Happ was never a particularly good bet in the first place. He put up excellent strikeout numbers in the minors, but a good portion of those K’s came off a curveball he decided to scrap a couple of years ago. His slider and changeup are both quality pitches, but he doesn’t overwhelm with an 88-91 mph fastball and he’s always walked too many batters. He’s also a flyball pitcher, and now he’s going to another ballpark that’s particularly kind to right-handed power hitters. At best, he’s a long-term No. 3 starter. He could well be more of a No. 4 or 5, and now that he has the arm issues, he’s just not a particularly valuable property.
The prospects the Astros received back are also underwhelming. Fleet-footed center fielder Anthony Gose is just 19 (20 next month) and has plenty of room for growth, but he’s lacking when it comes to baseball intellect. He’s been thrown out 27 times in 63 steal attempts this year, and he has a 103/32 K/BB ratio in 418 at-bats. His overall .263/.325/.385 line isn’t bad at all considering that he’s one of the youngest players in a tough league for hitters, but he’s far more of an athlete than a baseball player at the moment.
Jonathan Villar, 19, is a switch-hitting shortstop hitting .272/.332/.358 with 38 steals in the Sally League. Like Gose, he struggles to control the strike zone, as he’s fanned 103 times and walked just 26 times in 371 at-bats. He’s also iffy to stay at short. If he retains his range as he fills out and shows he can make steady contact from both sides of the plate, he has a chance to make it as a regular. Still, he’ll probably be a bottom-of-the-order guy.
If the Astros had managed to flip Oswalt for this trio without kicking in a whole bunch of money, I’d be giving Wade some credit. As is, though, one could argue that Happ, Gose and Villar aren’t worth the $11 million the Astros had to kick in to get the deal done. Oswalt wasn’t going to take the Astros anywhere in the next year and a half, so there was little harm in moving him. However, if Wade had simply built a better team in the first place, he wouldn’t have needed to go this route and accept such a modest return for one of the best players in franchise history.
Update: This will help some. The Astros have sent Gose to the Blue Jays for first baseman Brett Wallace.

Report: Koji Uehara close to signing with the Cubs

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 10:  Koji Uehara #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Divison Series at Fenway Park on October 10, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reports, citing a source as well as Nikkan Sports, that reliever Koji Uehara is close to signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cubs.

Uehara, 41, finished the 2016 season with a 3.45 ERA and a 63/11 K/BB ratio over 47 innings. He missed some time in the second half with a strained right pectoral muscle. When Uehara returned from the disabled list on September 7, he tossed 11 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and two walks through the end of the regular season. So there’s at least some evidence, albeit in a very small sample size, that Uehara has stuff left in the tank.

The Cubs recently acquired closer Wade Davis from the Royals. Uehara would join Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Grimm, and Mike Montgomery in what is once again a very deep bullpen.

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.