With the benefit of hindsight, there is little doubt which organization came out ahead in the 2015 blockbuster trade that was worked out between the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros. Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers went to Houston to help aid their playoff run, and the Astros did indeed make the postseason that year. Gomez would produce a .241 TAv in 41 games after the trade, but then was released the following summer after 85 games with a .210 TAv and -0.7 WARP. Fiers was a key cog in the rotation down the stretch for Houston in 2015, compiling a 3.32 ERA in 62.3 innings along with throwing a no-hitter. In the two years since, though, Fiers has only been able to manage 0.2 WARP in over 320 innings.
For Milwaukee, on the other hand, the trade has only really begun to pay off in spades. Domingo Santana enjoyed a breakout campaign after struggling with injuries last year; he clubbed 30 home runs and posted a .306 TAv and 3.4 WARP in 2017, his age-24 season. Josh Hader opened up eyes around baseball with his outstanding performance in an Andrew Miller-type fireman role, posting a 2.08 ERA / 86 cFIP / 81 DRA- along with a whopping 68 strikeouts in 47.7 innings covering 35 appearances at age 23. Brett Phillips, also 23, earned some important at-bats down the stretch after debuting earlier in the season and has greatly improved his stock within the organization after +4.4 FRAA in center field and a .293 TAv with four home runs in his 37 games this year (though a .408 BABIP sure helped things).
The Brewers received a fourth player in that trade as well, and some unfortunate circumstances have lead to him becoming sort of the forgotten man in the deal. Hard-throwing righty Adrian Houser was also sent to Milwaukee as part of that deal, and he even made his brief major league debut back in September of 2015, throwing two scoreless innings. During spring training in 2016, BP scout Craig Goldstein was quite complimentary in what he saw from the Oklahoma native. He noted that Houser’s plus fastball sat in the 94-95 MPH range, could touch 97, and featured frequent “wiggle.” Goldstein praised Houser’s curveball as “comfortably above-average” and a plus pitch at its best, with some ability to locate the pitch both in the zone and generate swings-and-misses outside of it. There was still work to do with the changeup, but according to Goldstein “[W]ith his frame and a clean, repeatable delivery, the changeup should only have to play as usable for him (Houser) to earn multiple shots as a starter.”
Houser reported to Class-AA Biloxi to begin the 2016 season, and was actually pitching pretty well despite some ugly earned run totals. Houser had yielded a 5.25 ERA through his first 13 starts, but had cut his walk rate down, increased his strikeouts, and was generating ground balls at a 62 percent clip. The 89 cFIP and 3.20 Deserved Run Average that he had produced were much better indicators of how he was actually performing against his Southern League competition. Then in June, disaster struck. Houser made his final appearance of the year on June 23rd before he began dealing with forearm tightness. It was ultimately determined that he would require Tommy John surgery, and he underwent the procedure on July 21st, 2016.
The recovery and rehab from elbow ligament replacement surgery is a lengthy process, and on July 25th, 2017, a little more than a year after his procedure, Houser took the mound again in a competitive game situation for the first time. Pitching for the Arizona League Brewers, Houser tossed a single inning against the rookie-level Dodgers, allowing a hit and an unearned run while punching out one. It didn’t take long for him to get back in the groove against the low-level bats of the AZL; he made five more appearances and in 8.7 innings, he struck out 16, walked four, and registered a 1.06 DRA. Houser would finish out the 2017 regular season by making three appearances (two starts) for class-A Wisconsin, allowing a single run in 9.0 innings with 11 strikeouts and, more notably, zero walks.
The annual Arizona Fall League begins play next week, and the Brewers have selected Houser as one of their eight representatives in this year’s running. Having already pitched in the MLB, Houser isn’t the typical arm that gets chosen to pitch in what’s essentially a prospect showcase league. But it does provide an opportunity for him to get some more post-surgery innings under his belt as he works his way back to full strength, and he’ll be facing higher quality competition than he did in the AZL or Midwest League.
Houser has been pitching at Milwaukee’s instructional camp in preparation for his AFL assignment, and according to Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs there is reason to believe things are going pretty well:
“RHP Adrian Houser made a tune-up start ahead of Fall League play and looks to be in great physical condition. He made nine late-season starts after missing just over a year due to elbow surgery and rehab. He was up to 96 with his fastball and missing bats with a 12-6 curveball.”
Houser may be a little bit behind the developmental curve after missing a calendar year of action, but he will still be just 25 years old when the 2018 season begins. The Brewers will probably continue to have him pitch as a starter as he rebuilds his arm strength, but given his plus fastball/curveball combination there is reason to believe that he could be making big league contributions in the bullpen in short order. The early career contributions of Santana, Phillips, and Hader have already made the 2015 trade with Houston look like a lopsided one; if Adrian Houser can successfully restore some of the lost prospect luster he had earned prior to his elbow injury, the deal may very well wind up surpassing 2003’s Richie Sexson trade as Doug Melvin’s best during his tenure as GM of the Milwaukee Nine.