On April 9, 2018 the Brewers recalled outfielder Brett Phillips from Triple-A Colorado Springs, and optioned righty Adrian Houser to Double-A Biloxi. In transition, from Houser’s fantastic three strike out, 2.0 IP relief performance against the Cubs, to Brett Phillips’s 1-for-5 start at St. Louis, the duo alternated roster spots to join right fielder Domingo Santana and lefty Josh Hader on the MLB roster. This quartet comprises one of President Doug Melvin’s last baseball transactions prior to handing the roster over to David Stearns in 2015. After previously agreeing to a trade for superstar CF Carlos Gomez involving RHP Zack Wheeler and IF Wilmer Flores from the New York Mets, Mets queasiness over medical records truncated that trade and allowed Melvin to pivot to Houston. Here, Melvin coupled Gomez with Fastballer Mike Fiers, and the rest is history: Brett Phillips was largely viewed as the leader of the trade return, with Domingo Santana looking like an advanced minors potential MLB regular with contact questions, Hader serving as somewhat of an upside gamble, and Houser backing up the trade as quality depth (at best a back end rotation gamble, at worst a high floor arm suitable to serve as MLB roster depth).
|Astros 2015 Top 10||Overall Future Potential||Likely||Risk|
|(4) OF Brett Phillips||6 (First Division Player)||5 (Avg. MLB player)||High (“Bat…a work in progress”)|
|(8) OF Domingo Santana||5 (Abov avg. regular)||High 4 (Below avg. regular)||Moderate (swing & approach)|
Baseball Prospectus 2015 Astros Top 10 prospect rankings largely support the reaction of the time, in which Phillips was the “get” of the trade, Santana was a quality, workable advanced prospect, and Hader and Houser both served as equal parts risk-and-reward (albeit due to completely different profiles). It’s worth remembering what type of prospect Hader was when the Brewers acquired the potential fireballing lefty, so I’m quoting in full:
“The long and lanky lefty enjoyed a season to build upon with High-A Lancaster, working with an upper-80s to low-90s fastball with lots of dance out of a tough low three-quarters slot. He can reach as his as 95 mph and could sit closer to that mark in shorter bursts should he wind up in the pen as some evaluators suggest. His slider is a second potential above-average offering that can make lefty bats highly uncomfortable due to the angle of approach. His change is a third usable weapon, though both it and the slider regularly play fringe average or below, as Hader is still working to find a consistent release that allows him to work the totality of the zone with each. He’ll need more precision in execution to continue his run of success against stiffer Texas League competition, and could find a home as a useful lefty relief arm should he prove incapable of turning over upper-level lineups with his fastball-heavy approach.”
Of course, time is equal parts blessing and curse for player development, and in this case the Brewers used varying approaches with each player. Santana had already reached the MLB with the Astros, and the Brewers front office almost immediately caused the trade to pay dividends by recalling the right-handed batting outfielder on August 21, 2015. Santana showed it all within his first two weeks, belting four homers and two doubles while batting .216 and striking out 12 times in 43 PA. The Brewers gave the outfielder time in center field as well as his more common corner spot, potentially testing the waters for a high-power fourth outfield role if the regular right field spot did not work. Santana finished his 2015 Milwaukee campaign with modest success in 38 games, boasting a .299 True Average (TAv) and -4.8 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). Adrian Houser joined Santana at the MLB level as a September call-up, immediately compounding the *reality* of this trade, or the sense that this trade could be of real impact for the Brewers.
Using depreciated surplus analysis, here’s how the trade looked on the “day-of.” (The TL;DR is that this analysis essentially monetizes Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) and Overall Future Potential (OFP), while also considering contract cost and reserve time, to compare prospects and MLB players of varying service time. It is a Benefit-Cost Analysis. More here if you’re interested):
|Brewers Traded||Total Surplus||Brewers Received||Total Surplus||Balance|
|C. Gomez / M. Fiers||$33.8M||D. Santana (40-50) / B. Phillips (50-60) / J. Hader (45-50) / A. Houser (40-45)||$55.3M||+19.5M|
In hind sight, over the course of three prospect cycles (pre-2016, 2017, 2018) and two full seasons, it is easy to view the Gomez-Fiers trade as a complete, smashing success for the Brewers. And the trade was indeed successful; on the day of the trade, the Brewers essentially “extracted” one additional potential MLB average player ($19.5 million) from the Astros, meaning that the trade could certainly be viewed as fair for both the Astros and the Brewers, with the Astros potentially surrendering a bit more than one would normally like for a super star CF and playoff race rotation help. The trade almost certainly was a huge success for the Astros in terms of revenue, as Carlos Gomez smashed the game-winning home run in the American League Wild Card in 2015, ensuring that Houston entered a longer series and had a chance at more playoff coin. I left this out of my analysis, but it is worth separately considering organizational trade incentive.
The last two trade check-ins published midseason 2016 and 2017 are worth publishing once again, just to show the ridiculous swing in surplus value:
|What Happened? (Midseason 2016)||Total Surplus||What Happened? (Midseason 2016)||Total Surplus||Balance|
|Fiers 2017 / C. Gomez & M. Fiers 0.1 WARP||$23.2M||Santana 0.9 WARP / Hader to 55-60 / Phillips 45-55 / Houser 40||$73.8M||+$50.6M||What Happened? (Midseason 2017)||Total Surplus ($M)||What Happened? (Midseason 2017)||Total Surplus ($M)||Balance ($M)|
|Gomez & Fiers -0.9 WARP / Fiers 2018-2019||4.1||Santana 2.4 WARP / Hader & Phillips & Houser no change||89.2||85.1|
So, why the retrospective? Well, frankly, it appears that the trade has already been promptly rewritten as highway robbery after the collapse of Carlos Gomez in Houston, and now the MLB ascent and success of Josh Hader, as well as many of the criticisms of the Brewers’ deep offseason outfield acquisitions, appears to color the value of the trade once more. Now, the Brewers apparently have a potential top rotation starter in Josh Hader, and a superstar right fielder in Domingo Santana…which is great to dream about, but misses the fun and importance of the Gomez-Fiers trade.
|Domingo Santana||3.3||151 G / .306 TAv / -7.6 FRAA||Starting RF|
|Brett Phillips||1.1||37 G / .293 TAv / 4.3 FRAA||Quality depth OF|
|Josh Hader||0.7||47.7 IP / 3.79 DRA / 68 K – 22 BB – 4 HR||Flexible Relief|
The Gomez-Fiers trade was a strong deal for Milwaukee on day one, but it was also a weird deal, and it’s worth exploring that a bit more. Entering 2018, the Brewers had a lot of value extracted from the Gomez-Fiers trade. Josh Hader lost his breaking ball and experiencing some mechanical / approach hiccups in Triple-A Colorado Springs, so his development continued at the MLB level. The twirling fastballer hardly hiccuped from his first June appearance onward, working seven scoreless outings before allowing his first run. Of course, the command was not yet there, as Hader also allowed eight walks to six strike outs over 9.3 IP; compare that to Hader’s current 22 strike out / three walk line over 9.7 IP to start 2018. Anyway, Hader established himself as a curious role player, almost instantly proving to serve as an MLB relief chameleon a la Andrew Miller, but without any of the 96 G / 66 GS / 359.3 IP of trial and error, 5.79 ERA baseball over three teams that actually defined Andrew Miller’s ascent to one of the greatest and most interesting relief aces in the game. For the honest developmental reason that Hader could not start, and that the lefty was re-establishing his stuff, delivery, and command, the Brewers’ young southpaw got to fast forward past the ugly stuff and reach his 2017 Baseball Prospectus realistic role: high leverage relief. This is different than his 2015 prospect role, but it’s not bad; it’s simply more in focus.
As an aside, why should Hader be more than this? Of course the funky lefty everyone loves to cite for Hader’s fantastical upside is Chris Sale, an ace that surprised scouting profiles in some cases. But this is a moment worth instructing on player comparisons: Hader is not Chris Sale. Chris Sale was a 13th overall college pick by the White Sox (2010), a pick who was already working in the MLB during the same year that he was drafted; Hader was a 19th round pick who required two trades and nearly five-and-a-half seasons of development to reach the MLB. Sale was age-23 by the time the White Sox transitioned the one-time oddball reliever to the starting rotation; Josh Hader is in his age-24 season right now. Sale is listed at 6’6″ and threw between 96 and 98 MPH with a primary sinking-running fastball as a reliever; Hader is listed at 6’4″ and throws between 92 and 95 MPH with a primary rising fastball as a reliever. Josh Hader is not Chris Sale and should not be compared to Chris Sale; we have data available to make better comparisons, so make better comparisons. Anyway, Hader is already proving to have potential as a strangely role-flexible, elite quality MLB reliever. Don’t get greedy!
If Hader’s success was at the MLB level as a budding relief ace with extremely flexible roles, Brett Phillips opened 2018 as (presumably) the last Gomez-Fiers player on a Top 10 list. Baseball Prospectus ranked Phillips fifth in the Brewers system, and a couple years of struggle, redemption, and a smashing 2017 MLB debut placed the left-handed batting outfielder’s role in focus. Read this beautiful prose, as not many prospect list roles are so clear:
“OFP 60—First division center fielder carried by his glove and pop
Likely 50—Average outfielder whose secondary skills prop up low averages”
It does not get much better than that. So, Phillips is where he is, another so-called casualty of the Brewers’ #TeamDepth, but in a sense the age-24 outfielder is exactly where his scouting role should place him on a competitive MLB team: Phillips is going to be an indispensable depth player for the Brewers, offering a fantastic glove and arm that keep him in the MLB while the potential promise of power at the plate sorts itself out. This is different than his 2015 prospect role, but it’s not bad; it’s simply more in focus.
Domingo Santana is having a bit of a “ho hum” start to the 2018 campaign, which is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s nearly worth a sigh of relief to see the right fielder opening the year with a .283 batting average and 10 percent walk rate (entering play Sunday), driving a powerless TAv of .273 (not bad!). I know there are a ton of Brewers fans who just want Santana to be a superstar, to break out from the 2017 campaign that saw 3.3 WARP on the strength of a full season of improved plate discipline, .306 TAv, and -7.6 FRAA. It’s tough to say this in the right voice, that’s not a knock on Santana, but Santana need not be a superstar…Santana is a good MLB player. It’s okay to stop there; the OFP 50 / realistic 40 grade RF has already produced nearly 5.0 WARP for the Brewers over portions of four seasons. In fact, I dare say that this is his 2015 prospect role, with the swing and approach concerns ironed out. The Brewers may have picked up Domingo Santana they had hoped to acquire.
Watching Adrian Houser throw 95-to-96 MPH rising and running fastballs during his 2.0 IP relief outing against the Cubs was a wondrous occasion. The big righty (listed 6’4″, 235 lb) threw that heat with ease, and also sprinkled in both of his off speed offerings (a change and curve). There were rumblings in spring that the Brewers hope to stretch Houser into a starter, which was somewhat surprising given the righty’s return from Tommy John surgery and the club’s handling of Taylor Williams (another TJ-returnee). But, every injury case is different, and every rehab case is different, so the Houser that the Brewers picked up in the 2015 trade may now turn in to something that Brewers fans never could have expected: a central player in a pitching staff that is built around depth and aggressive use of a bullpen (Brewers fans literally could not have imagined a quality depth-based rotation rounded out with Wade Miley, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Houser in July 2015, but here we are). In this context, gambling on a potential back-end starter that has already reached the MLB and demonstrated some stuff that could play looks like quite an interesting bet (at least) for the Brewers runs prevention chances. Houser will not be flashy, but he’s here. His injury may change the risk profile, meaning that he’s not the prospect he was in 2015, which isn’t bad; it’s simply more in focus.
Several aspects of player development and strategic assessment make the Gomez-Fiers trade great.
- First and foremost, as I’ve written before and is always worth emphasizing, Doug Melvin did well to acquire mostly advanced prospects who had fairly well-defined scouting roles on the day of the trade. This trade was not as huge a gamble as it could have been.
- Second, the Brewers quickly advanced players when they needed to be advanced, and allowed players with shortcomings to develop at the MLB level.
- Santana had nothing left to prove in Triple-A, even with strike zone contact questions that were very well known prior to the trade. It was up to the Brewers to help Santana develop that hit tool and iron out that approach at the MLB level.
- Hader falls into this camp as well; imagine if the Brewers had demoted Hader to Double-A Biloxi last year, as an answer to altitude and as a chance to get the lefty back on track to becoming a starting pitching prospect. Imagine Hader working in Biloxi as a starter throughout the season, getting that command and delivery back while he re-established his breaking ball. That could have happened; see Jorge Lopez and Taylor Jungmann, for example. Instead, David Stearns correctly assessed a need on the MLB club, and correctly assessed Hader’s strength (delivery deception and advanced fastball) and wagered that the southpaw could answer his development questions at the MLB level. These are huge player development successes for Melvin and Stearns, and if you don’t believe it, again, imagine Hader opening the 2018 season as a starting pitching prospect in Triple-A once more, perhaps this time to add innings after he found his secondary stuff in Biloxi.
- Third, the Brewers adroitly took it slow when they needed to, working Adrian Houser all the way back from a Tommy John surgery and returning Brett Phillips to Double-A Biloxi for 2016 despite his shredding the league in 98 age-21 plate appearances. In case Phillips feels like an “old” prospect, remember that he’s still just in his age-24 season in a league with an average age nearly three years older (AAA), while serving as MLB depth. Houser is in his age-25 season serving as MLB depth. Time remains with this trade.
- Finally, with nearly three full years of assessment due on this trade, it is worth emphasizing that this trade is a smashing success despite only one of the prospects truly reaching their day-of ceiling (Santana), while others forged interesting new role questions (Hader), or at the very least solidified the value of usable MLB floors (Houser, Phillips). This is exactly the type of trade that Brewers fans and analysts can study in order to think through the varying degrees of prospect risk, and the types of roles that a prospect can demonstrate (or, the spectrum that even one single role could include). A trade does not need to include top of the rotation starters, superstar right fielders, and flashy everyday defense-first center fielders in order to become a smashing success. Sometimes reaching the MLB is enough, for good player development at that level ensures that some prospect questions can be answered with exclamation points, even without bona fide stardom.
Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USA Today Sports Images