Houston Astros

Another World Series contender with a bunch of highly ranked prospects has reportedly asked White Sox about Jose Abreu

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USA TODAY

Another World Series contender with a bunch of highly ranked prospects has reportedly asked White Sox about Jose Abreu

LAS VEGAS — There's no knowing whether the White Sox actually want to trade Jose Abreu, but another report's out saying a World Series contender has asked about acquiring him.

First it was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who could offer quite a bit in young talent to further Rick Hahn's rebuilding effort. Ditto for the new team, the Houston Astros, the 2017 World Series champs, 2018 American League runners up, as good a pick for the 2019 championship as there is and a team with a bevy of highly rated prospects.

The latest info comes from the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo, who simply writes that the Astros have "inquired about Abreu." That's it. So much like last week's report out of Southern California, there's no indication of any interest in a deal on the White Sox part.

Last week, Hahn was asked about Abreu, who has one year remaining on his current contract, and had this to say:

"It’s still an ongoing process," he said of the decision-making on the team's best hitter. "We’ve made no secret about our affection for Jose and not only from a standpoint of what he contributes between the white lines but what he does in the clubhouse and the role he plays in not only a leadership role but the role he plays in being sort of the centerpiece of the franchise from a mature-player standpoint. In terms of how he fits going forward, this is the last year of contractual control."

It's appropriately vague as the White Sox have several different avenues they can travel down and no rush in which to make a decision.

As Hahn said, the White Sox do love Abreu, constantly praising the incredible production he's had since coming over from Cuba before the 2014 season as well as what he does in the clubhouse as a model for young players. He's taken an active role in the rebuilding process by taking the likes of Yoan Moncada under his wing. And that production is of course valuable in the middle of any lineup. Thanks to an unusual prolonged slump and a pair of freak injuries, Abreu was not able to make it five straight seasons with at least 25 home runs and 100 RBIs to start his career, but despite his worst statistical season as a big leaguer, he was the AL's starting first baseman in the All-Star Game and a Silver Slugger winner.

The White Sox might look at all that production — and the off-the-field contributions — and see no reason why it would stop, making Abreu a logical piece of the long-term puzzle as things shift from rebuilding to contending and a perfect candidate for a contract extension.

But Abreu's age is advancing (he'll be 32 next month), and though they know why it happened, 2018's statistical dropoff was a big one, with Abreu posting career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, home runs, RBIs, hits, total bases and games played. Not to mention, the White Sox only have one more year of control, and with a potentially appealing return package, they could opt to cash in via trade, be it now or at the trade deadline next summer.

What can the Astros offer? Quite a bit, potentially. They, like the Dodgers, boast four prospects ranked in MLB Pipeline's top 100, including two of the top eight in the game: outfielder Kyle Tucker is just two spots behind White Sox top prospect Eloy Jimenez, and pitcher Forrest Whitley is only three spots behind Tucker.

Again, who knows if the White Sox would want to part with a player and a person they value so highly. But there's no doubting that the organization's collection of minor league talent could get better if they do.

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So apparently the Astros tried to trade for Avisail Garcia this summer

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USA TODAY

So apparently the Astros tried to trade for Avisail Garcia this summer

An interesting note from over the weekend: Apparently the Houston Astros tried to trade for Avisail Garcia this summer.

The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal reported on a deal that obviously didn't happen, one that would have sent Bryce Harper to the then-defending champs. That would've been very exciting for baseball fans in general — it might have been enough to get the Astros past the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS and to get them a second consecutive World Series title — but there's another added bit of specific interest to fans on the South Side.

Apparently after the Harper deal fell apart, the Astros called up the White Sox and tried to acquire Garcia. According to Rosenthal, the Astros offered up Francis Martes, a right-handed pitcher who two years ago was the No. 1 prospect in the Astros' system and one of the top 30 prospects in baseball. He hasn't appeared in the prospect rankings since that top rating in 2016 — likely a result of his north-of-5.00 ERA between the majors and Triple-A in 2017 — and he's had recent injury issues, too. His 2018 season at Triple-A Fresno ended before the start of May, and he had Tommy John surgery in August. But Rosenthal pointed out that the White Sox knew all about that while discussing him as a potential return for Garcia.

Per Rosenthal, the Astros weren't too excited about Garcia's injured knee, which he admitted at the end of the season had literally been bothering him since Opening Day. 

Garcia's standing in the White Sox long-term plans are a bit of a mystery. After his breakout 2017 campaign that saw him represent the team at the All-Star Game and rank among the best offensive players in the American League, statistically, Garcia was bothered by injuries from the jump in 2018. He said he felt that knee injury from Opening Day on, and his hamstring sent him to the disabled list on more than one occasion. He ended up playing in only 93 games and slashing a woeful .236/.281/.438, though he did reach a new career high with 19 home runs.

Garcia has only one year of team control left, and there's been plenty of speculative discussion about whether the White Sox would even tender him a contract this offseason, though none of that talk has come from the White Sox themselves. Other options could include waiting to see if he can reach that 2017 status once again and try to deal him during the 2019 season. But it's interesting to hear there was interest this past summer, even with the injuries. That could have been due to a hot stretch between June 22 and July 8, when Garcia returned from the disabled list to slash .333/.347/.783 with eight homers in a 17-game span.

For fans who want to play the "what if" game with Martes, his major league experience totals 32 appearances for the Astros in 2017, only four of which were starts. He posted a 5.80 ERA in 54.1 innings with 69 strikeouts and 31 walks. Dealing with injuries, he made just five minor league appearances in 2018. But his 2.04 ERA in 2015 and 3.30 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 2016 are likely what made the prospect-ranking folks so high on him in the first place.

Does a consistent, stable lineup even make sense for the Cubs in 2019?

Does a consistent, stable lineup even make sense for the Cubs in 2019?

It could be a winter of change for the Cubs, and not just on the roster.

This team may also change how it deploys the players on the roster — namely with a more set, consistent lineup in 2019.

It's something Theo Epstein addressed in his 2018 "eugoogly" presser, indicating some of the players expressed a desire for less shakeup in the daily lineup during the course of their exit interviews. Upon hearing that, a large portion of the Cubs fanbase jumped up, stood on their chairs and shouted "HEARD THAT!"

But does a set lineup even make sense in today's version of baseball?

In 2018, Joe Maddon wrote out 152 different lineups in 163 games (and that's not even factoring in the pitcher's spot). That's a bump up from 2017 (143 different lineups) and 2016 (130 lineups in the regular season of the championship year). 

How does that relate to the top contenders around the league?

The last four World Series teams (2017 Astros, 2018 Red Sox and the 2017-18 Dodgers) averaged 145 different lineups per regular season. All 2018 MLB playoff teams (excluding Cubs) averaged 129.1 separate lineups throughout the regular season. 

The Dodgers tallied 155 different lineups in 2018 and 147 in 2017 and they made it to the World Series both seasons. The Astros posted 144 new lineups each of the last two regular seasons while the Red Sox were at 134 lineups and the Brewers and Yankees sat at 137 lineups in 2018.

Point being: Everybody is mixing and matching nowadays. We're in a world of extreme platooning, bullpening and shifting. That means a lot of different lineups.

And it's not just a few teams doing it. The top contenders are all changing things up in terms of their lineup on a daily basis. Why would the Cubs be any different?

That being said, the Cubs were still high in 2018, even compared to the rest of that field (only the Dodgers were higher in terms of lineup tinkering). But how much of that would've changed had Kris Bryant started more than 99 games?

Maddon's most consistent lineup in 2018 (utilized 5 times) featured Bryant:

1. Albert Almora Jr.
2. Javy Baez
3. Kris Bryant
4. Anthony Rizzo
5. Willson Contreras
6. Kyle Schwarber
7. Addison Russell
8. Jason Heyward
9. Pitcher

But that lineup was never used after May 30, when Bryant's shoulder injury became an issue.

There are plenty of other factors that contributed to the lineup tinkering throughout the 2018 season, including Baez's ascension, playing time for Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ, the emergence of Heyward in the order, the addition of Daniel Murphy to the lineup late in the year and then the downturn of a slew of guys in the second half (Almora, Contreras, Russell, Happ). 

It was easier for Maddon to write out a lineup in 2017 when the heart of the order was the same (Bryant-Rizzo-Contreras) for much of the season and even simpler yet in 2016 with a stable leadoff hitter (Dexter Fowler). 

The 2018 Cubs roster was built like this by design — to have players like Zobrist and Happ rotate in and out based off necessity, playing different positions and capable of hitting anywhere in the lineup. 

The main reason they even won 95 games and still held a share of first place after 162 regular season games was due to that incredible depth built to withstand injuries and only one off-day in the final 5-6 weeks of the season. So knocking the Cubs' lack of lineup stability is also knocking the exact depth that gave them one of the best records in the game.

"The fact that we have more than eight everyday-caliber players to throw out there and we have depth, first of all, it's a huge part of what's helped us win 95 games this year, what's helped us average 97 games the last four years — more than anyone in baseball," Epstein said. "Because when you lose Addison Russell, Javy Baez slides over [to shortstop] and Zobrist slides to second base. And when you lose Kris Bryant and David Bote's there to fill in and player after player.

"The alternative to that is overexposing a reserve or forcing a Triple-A or Four-A type player into that role and that hurts the team and that hurts your ultimate goal. That said, there is a price to pay sometimes with players not knowing they're in the lineup every day and not having that confidence where they can just go out and play and develop at their own pace, that they're sometimes wondering if they have to get that hit today to be in the lineup tomorrow. That's something that you wrestle with, so it's a cost-benefit analysis. 

"Honestly, I think the right thing for the organization overall is to have too many good players instead of not enough or instead of eight guys for eight spots and then the second you suffer one or two injuries, your whole season's down the tubes. But I think it's fair to ask ourselves — can we handle it better? Do we need to communicate more? Do we need to spread the playing time around a little bit differently? Do we need to consider lineup issues differently? Is there a way we can get everyone on the same page with it more? So players don't have any questions or doubts so we get the benefit of certainty while still having a surplus. ... Looking at our team, it's the depth of really quality players we have that's kept us afloat at many times."

For years, Maddon's policy has been to let players know the day before what the lineup will be for the next game so they can prepare physically and mentally. He's always been focused on trying to develop the young position players while also trying to win on a consistent basis.

That doesn't mean Maddon or the Cubs can't learn from how 2018 played out and handle it better in the future, as Epstein admitted. 

But it still comes down to the roster. Who on this team should play every single day and hit in a consistent spot in the batting order? Bryant, Rizzo and Baez are the only three that come to mind at the moment.

Zobrist will be 38 in 2019, Contreras needs time to rest as a catcher, Schwarber struggles against left-handed pitchers and Almora simply hasn't hit well enough in his career to warrant everyday playing time despite his stellar defense in center field. 

The case for a stable lineup makes plenty of sense, especially with young players. But with the current roster construction and no discernible leadoff hitter, it's much harder to execute.

Before the Cubs can climb into the Cleveland Indians territory (they utilized only 105 different lineups in 2018 and just 101 in their World Series season of 2016), Epstein and Co. need to alter the roster, though that's exactly what may be happening this winter...