It’s no secret that the Diamondbacks have been discussing trades for their young outfielders in recent days, but those rumors got more specific on Monday as USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that the Diamondbacks and Houston Astros have discussed a trade that would send outfielder Daulton Varsho to Houston.
The dormant trade market is finally waking up.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 12, 2022
The Houston #Astros and Arizona #Dbacks have engaged in trade talks about Dbacks outfielder Daulton Varsho. The asking price remains steep.
With free agent Brandon Nimmo now off the board, Varsho is arguably the most valuable outfielder readily available. The only comparable player is the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds, who is more accomplished offensively but leaps and bounds behind Varsho on defense.
Varsho would certainly net a handsome return in a trade for Arizona, but that doesn’t mean that the Diamondbacks want to part with him. Not only was he one of only two accomplished power hitters on the D-backs’ roster in 2022 — Christian Walker being the other — but he was arguably the best defensive outfielder in baseball. Based on fWAR, Varsho was the Diamondbacks’ most valuable player this past season.
Given how much Varsho contributed in 2022 and the fact that the Diamondbacks are attempting to win in 2023, the D-backs aren’t looking to deal Varsho for, say, a package of four prospects that are two or three years away. General manager Mike Hazen has made it clear: He wants major league-ready players who will either fill a gap or improve upon what was already there.
On the flip side, the Astros will be looking to defend their 2022 World Series title next season, making it difficult to pry away any of their core players. Let’s just say from the get-go that Alex Bregman, Yordan Álvarez and José Altuve are not going anywhere. But while the Diamondbacks and Astros are not exactly a perfect marriage for a trade, the Astros do have a handful of key pieces that could headline a return for Varsho.
Before we jump in, a quick note: The goal here is not to make a list of trades that will make Diamondbacks fans or Astros fans happy. The goal is to come up with trade proposals that, on paper, grade out as roughly equal value. That is still a nearly impossible task — but it’s a fun and worthwhile experiment. Let’s give it a try.
Trade 1: OF Daulton Varsho for SS Jeremy Peña
Okay, are the Astros really about to trade the World Series MVP? Almost certainly not. But would they be getting fair value in dealing him for Varsho? Arguably, yes.
Prior to lighting up the postseason with four homers and a .345/.367/.638 batting line in 61 plate appearances, Jeremy Peña put together a solid, albeit less eye-popping, rookie season. In 137 games, he slashed .253/.289/.426 with 22 homers, 63 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Defensively, he posted 16 defensive runs saved and seven outs above average on his way to becoming the first rookie shortstop ever to win a Gold Glove.
In total, Peña amassed 3.5 fWAR and 4.8 bWAR compared to Varsho’s 4.6 and 4.9, respectively. The margin is relatively small, but the numbers point to Varsho as the slightly more valuable player. Next season, Steamer projects Varsho for 3.3 fWAR compared to 2.4 fWAR for Peña.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Peña’s stock rose significantly based on his excellent postseason performance, and rightfully so. That, combined with the fact that Peña comes with one additional year of club control (five years as opposed to Varsho’s four) indicates that the players have very similar value moving forward.
Although the Diamondbacks have more pressing needs than shortstop, Peña would immediately slide in as the team’s best option there defensively, both in 2023 and beyond. Granted, the D-backs have one of the best shortstop prospects in baseball not far away in Jordan Lawlar, and acquiring Peña would likely necessitate a move to third base. That may not be a bad thing given Lawlar’s occasionally shaky defense, but it is also fair to wonder how Lawlar’s arm would play at third.
Beyond simply not wanting to trade the World Series MVP, the Astros are probably unlikely to move Peña anyway because they do not have a clear replacement in house. Frankly, there’s a lot more working against a Varsho-for-Peña swap than there is for it — but one-for-one swaps like this one are always fun to think about, and the deal, on paper, is fair for both sides.
Trade 2: OF Daulton Varsho for RHP Hunter Brown, C Yainer Diaz and UTIL David Hensley
If Peña is not the centerpiece of a return for Varsho — and he almost certainly would not be — the next most logical option is one of the Astros’ controllable pitchers. And no one fits the bill like 24-year-old pitching prospect Hunter Brown.
Widely regarded as the best prospect in the Astros’ farm system, Brown made his major league debut on Sep. 5, tossing six scoreless innings against the Texas Rangers. He was similarly impressive in his second start before being moved to a bullpen role for the remainder of the year. In 20.1 total innings in the majors, he dominated to the tune of a 0.89 ERA and 1.08 WHIP.
Brown’s arsenal primarily consists of a four-seam fastball that sits in the mid- to upper-90s with good spin and a low-80s spike curveball. He also throws a hard slider that averages around 93 MPH. Notably, Brown fashioned his mechanics after childhood idol Justin Verlander.
Hunter Brown vs. (his idol) Justin Verlander, Mechanics. pic.twitter.com/x8AKa1Q90C— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 6, 2022
Moving forward, Brown’s profile is not all that dissimilar from current Diamondbacks pitching prospects Drey Jameson and Ryne Nelson. The question is not about the stuff, but the command. Brown, in particular, needs to hone in on repeating his delivery. Even if he’s never quite able to do that, he could be an electric backend reliever.
In this proposal, the D-backs would also acquire 24-year-old catching prospect Yainer Diaz. Originally signed by the Cleveland Guardians out of the Dominican Republic, Diaz came over to the Astros in the deal that sent Myles Straw to Cleveland and has consistently put up strong offensive numbers throughout his minor league career.
In 2022, Diaz slashed .294/.342/.587 in Triple-A Sugar Land before being promoted to the big league team in September. He logged only nine plate appearances with the Astros, going 1-for-8 with a double. He has above-average raw power, but it’s unclear how his hit tool will translate to the majors.
Defensively, evaluators agree that Diaz has an above-average arm, but there is less certainty about whether he’ll be able to stick at catcher in the long term. Part of that uncertainty is simply due to the fact that he has never experienced the grind of a full season behind the dish. Throughout his minor league season in 2022, Diaz logged 50 games at catcher, 36 at first base, 14 at designated hitter, three in left field and five in right field. He has never caught more than 53 games in a single season.
To fit the profile of an everyday catcher, Diaz will need to refine his receiving skills. Still, he would instantly become the most promising catching prospect in the D-backs’ system. If they are under the impression that Diaz can stick behind the plate long-term, targeting him as a supplemental piece in a Varsho trade would make sense.
Finally, David Hensley acts as something of an interesting throw-in as a utility player who broke into the majors this past season at the age of 26. Despite his lanky 6-feet-6, 190-pound frame, Hensley is a solid defender at every position but center field and shortstop.
As a right-handed hitter with some pop, Hensley could fill a valuable bench role for the D-backs and comes with six years of club control. In an albeit very small sample of 34 plate appearances in the big leagues, he slashed an impressive .345/.441/.586 with a 14.7 percent walk rate and a 17.6 percent strikeout rate.
Trade 3: OF Daulton Varsho for RHP Hunter Brown, C Korey Lee, OF/2B Pedro Leon and OF Jake Meyers
Here’s another configuration centered around Brown, but this time we consider a scenario where the D-backs swap out Diaz for another Astros catching prospect: Korey Lee.
Selected in the first round of the 2019 draft, Lee excelled offensively in the lower levels of the minors but seemed to hit a wall since reaching Triple-A in 2021. His power is above-average, but his hit tool has received grades as low as 30 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
Most recently, Lee hit .238/.307/.483 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League this past season before being promoted to the big leagues at the end of the year. In 26 plate appearances with the Astros, he slashed .160/.192/.240.
Defensively, Lee has an elite arm and seems to be held in higher regard as a receiver than Diaz. With both Diaz and Lee set to hit the majors around the same time, it stands to reason the Astros might be willing to move one of them.
In addition to Lee, the D-backs would also net prospect Pedro León. Prior to the 2021 season, MLB Pipeline actually had Leon higher on their Astros prospects rankings than Peña or Brown. Now, León seems to be viewed as more of a utility player than an everyday regular.
In 2022, the 24-year-old slashed .228/.365/.431 with 17 homers and 63 RBI in Triple-A — which works out to roughly league-average production, considering the hitter-friendly environment. While he does have some pop, León has posted concerning strikeouts rates in each of his two years in pro ball. Nonetheless, he should have some value as a utility player with an exceptional arm and plus speed.
As the final piece of the trade, Jake Meyers is an excellent defensive outfielder who bats right-handed and slashed .260/.323/.438 for the Astros in 2021. Coming off shoulder surgery, his bat was not as good in 2022 with a line of .227/.269/.313.
If the D-backs feel confident that Meyers can bounce back, he could be worth a look as a fourth outfielder. Still, he is probably more of a throw-in, considering he has a career strikeout rate of 32.2 percent in the majors.
Trade 4: OF Daulton Varsho for RHP Christian Javier, C Korey Lee and UTIL David Hensley
If the D-backs aren’t getting Brown back, they almost certainly would target another starting pitcher on the Astros’ staff. It’s probably safe to say that Framber Valdez — the Astros’ projected Opening Day starter for 2023 — is off the table, but 25-year-old right-hander Christian Javier is more realistic.
Javier is coming off a memorable postseason performance, highlighted by his six no-hit innings against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series. He was also excellent in the regular season. In 30 appearances (25 starts), he went 11-9 with a 2.54 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 194 strikeouts against 52 walks in 148.2 innings.
Despite how good those numbers are, it’s probably too early to call Javier an ace for a couple of reasons. First, he was not particularly efficient with his pitches, averaging just over 17 pitches per inning and around 5 ⅓ innings per start. Second, Javier has been quite home-run prone in the past, with a career mark of 1.3 home-runs-per-nine.
Nonetheless, Javier is a legitimate No. 2 or No. 3 starter, and he would instantly make the top of the D-backs’ rotation formidable alongside Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. Like Gallen and Kelly, Javier is under club control for three more seasons.
The most pressing question, of course, is whether the Astros would be willing to part with Javier, particularly now that Justin Verlander is no longer in the organization. That is a hard question to answer. On paper, the Astros have enough depth to put together a five-man rotation without him, with Brown, Valdez, Lance McCullers, Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia.
From the Diamondbacks’ standpoint, there’s little doubt that Javier would make sense. He might be the most valuable starting pitcher whom they can reasonably acquire via trade. It’s also worth noting that Brown could be somewhat redundant for the D-backs, given how many young starters they already have who are at or close to the majors. Javier would provide much-needed stability to the rotation at a level that the D-backs are not likely to get anywhere else.
Trade 5: OF Daulton Varsho for RHP Luis Garcia, RHP Bryan Abreu and C Yainer Diaz
Instead of landing one primary asset with a plethora of add-ons, this last deal essentially has the D-backs splitting that one big-name guy into a pair of productive major leaguers: in this case, 26-year-old starter Luis Garcia and 25-year-old reliever Bryan Abreu.
Garcia is a step below Javier, but he has been a steady presence in the Astros’ rotation each of the past two seasons. In 28 starts in 2022, Garcia went 15-8 with a 3.72 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 157 strikeouts in 157.1 innings. He profiles ideally as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, but, like Javier, he would add much-needed stability to a D-backs rotation that would benefit from another arm. Like Varsho, Garcia has four more seasons of club control remaining.
On paper, Abreu would instantly become the D-backs’ best reliever. With a 1.94 ERA and 88 strikeouts over 60.1 innings this past season, he was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2022 and has the type of stuff that could play in a closer role. Abreu is also under control for four more seasons.
With Diaz — or Lee, if the D-backs prefer — also included, this move could fill three needs in one move with a starting pitcher, relief pitcher and a catcher all coming back to Arizona in the deal.
Ultimately, there are a lot of factors working against a deal that would send Varsho to Houston. Namely, the Astros have other ways to acquire an outfielder, and the D-backs have plenty of other teams interested in their outfielders. It is also difficult to envision any scenario in which the D-backs trade Varsho and actually win more games because of it. Replacing a 5-WAR player, unsurprisingly, is very difficult.
On the other hand, Varsho’s trade value may never be higher, and there may be no time like the present to capitalize on an opportunity to fill other needs on the roster. Whatever decision the Diamondbacks make, this is one they have to get right.
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