Here at Southside Showdown, we don’t set out to delve into the seedier elements of the baseball world, and we certainly do not set out to peer behind the bedroom doors of the Houston Astros front office, but some things are simply readily apparent.
If one is an incident, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend, then the Houston Astros are plum crazy about discarded White Sox back-end starters. On Wednesday, they traded for John Ely, who will slot in comfortably with other former Sox Lucas Harrell and Philip Humber, pitchers who the ‘Stros claimed off of waivers. They can share stories about Kenny Williams coldness when delivering bad news.
The Astros, a team deep in rebuilding, and with pretty much no interest in their major league club besides “Hey, if we don’t field a team, people are going to get SUSPICIOUS”, has been, and will be, able to do what the White Sox felt they could not afford to do–take their fringey, back-end of the rotation guys, take them for a spin in the rotation, and see if they are major leaguers.
After all, tt just worked with Lucas Harrell.
A cruddy Spring Training puts Harrell on the outs with the Sox in 2011, and after some scant relief work, (and throwing some batting practice at the end of John Danks’ disastrous, clowning Toronto start), the Sox were already weighing the machinations of a six-man rotation, and feeling detached enough from Harrell to put him on waivers just to clear a roster space. He was an emergency starter, who could neither miss bats, nor throw strikes reliably enough to put up gaudy minor league stats.
But the Astros had enough time to see whether or not his 50+% groundball rate over 29 White Sox innings could hold up, and eventually, it did. Harrell was knocked around for his first two and a half months in the rotation, and had a 5.07 ERA over 14 starts. The Astros, having no earthly purpose other than to bide their time, kept him around, and were rewarded with a 2.81 ERA over Harrell’s final 112 innings, along with 100 strikeouts. In the end, he had a 193.2 IP season at a 3.76 ERA under his belt.
This is not to say Harrell is drastically different than our previous conception of him, or that the White Sox should have moved Heaven and Earth for someone who had been futzing around their farm system and putting up mediocre peripherals for five years, because they should not have. But it turns out that a former 4th round draft pick who can sit at 93 mph can generate enough groundballs to be a strong #4 in an NL rotation, and it was worth giving him the chance to prove it. It just probably wasn’t worth the risk for many teams besides the Astros.
Philip Humber is a similar case to Harrell, with simply less risk. Here’s someone who has had major league success before, but simply didn’t make sense for the Sox, who would have to guarantee him the salary of two league minimum players, when they couldn’t guarantee him the roster spot of one. The Astros, for whom Carlos Pena is their only contracted veteran on a payroll that should slide under $30 million, Humber’s a worthwhile lottery ticket on above-average performance. Why, he might even pitch them a perfect game.
John Ely completes the trio, but while he’s a former White Sox farmhand, he’s apart from the organizational disparity exemplified with the first two. Ely is not a cheap flier that the Astros can afford to tolerate poor performance of, he’s just fun to discuss.
The soft-tossing righty with good minor league numbers was the primary prospect sent by the Sox to Los Angeles in the Juan Pierre deal. That’s not a lofty distinction, since the trade was basically a salary dump for the Dodgers. The Tribune’s Phil Rogers caterwauled in agony at Ely’s departure, especially after he strung together six-straight quality starts in June of 2010, but he eventually regressed and spent the vast majority of the next two seasons in the Pacific Coast League.
Ely hasn’t suddenly gained 10 miles on his fastball, but his dominant 2012 season in the offense-crazy PCL (3.20 ERA in 168.2 IP with 165 strikeouts, which Rogers breathlessly reported on, calling it a “breakout season”, even though he’s 26) is at least enough to pique some curiosity whether he can hang around a rotation. The White Sox have enough worthy candidates to fill their low-ceiling, inning-filling needs, and the Dodgers are too rich to ever think about settling again, so Ely is Houston-bound.
On a spreadsheet, or just from a isolated analytical standpoint, the Astros get to have all the fun. They can take all the waiver-wire fliers they want, and never need to overpay for certainty. That’s because their games don’t mean anything, and the games meaning something is this addictive rush that White Sox fans are regularly able to rationalize failure in September for being able to feel in June and July.
Since the Sox are generally revered for coaching up their pitchers beyond their tools, picking at the guys they give up on is not an expected tact, but 113 losses in two years buys a lot of curiosity, and an unexpected proving ground for every deficient starter the White Sox dump out.
So far, it doesn’t look like the Astros have reached any agreement about sending these guys back if they turn out OK.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan