UPDATE: Somewhere between Wednesday evening, when the trade was initially agreed upon, and Saturday morning, the prospects being exchanged between the Astros and Phillies were changed. The completed trade is now Ken Giles and SS Jonathan Arauz heading to Houston with pitchers Mark Appel, Vincent Velasquez, Thomas Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer and Harold Arauz coming to the Phillies.
Having a dominant relief pitcher to close out games can be just the difference maker that takes a contending team to a championship level. It’s that final piece of the puzzle that puts a team over the top. It’s icing on the cake when that closer is a flame thrower who pushes the radar gun into triple digits, blowing away hopeful hitters with a steady diet of fastballs.
After the Phillies went to the playoffs in 2007, they reached that cusp. They were just a few key moves away from being that championship contender. That offseason, then General Manager Pat Gillick traded away prospects in order to acquire closer Brad Lidge from the Houston Astros. It was a move that led to the “Perfect Season” and a parade down Broad Street.
Even already this offseason we’ve seen the San Diego Padres deal an all-star closer in Craig Kimbrel to the Boston Red Sox for a package of prospects that surprised many in the industry. But for the Red Sox, Kimbrel hopefully is that piece to put them over the top.
The Phillies have…or should I say “had”…that dominant pitcher yet again in Ken Giles. On Wednesday evening, new Phillies GM Matt Klentak dealt Giles to none other than that same Astros team in exchange for five pitchers including RHP Vincent Velasquez, RHP Mark Appel, LHP Brett Oberholtzer, RHP Harold Arauz and RHP Thomas Eshelman. Also heading to Houston from the Phillies is 17-year-old SS prospect Jonathan Arauz from Panama.
It shouldn’t be any surprise, but the Phillies are not going to be a contending team in 2016, nor will they be in the immediate future. Giles is the exact pitcher that any team would want closing out games for them and he proved it in 2015 after the Phillies dealt then closer Jonathan Papelbon prior to the July trade deadline. For a last place Phillies team, Giles pitched in 69 games, saving 15 of them, with a 1.80 ERA and 87 strikeouts.
Having a dominant closer however, means nothing to a non-contending team, like the Phillies, when you aren’t able to reach the ninth inning with a lead. At just 25 years of age and with a team controlled contract that will pay him under $1 million in 2016, Giles’ value was never going to be higher. With the Phillies still having multiple holes, dealing Giles for a starting pitcher with the potential to eclipse 200 innings in a season and be a long-term rotation solution just makes sense.
In exchange for Giles, the Phillies receive right-handed pitcher Vincent Velasquez. Heading into the 2015 season, Velasquez was highly rated across the industry. MLB.com ranked him as their #86 prospect across baseball while Baseball Prospectus ranked him as high as #75. The 2010 second round pick pitched extremely well for the Astros at AA Corpus Christi in 9 games (starting 5). His 1.91 ERA with 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings led to his mid-season call-up to the big league club. For the Astros, Velasquez continued to work out of the bullpen and rotation, seeing action in 19 games (starting 7). While his ERA rose to over 4.00, his strikeouts per nine stayed just as dominant at 9.4.
Health has always been a bit of an issue for Velasquez. A stress fracture and ligament strain in his right elbow forced him to miss his junior season in 2009 while still in high school. He’s also gone through a Tommy John surgery in 2011 and suffered a groin injury in 2014, which forced him to miss two months.
With a big athletic build and a fastball that could hit the mid-upper 90’s, Velasquez projects as at least a mid-rotation starter. If all else fails he could end up being the fireballer that replaces the departing Giles at the back end of the rotation.
Brett Oberholtzer, 26, is the seasoned veteran of the package coming back to Philadelphia. The former eighth round pick by the Atlanta Braves in the 2008 draft, initially came to the Astros as part of the 2011 deadline deal that sent outfielder and former Phillie Michael Bourn to the Braves. Oberholtzer has spent parts of the last three seasons with the major league club. In 42 starts for the Astros, he’s pitched to an 11-20 record with a 3.94 ERA. While strikeouts aren’t a huge part of his game, he does keep the ball in the yard, allowing less than one home run per nine innings. Oberholtzer could figure to be a solid #5 starter for the Phillies as early as this coming season.
Thomas Eshelman, 6’3″ 21-year old out of Cal State Fullerton, was a second round pick (46th overall) just this past year by the Astros. While Eshelman doesn’t stand out as a pitcher who is going to blow any batter away with his fastball, he keeps the ball down and he throws strikes. He boasts the NCAA Division I records for fewest walks per nine innings as a freshman, sophomore and junior. He led Cal State to the College World Series while ranking fourth in the country in strikeouts (139) while walking just four batter all season. Eshelman’s pinpoint control should give him a really great shot at being penciled at the back-end of the Phillies rotation in future seasons.
In Mark Appel, 24, the Phillies are getting the 2013 #1 overall pick out of the University of Stanford. Since being drafted, Appel has struggled to maintain control on the mound. While his fastball sits in the mid-upper 90’s, his best two pitches are his slider and changeup. His numbers across AA and AAA this year were extremely underwhelming. While he went 10-3 overall, his combined ERA in just over 131 innings pitched was 4.37. His strikeout numbers were solid punching out 110 batters, but Appel’s 51 walks forced his WHIP to 1.41 on the season.
Given Appel’s struggles, a change of scenery may just be what was needed for him to right the ship. Appel may get every opportunity to start 2016 with the big league club out of spring training. Continued struggles however, may ultimately force him out of a shot at the starting rotation and into a relief role.