As you have likely heard by now, the Pirates acquired pitcher Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros on Tuesday in exchange for three minor leaguers: outfielder Robbie Grossman and pitchers Rudy Owens and Colton Cain. While Grossman is a pretty good prospect, this is a solid deal for the Pirates. Rodriguez is under contract for 2013 at $13M, a pricey but not burdensome amount; he also has a player option for the following year, which, as it will be his age-35 season, unless he has an excellent run between now and then, he is likely to exercise. Making a playoff run may give Pittsburgh additional payroll flexibility, and Rodriguez can have a direct impact on that.
Today it was announced, as expected, that Rodriguez would be taking the place of Kevin Correia in the rotation. This is a substantial upgrade, and makes the Pirates chances of making the playoffs much better. While Rodriguez isn't a star, he has been solid. After his career year in 2009, Rodriguez has had an ERA+ between 106 and 110 in every season. His K/9 rate is down a tad this year, from 7.8 to 6.1, he's worked around that by lowering his BB/9 from 3.3 to 2.2, while also cutting into his HR rate. He's pitched over 190 innings in each of the last three years, and is on pace to easily surpass that in 2012. Despite some injury concerns the past couple springs, Rodriguez has proven to be an above-average, durable starter.
That is important for the Pirates, because Correia isn't really either. Despite making the 2011 All-Star team, he finished the year with a poor 77 ERA+. It was the fourth consecutive year where he'd been under 100 (and the third in those four when he'd been under 80), and with an 88 ERA+ to this point in 2012, along with a K/9 rate dropping below 4.5, Correia is unlikely to turn things around in the rotation. In addition, Rodriguez is not only a better pitcher, he's the more durable one - Correia has surpassed 160 innings only once in his career. There's a bright side to Correia too, though - he pitched well in the San Francisco bullpen half a decade ago, and until this year had solid (though not outstanding) stats in his first two trips through a lineup. It was the third time through that really seemed to give Correia real issues. So, not only is Rodriguez a clear upgrade in the rotation, there is a chance that Correia can provide value in the 'pen.
With the Pirates 2.5 games behind the first-place Reds, and with a small lead over fellow wild-card contenders in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, improvements like this can be major. The advanced stats may show that Rodriguez is probably worth between one and two wins more than Correia from now until the end of the year, but that's not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison. Rodriguez, by pitching deeper into games, can force the Pirates to use their relievers slightly less frequently, improving their value as well. Not to mention, in such a tight race, one or two games may well be the difference between a trip to the playoffs and a 21st-consecutive postseason-free autumn in Pittsburgh.
With that in mind, the cost involved is sensible, though the Astros should be credited with getting a decent haul as obvious sellers. None of the prospects involved were top-100 types, and Marc Hulet of FanGraphs has a pretty good breakdown here. Grossman is the top prospect. A centerfielder with some pop and a willingness to take a walk, he could reach Houston by midseason 2013. However, his value declines some if he needs to move to a corner. Most of his power so far has come in the form of doubles. If some of those start going out of the park, he may stick as a starter. If not, he's unlikely to sustain that walk rate against higher quality pitching. He could get stuck as a tweener, but I like his chances to at least have a career as a fourth outfielder.
Rudy Owens was looking like a real prospect after a very good 2010 season at Double-A Altoona, posting a 2.46 ERA and K/BB well above 5.0. He had a difficult adjustment to Triple-A last year, and while he's improved this year, his low strikeout rate and preponderance of fly balls pegs him as a fringe prospect with a peak as a #4 or #5 prospect. He has excellent control, so he shouldn't be neglected, but he has little in the way of star potential.
Colton Cain was a highly regarded amateur, taken in the 8th round of the 2009 draft with great stuff but very mediocre results. He's still only 21, but is struggling in High A. Houston will see if they can get a bit more out of the Texan.
So, while it's not exactly a treasure trove for Houston, they've added some necessary talent to the organization. It's not one of the more glamorous parts of the rebuilding process, but if they had several players who they could turn into top prospects, they wouldn't be the worst team in baseball. It's going to be a long way back for the Astros, and cutting payroll and adding organizational depth is what needs to be done. For the Pirates, they've improved their team for the playoff run without giving up any of their top prospects. With any luck, they'll be seen in the postseason for the first time since the era of Andy Van Slyke, Chico Lind, Doug Drabek, and that Barry Bonds fellow.