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The Rockies won, lost, the Dexter Fowler trade

After DFA’ing Jordan Lyles, the Dexter Fowler trade comes to a close for the Rockies

The Rockies designated right-handed pitcher Jordan Lyles for assignment. That puts to an end one of the most frustrating relief pitchers on the Rockies’ staff this year. It also wraps up one of the most substantial trades in recent Rockies history. On December 3, 2013, the Rockies sent outfielder Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros in exchange for outfielder Brandon Barnes and starting pitcher Jordan Lyles. Let’s see how it turned out for everyone.

What the Astros got

Fowler had two years of team control left when the Astros acquired him. He played very well in the first year, posting 1.8 Wins Above Replacement (according to Baseball Reference) despite losing time due to injury. Fowler hit .276/.375/.399 in 116 games for the Astros—that amounted to a 120 OPS+. But the Astros were on the cusp of realizing their total rebuild, and it didn’t make a lot of sense for them to keep Fowler around for his final arbitration year before hitting free agency.

For the second time in two offseasons, Fowler was traded. This time, the Astros sent him to the Cubs in exchange for third baseman Luis Valbuena and right-handed starting pitcher Dan Straily.

Valbuena posted two strong seasons for the Astros, though both were abbreviated. He played 132 and 90 games in his two seasons with Houston. Valbuena hit .238/.339/.446 and 38 home runs. Add in his base running and defense, and that amounted to 4.7 rWAR. The Astros allowed Valbuena to become a free agent after the 2015 season.

Straily had a short and entirely forgettable season with the Astros. In four games, three starts, and just 1623 innings Straily posted a 5.40 ERA and a well below average 74 ERA+. Straily can credit the lack of playing time for only having -0.1 rWAR. The Astros traded Straily to the Padres for backup catcher Erik Kratz prior to the 2016 season. Kratz managed to put up -0.4 rWAR in just 15 games. The Astros released him in May, and that stopped their branches on the Fowler trade tree.

Add it all together, and the Astros received 6.0 rWAR worth of value from the Fowler trade. And now back to Fowler: He had a bit of a down season for the Cubs in 2015. Fowler hit for a bit more power, but he didn’t get on base as frequently. He played 156 games for the 97-win Cubs. During the two seasons of Fowler the Rockies traded away, one with the Astros and one with the Cubs, he hit .261/.358/.406, good for a 114 OPS+ and 4.0 rWAR.

What the Rockies got

The Rockies gave up two years of team control of a good major-leaguer for multiple years of control of two major-leaguers who had slim chances of being good.

Barnes was a 28-year-old outfielder with under a year of service time when the Rockies acquired him prior to the 2014 season. Both of those descriptors provide a good idea of the player the Rockies got. From the beginning of 2014 until his release in September 2016, Barnes provided some exciting moments with the Rockies, especially from the inside-the-park home run department. But ultimately, all he added to the Rockies was a bunch of tattoos. He hit .249/.295/.376 in 286 games, good for a 72 OPS+. Barnes’s rWAR in his three years with the team amounted to -0.3.

Lyles came to the Rockies a 23-year-old starting pitcher with three 377 innings of major-league experience under his belt. Lyles had a good first season with the Rockies, posting a 4.33 ERA and a 98 ERA+. But that was his peak. He never captured the unrealistic potential ascribed to a player who debuted in the majors at 20-years-old, nor did he even obtain the realistic potential of a reliable fifth starter. In all, Lyles threw 281 innings for the Rockies, including 37 starts. He posted a 5.22 ERA, a 4.49 FIP, an 88 ERA+, and 0.2 rWAR.

The Rockies didn’t get anything for Barnes, but they might trade Lyles in the coming week. If so, then the Fowler trade tree will continue. For now, however, the Rockies’ total value in return for Fowler is -0.1 rWAR.

Did anybody win the trade?

“Who won the trade?” is a deceptive question. First, trades aren’t zero sum. It’s possible for there to be anywhere from zero to two winners. Maybe nobody wins; maybe they both win. If the question is simply asking “who got the best player?” then this trade was an obvious winner for the Astros. Fowler in one season with Houston was worth more rWAR than the roughly six total seasons Barnes and Lyles spent with the Rockies. The question also deceives because it focuses too much on the players exchanged. The Astros were able to flip Fowler for additional value, for instance.

But the Rockies benefited from the trade, too. The benefit is just less obvious. The trade was so lampooned at the time because the Rockies traded a proven 28-year-old centerfielder, Fowler, so that they could install an unproven 27-year-old in center field—Charlie Blackmon. The Rockies were clearly uninterested in keeping Fowler around beyond his arbitration years, and Blackmon had played well enough in limited playing time from 2011 to 2013.

In fact, Blackmon played about as well as Fowler in 2014 and 2015, the final two years the Rockies would have controlled Fowler. Blackmon has blown up over the past two years though, and he’s become one of the premier center fielders in baseball. Nobody expected that to happen—and that could very well include the Rockies’ front office. But giving Blackmon the space to grow almost certainly led to him becoming the player he is right now. That was made possible by the Dexter Fowler trade.

With three and a half years of hindsight and the trade tree close to closing, it’s clear that the Rockies executed good process in trading Fowler, as did the Astros, given where they were at the time. But the move is still ripe for criticism. Even though it looks like the Rockies were right to trade Fowler when they did, the return was poor.

The Rockies lost the direct outcome of the trade. Twitter search “Jordan Lyles” to see evidence of that. But the indirect results come out in the Rockies favor. Proof of that will be found when Blackmon receives a handful of MVP votes this offseason. The Rockies lost the trade. The Rockies won the trade. Trade season is as good of a time as any to remember the complex nature of these transactions.