On Monday night, less than 24 hours before the trade deadline, the Houston Astros traded former closer Ken Giles and prospects David Paulino and Hector Perez to the Toronto Blue Jays for reliever Roberto Osuna.
The Blue Jays, a sub-.500 team headed into a rebuild, acquired two prospects and Giles. The 27-year-old’s time in Houston was rocky, but if he rebounds in 2019 or 2020, the team could benefit directly or he could become a trade piece to bring back more prospects. The Astros add an All-Star closer who’s under team control through 2020. On the surface, it’s not too different from last year’s trade that sent veteran relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle to Washington for Blake Treinen and prospects Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo, but it’s immensely complicated from a moral perspective.
Osuna won’t join the Astros until Sunday, when his 75-game suspension for violating the joint MLB-MLBPA domestic violence policy is over. Neither Osuna, the league, nor the Toronto police has revealed the details of Osuna’s arrest, but MLB commissioner Rob Manfred saw fit to hand out the second-longest domestic violence suspension in league history to the 23-year-old right-hander. (Osuna is set to appear in court on August 1, and his lawyer has said that his client plans to plead not guilty.) When he comes back, the Astros will add an excellent pitcher, but they’ll pay a cost beyond what they sent to Toronto in money and players.
The Astros gave up relatively little to acquire a pitcher of Osuna’s caliber. Paulino was once a global top-60 prospect, but his stock has tumbled after an 80-game PED suspension last year. Perez is a Double-A prospect likely headed for the bullpen. Giles, the Astros’ closer entering the year, earned a demotion to Triple-A after possibly cursing out manager A.J. Hinch after being pulled from a game — his career in Houston was pretty much over anyway.
Osuna, who’s four years younger than Giles, has saved 104 games with a 10.2 K/9 ratio and a 150 ERA+ in his career. And the Astros got him for two second-tier prospects and a pitcher they weren’t going to use anyway. They got him on discount because he was suspended after he was said to have laid hands on a woman.
In a statement after the trade, Osuna merely alluded to the reason he’s had to sit out since May. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said the team had done its “due diligence” and that Osuna seemed “remorseful” for his “past behavior” without mentioning what that past behavior was. The public still knows next to nothing about what, precisely, Osuna did, and as of the time of the trade, neither did the players in the Astros clubhouse.
Luhnow comes from a business background, and is a prototypical general manager of the MBA GM generation, and thus this trade calls to mind terms like “arbitrage” and “distressed asset.” Using those terms to describe Osuna seems cold and soulless because it is, and there’s nothing novel about laundering a player who was suspended over an account of domestic violence in an attempt to win a pennant race.
In December 2015, the Yankees bought low on Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, who had been suspended after his girlfriend told police that he choked her; Chapman also said that he locked himself in his garage and fired a pistol multiple times. Four months into the 2016 season, they traded him to the Cubs for a much larger prospect package, including future All-Star shortstop Gleyber Torres. I wrote then that baseball, as an institution, is ill equipped to handle situations like Chapman’s or Osuna’s. A zero-tolerance policy would drive victims underground and remove any incentive that teams, players, the union, or the league would have to be transparent. Women would be less likely to speak up if doing so would end their husband’s or boyfriend’s career at a stroke, and those who did would live in fear of an abuser who, stripped of his livelihood, might look for revenge. It was a difficult situation when the Cubs traded for Chapman, and it hasn’t gotten any easier to look a man like Osuna in the eye since then.
The mere existence of a joint domestic violence policy invites comparisons to the league’s Joint Drug Agreement, though the behaviors they cover are themselves incomparable. Using PEDs is a violation against the integrity of a game, of an entertainment concern. Striking a romantic partner, in addition to being a criminal offense, is a life-altering violation of trust for the third of American women and quarter of American men who have suffered intimate partner violence, and a violation unfathomable for those of us who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced it.
Osuna was suspended 75 games, while Seattle’s Robinson Canó, a first-time PED offender, is in the middle of an 80-game suspension. Canó will not be allowed to play in the postseason, while Osuna will — in fact, Osuna’s ability to contribute in the postseason is a huge reason Luhnow decided it was worth adding someone said to be a domestic abuser to his clubhouse.
The Astros haven’t broken any rules. Once he’s back from suspension, as far as MLB is concerned, Osuna has just as much a right to play, and to play on a winning team, as anyone else. Acquiring him is a choice, one the Astros didn’t have to make. They could have traded for any number of other closers: former Orioles closer Zach Britton, Rangers reliever Keone Kela, Reds closer Raisel Iglesias. Or they could have tried to reintegrate Giles, or stuck with his understudy, Héctor Rondón. Someone was going to give Osuna a job when he returned from suspension — the Astros decided it was going to be them. Wanting to win so badly that you’re willing to view a player’s domestic violence suspension as a trade opportunity is a choice.