Tagged: drayton mclane

Dear Jim Crane,

We need to talk. I know that you’re not officially the owner of the Houston Astros yet (though we expected you would be by now), but that appears to be a mere formality. Our team will soon be yours. As a lifelong die-hard Astros fan, I think you’ll find my opinions on the following matters are shared by the majority of the fan base that you’re about to be introduced to. So I hope that you’ll listen and give our voice very serious consideration.

This Astros-to-the-AL thing isn’t going away. They’re saying now that you’ll probably go along with it to keep from rocking the boat in the MLB landscape in your first act as an MLB owner. But please – PLEASE – rock that boat. Capsize the damn thing if you have to. It’s been said that you’re already disliked by many or most of the other 29 owners, so you’ll want to start out by trying to make nice. But does the opinion of Bud Selig and those other 29 owners really matter more than the opinion of the fans of your own team? Do you really have a greater responsibility to them than you do to us? Remember, we’re your customers; you’re a businessman, and a very good one, so I trust that you know the importance of customers to any business. Your soon-to-be fellow owners may be your colleagues, but they’re also your competitors. As a MLB owner, it should be your ultimate goal to go out there every year and beat those other 29 teams. Why would you make a choice to please 29 rivals, and simultaneously alienate millions of potential supporters? Millions of your neighbors?

It’s unfortunate that you have to take over our once-proud franchise when they’re as low as they’ve ever been. But please don’t let anyone use that weakness as leverage against you. Have a spine. If you piss off Bud Selig & Co. by flat-out refusing to move to the AL, we’ll love you for it. It will endear you to your Astros fan base immediately, and it will go a long way towards rejuvenating the downtrodden and disillusioned populace of Astros Nation. Houston was a great baseball town until we were forced to watch our team make dumb decision after dumb decision, burying themselves alive for the last several years. The fans will come back if you give them reason to.

Whenever the team is finally yours, go ahead and make it your own. Fire Ed Wade if you must, though that’s not really fair to Ed. He’s done a good job with a bad situation, but if you can pry fellow Houstonian Andrew Friedman away from the Rays, I do believe that he’d be an upgrade. And it would be another step towards reestablishing that connection between the Astros and their Houstonian fans. Trade whomever you feel you need to in order to improve the club for the long haul (though not Hunter Pence – please not Hunter Pence). I’d keep Brad Mills around too, but go ahead and bring in George Postolos and whomever else you think will help get our team back on track. We want to believe that you’re the man who will finally deliver what Drayton McLane always talked about but never quite achieved – a championship.

Just don’t move us to the American League.

Thanks for reading, if you read this. Congrats on finally getting that MLB team that you sought for so long; I’m glad that it’s ours. Best of luck on the new venture. We’re in this together, so let’s start kicking some butt. And beat the Rangers to the first World Series championship in the State of Texas.

Sincerely,

an Astros fan

Kissimmee, Here We Come

So we’ll assume (safely enough) for the time being that Michael Young won’t be wearing brick red in 2011, that Carlos Lee will, and that the Astros’ squad as it stands is the group that will begin heading for warmer climes in Kissimmee next week. Houston enters spring training this year with likely lower expectations than this time a year ago, but with arguably a more interesting and exciting season ahead. In spite of their seemingly slim playoff chances, this will be a critical year in determining the future direction of the franchise.

ADDITIONS

Clint Barmes: Astros GM Ed Wade entered the off-season with a focus on upgrading the offense in the middle infield and adding another starting pitcher. To that end, his first move was trading Felipe Paulino to the Colorado Rockies for Clint Barmes. Many Houston fans have maligned this deal, likely based on the solid string of starts that Paulino put together early last year. But then he got hurt – again – and when he came back late in the year, he was fairly awful. Paulino is 27, out of options, and has yet to pitch more than 133 total innings in any professional season. (In contrast, Roy Oswalt pitched 129 innings for the Astros last year before he was traded, then went on to post another 82+ for Philadelphia.) While it’s possible that Felipe will eventually put it all together and Colorado will come up smelling like roses from this trade, reality is that Houston has several other less injury-prone, more reliable fifth starter options, so Paulino was expendable. With Clint Barmes, the club addressed their greatest weakness last season (shortstop), so I like this trade. It’s true that Barmes has only had one real standout season, but he’s a defensive improvement over Angel Sanchez, an offensive improvement over Tommy Manzella, and an all-around improvement over either one of them. Barmes may never be an All-Star, but Wade used an area of surplus to address an area of weakness, and he made the club stronger thereby, so I give him a thumbs up here.

Ryan Rowland-Smith: Wade’s second move this off-season was inking free agent lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith from Seattle. I don’t have a problem with this signing in and of itself, but as this ended up being the only starter Houston added, I’m a bit disappointed. Wade had earlier mentioned hoping to repeat the success of the Brett Myers deal from last winter, but no one will mistake this guy for Myers; it’s hard to get excited about a pitcher coming off of a 1-10 record with a 6.75 ERA. If the hyphenated wonder from Down Under turns in a year even equal to Brett Myers’ worst, Wade should be thrilled with this pickup. But, to be fair, Houston already had four starters’ spots locked up by the end of last season. Even after the Paulino/Barmes trade, they had Nelson Figueroa, Wesley Wright and Fernando Abad to compete for the #5 spot. Jordan Lyles will likely add himself to that conversation sooner or later, too. So adding one more name with big league experience to the list isn’t a bad idea, and Rowland-Smith’s numbers will almost certainly improve by his moving from the AL West to the NL Central. I still would have loved to see the Astros add Jon Garland (whom the Dodgers got on a bargain) instead, but Rowland-Smith is a low-risk signing, and if he turns out to be a dependable #5 to eat the innings until Lyles is ready to step up, then it’s a good move.

Bill Hall: Mixed feelings on this one. Like Barmes, Bill Hall has only had one real stand-out season. But he still managed to hit 18 homers for Boston last season in a part-time role, which would have ranked him #3 in Houston, and that was three times as many as Jeff Keppinger managed while playing full-time. On the other hand, Hall hit .247 to Keppinger’s .288, and Hall posted a 1.2 WAR to Kepp’s 2.5. Kepp also has an almost superhuman ability to avoid striking out, and he was Houston’s most consistent and arguably best hitter all season long. So while the HR numbers will certainly go up with Hall in the 2B1 role, and the Astros were sorely lacking in the power department last year, this is not an obvious overall improvement at the position. It could help strengthen the club overall if Keppinger is kept on in a bench role, as I think he’s one of the best utility men in baseball, but Ed Wade was reportedly trying to trade him after the Hall signing, until the news emerged that Keppinger needed surgery and would therefore miss the start of the season. I still expect they’ll try to move him after he’s healthy again, too, which I’m not thrilled about. But the bottom line is that they got Hall on a one-year deal, so it won’t hurt the team long-term, and it might end up helping them in the short-term. It could pay off, so it’s worth a shot.

SUBTRACTIONS

Geoff Blum: Not long after the off-season began, Geoff Blum jumped ship for Arizona. You can’t really blame him, as he seemed genuinely heartbroken when the Astros declined his 2011 option and told him that they wouldn’t be bringing him back. It’s unfortunate that things had to happen like that, but baseball is a business, and Houston had a surplus of infielders by the end of 2010. With younger, cheaper options available, and with the later additions of Barmes and Hill, Blum no longer had a place on this team. He may be missed more in the clubhouse than on the field.

Felipe Paulino: Sent to Colorado in the Clint Barmes trade, already discussed above. He’s shown moments of brilliance overshadowed by repeated trouble with injuries and inconsistency. The Astros needed a starting shortstop, and none of the free agent options available this winter were particularly appealing, so Ed Wade made the move he had to make. With multiple other starting pitching options, Paulino’s departure shouldn’t hurt the club.

Matt Lindstrom: The bullpen was another area of surplus for Houston last year, and Lindstrom was arbitration eligible, so he also got shipped off to Colorado for prospects in a separate deal. Lindstrom never quite turned into the closer that Houston had hoped for when they acquired him last winter, and he ultimately wasn’t even one of their most dependable bullpen options, so sending him off for prospects and salary savings made sense.

Brian Moehler: Moehler was a surprisingly dependable fifth starter back in 2008 (Houston’s last winning season), but he’s become slightly less dependable each year since. Like Paulino and Blum, with multiple cheaper, healthier options available to the club, Mo’s spot in Houston has been filled. Still hoping he catches on somewhere else.

Tim Byrdak, Chris Sampson: Other relievers deemed replaceable by Astros management. Byrdak took a step backwards in 2010 after a solid 2009, and Sampson has been plagued by injuries. Sampson’s situation was particularly disappointing, as it seems that it was mishandled, but it was nice to hear this week that he’ll be joining Paulino and Lindstrom in Colorado. Byrdak signed on with the Mets, so his lefty specialist role will be filled in 2011 by Fernando Abad, Wesley Wright or Gustavo Chacin.

OTHER MOVES

Wandy’s Extension: Another deal disappointingly lambasted by a majority of Astros fans, it seems. Wandy Rodriguez was arbitration eligible for the last time this winter, so instead of a one-year deal, Wade and Drayton McLane chose to lock him up for the next three years at $34 million, with an option for 2014. Critics have said that Houston overpaid for Wandy, or that this deal will retard the development of youngsters coming up, but reality is that Wandy has been one of the best lefty starters in the National League the last two years. If he was signed to another one-year deal and allowed to hit the open market after 2011, he would most likely have been the first- or second-best starter available and, given the always high demand for pitching, some team would have paid him crazy money (see: A.J. Burnett), leaving Houston with a big hole to fill. The Astros had
one of the best rotations in the league after the All-Star Break last year, and by locking up Wandy for a few years the same way they locked up Brett Myers, they’ve assured stability in the area most teams struggle hardest to fill. It’s an approach that worked well for San Francisco, allowing them to focus on improving other areas instead of constantly worrying about pitching, ultimately leading them to the World Series title. And if Houston had multiple pitching prospects knocking on the door of the majors, the criticism about blocking youngsters might have some validity, but they don’t. They have Jordan Lyles, and that’s it; Dallas Keuchel and others are at least a year or more away, and Lyles may be, too. (Remember, he’s only 20 and hasn’t pitched more than 159 innings yet.) Having this stability at the big league level gives the team time to evaluate their prospects more fully and allows them time to develop gradually, without risking injury by being rushed to the majors to fill an urgent need. It’s a smart move on Houston’s part, and Wade & McLane deserve to be commended for it.

ANALYSIS

Houston went into 2010 needing several things to go right in order for the team to be competitive, but it felt like there was a healthy chance because the NL Central looked like a relatively weak division. The season quickly went south when all three of the team’s best hitters (Berkman, Pence, Lee) along with their best pitcher (Rodriguez) from 2009 got off to slow starts simultaneously. Then Roy Oswalt requested a trade, and Berkman was traded too, and the team that ended 2010 in Houston looked completely different than the team that started the year there. It was the end of an era in Astros baseball, and the beginning of their first near-total rebuilding process in two decades.

The Reds surprised in 2010 and won the division, so they come into 2011 as the team to beat. St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee all made significant moves to try and improve themselves this winter, and suddenly the NL Central has gone from weak to strong. Looking at Houston’s moves in isolation, it seems that they should be improved in 2011 as well, but in comparison to the rest of the division, they’ve moved backwards. They had a non-losing month in June of last year, and three winning months in July through September, so they’ll be trying to build on that success if they can avoid the slow start this year that has become an Astros trademark. But realistically this team could finish anywhere from first to last.

If Brett Wallace and Jason Castro prove that they can hit at the major league level. If Chris Johnson doesn’t get sunk by the sophomore jinx. If Carlos Lee rebounds from an apparently unlucky 2010. If Hunter Pence can hit all year this year like he did after May last. If Clint Barmes and Bill Hall provide the offensive boost that they were picked up for. If the Astros’ rotation proves that their second half was not a fluke and they remain among the league’s best. If all of those things happen, this could be a very special year for Houston fans. But that’s a lot of “ifs.” It’s more likely for a mostly young club that 2012 or later will be their year. But regardless, the development of all these young guys will make 2011 a pivotal year in Astros history, much like 1991 was two decades before.

Pitchers and catchers report on Monday. It’s time for baseball. I can’t wait!

 

Lee for Young unlikely? Not so fast.

As the snow comes down here in Arkansas, rumors about Michael Young continue to swirl. Both Brian McTaggart and Richard Justice have tried to shoot down the Young-to-Houston racket, but not so fast, says I.

We know that Young has a list of eight teams he likes. We know that the Rangers are trying to work out a deal with one of those eight teams first. While Young has said that he would evaluate other possible destinations on a case-by-case basis, the most likely outcome remains that he’ll end up going to one of those eight. And if you look objectively at that list of eight teams, suddenly Young-to-Houston doesn’t seem like as much of a longshot as most are trying to claim.

Take a look at that rumors link above: Young’s list consists of the Cardinals, Yankees, Twins, Astros, Rockies, Dodgers, Angels and Padres. The Rockies seemed like the most likely destination up until now, but they’ve taken themselves out of the running. The Cardinals, Twins and Yankees are also reportedly uninterested, so that leaves Houston and the three SoCal teams. The Padres already traded Adrian Gonzalez this winter because they couldn’t afford him, so it would be shocking if they were willing to take on a contract like Young’s. The Angels could definitely use Young, but I don’t foresee Texas trading him to a division rival, and the L.A. Times says that the Angels can’t/won’t put together a satisfactory package for the Rangers anyway. That same article implies that the Dodgers would want Texas to pick up most of Young’s contract, which seems unlikely, and the Dodgers themselves have already spent a lot this winter. Their ownership situation is even more uncertain than Houston’s, with Frank McCourt’s divorce case still pending, so it wouldn’t follow that the Dodgers would be willing to open their wallet even wider.

Seven suitors down. Who does that leave?

True, under normal circumstances, the Astros would never willingly take on a contract like Young’s either. Even if the team wasn’t for sale, adding that kind of payroll wouldn’t make sense for this squad. But if Carlos Lee goes back to Texas the other way, Houston’s payroll would actually be less this year and next. The Rangers could send money to Houston with Young to offset at least part of his 2013 salary, without taking on most of his contract as any SoCal team would require, so it wouldn’t really break the Astros’ (and their new owner’s) budget either. Texas would get the power hitting DH-type that is unavailable to them on the open market now, Houston would get a much more versatile and well-rounded player in return, and both teams could be the better for it without significant new financial burden that would normally affect any team in dealing with contracts of this size.

Carlos Lee would still have to approve a trade to the Rangers, which Richard Justice claims is unlikely, but I disagree. I outlined in my post yesterday why it seems that Texas would actually be an appealing destination to Caballo, so I don’t think that would break the deal. Young’s overall stats look better than Lee’s, so Texas might ask for more than just Carlos in return, but supposedly they’d like utility infield help. Houston happens to have a surplus of reserve infielders after their moves this winter – including Jeff Keppinger, Angel Sanchez, Tommy Manzella and Matt Downs – so they could easily include any of those guys in the package. Ed Wade was reportedly shopping Kepp until he came up injured anyway, and with Kepp’s own salary likely to increase through arbitration the next couple of seasons, that could offset Young’s added salary even more. Texas would want medical assurances before accepting Keppinger, of course, but he’s one of the best all-around utility infielders in the game, in my opinion. If I was Nolan Ryan, I’d make that trade even if I knew that I’d be without him for April.

I won’t say yet that I expect the trade to happen. Several people will have to sign off on the deal before it could ever become reality. But I will say that I won’t be surprised if it happens, either, as I don’t think it’s half as unlikely as it’s been made out to be. All of the speculation against so far has been just that – speculation – so until we hear from Ed Wade or Drayton McLane or Carlos Lee directly, I’m counting nothing out.

Every other non-Pirates team in the division made significant strides forward this winter except for Houston. Looking at WAR alone, Michael Young over Carlos Lee would be a 4.3 game upswing for the Astros, based on last year’s stats. Unless Wade & McLane are completely content with hanging onto Carlos until his contract expires, they have to be exploring possibilities to move him this year, before his full no-trade clause goes into effect as a 10/5 veteran. This could be the opportunity they’ve been looking for, and they very well may not get another chance to receive back as much value as Young could provide.

One commenter on Brian McTaggart’s blog speculated this batting order for the Astros in 2011:

1. Bourn (CF)
2. Young (2B)
3. Pence (RF)
4. Wallace (1B) or Johnson (3B)
5. Hall (LF)
6. Johnson (3B) or Wallace (1B)
7. Barmes (SS)
8. Castro (C)

Does that really look so bad?

Lee-for-Young? Yes, please.

lee_young.jpgSwapping jerseys for 2011?

So for the first time since that fateful weekend at the end last July, the Astros are linked to a potential high profile move. (That’s not counting one wild rumor that said Houston was in on Cliff Lee, but obviously that went nowhere if it was ever true at all.) Zach Levine and Ken Rosenthal both say that Carlos Lee-for-Michael Young is a longshot at best, and they’re likely right. But. Roy Oswalt was supposed to be a Cardinal last July, remember? Lance Berkman was supposedly going to Oakland this winter. The Dodgers were about to sign Bill Hall. And Cliff Lee was darn sure going to either the Rangers or the Yankees before he suddenly inked his name in Independence Hall. Take every rumor (including this one) with a significantly sized spoonful of salt.

I was going to offer my analysis of this potential deal, but FanGraphs has already done it better. The Crawfish Boxes also have a nice analysis. TCB’s biggest concern seems to be “the inevitable loss of power in the lineup,” but… really? Young has outslugged El Caballo each of the last two seasons, and while Lee has more homers, the difference is not huge – 50 v. 43. Add in Barmes & Hall’s plus power over Keppinger & Manzella/Sanchez, and this team would certainly hit more homers this year than last.
The biggest obstacle I foresee, besides Texas deciding whether or not they actually want Lee, is Carlos’ willingness to waive his no-trade clause to go to Arlington. But if he was to go anywhere besides Houston, there’s nowhere else in MLB closer to his ranch than Arlington. He’d be getting the chance to play for the defending AL champs, on a team that is more than likely playoff bound, instead of a team that’s rebuilding and very likely won’t see the postseason again until after his contract expires. At which point Houston almost certainly would not re-sign him and he’d be forced to go elsewhere anyway, older and with an even smaller remaining window for a World Series. Caballo’s only sniff of the playoffs so far was way back in 2000, when his White Sox got swept in the ALDS by Seattle. Unless he really cares that much about being as close as possible to his ranch, I don’t see him having any problem agreeing to Arlington.
I’ve said it before, and it’s still true – I’m not nearly as eager as most Astros fans to run Lee out of town after an ugly 2010. He’s very likely to rebound this year, and if he stays in Houston until his contract expires – fine. I like Carlos. But it’s not fine if he blocks Brett Wallace, or J.D. Martinez, or even Koby Clemens. Michael Young is under contract for a year longer, true, but his versatility would allow the Astros to move him around much more easily than Lee based on what their young guys are doing, so they wouldn’t have to block anybody that’s big-league ready.
I like the move – unless Texas demands much more than Lee in exchange. Would they take an injured Jeff Keppinger? I might be okay with that, since Wade was evidently wanting to trade Kepp anyway, though I’d rather Houston hang onto him as a super-utility guy. If the Rangers want either Manzella or Sanchez for infield depth, then fine, throw them in. But absolutely NO if they also want someone – anyone – among Houston’s prospects in return.
Lee-for-Young. Work out the details and pull the trigger, Ed. Give Astros fans something to be excited about until the young guys steal our hearts.

Carl’s Crawford Boxes?

crawford.catch_.jpg

Coming soon to an outfield near you?
The regular season isn’t even over yet, and already the off-season rumors are starting… which is not surprising in the least, really. But it’s drawing some attention in Houston today as the Boston Herald has linked one of the biggest names in this year’s market to the Astros.
Let me start off by saying that I will be VERY surprised if we see Carl Crawford in an Astros uniform next year. If he doesn’t stay in Tampa, I expect he’ll be lured away by the deeper pockets of the Angels or Yankees. Plus Crawford went on record recently saying that he loves the city of Houston, but “the Astros are not really winning right now,” and his friends “want to see [him] on a team that’s winning.” The Astros and their 33-18 record since July 27 can argue against that, but I’ll be surprised if their efforts are successful. I’ll be surprised, but I’ll also be surprised if they don’t at least make Crawford an offer.
The biggest barrier standing between Crawford and the Astros isn’t money; it’s Carlos Lee. Or maybe it is money, due to Lee’s contract and the difficulty that Ed Wade is certain to have in trying to get rid of it. While Lee has somewhat redeemed his season in the second half, he’s still unlikely to be worth the money he’s owed on the remainder of his contract – at least to a National League, non-DH team. His no-trade clause expires after this season, but he’ll fall into MLB’s 10/5 no-trade category if he spends next year in Houston, so it’s likely now or never if the Astros want to unload him. They’d be foolish not to try. The good news about Lee’s offensive improvement since the All-Star Break, besides the fact that he’s helped Houston win a few games, is that he’s not quite the “most untradeable player in the history of untradeable players” any longer, as Alyson Footer once put it. Some AL team ought to be willing to take a chance on him as a DH, if Houston eats a portion of his salary; I honestly suspect that his being played at 1B is an attempt by management to increase his market value, as well. Ed will still have his hands full attempting to move him, but I think it can be done.
If they can find El Caballo a happy new home, then Carl Crawford starts to make a lot more sense. Trading Lee’s -1.6 WAR for Crawford’s 4.4 instantly makes your team 6 games better. An outfield lineup of Crawford, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence would be among the best defensive trios in baseball, which would in turn make Houston’s pitching staff better (especially fly-ball lovers like J.A. Happ). Replacing Lee with Crawford would mean losing 10-15 HRs per season, which is a problem for a team that’s already last in the league in power, but Carl has actually outslugged Carlos this season – .489 v. .425 – and he helps your team win in plenty of other ways. Could you imagine the havoc wreaked on opposing pitchers with Crawford and Bourn together at the top of the lineup? Plus, of course, Crawford is a Houston native and Bourn’s (and Jason Bourgeois’) old Little League teammate. Astros fans would LOVE him.
There remains the issue of money. Crawford is likely to command a $100-million, long-term contract, or something close to it… something close to what Houston paid for Carlos Lee, come to think of it. Those kinds of contracts are rarely worth the cost in their final years, but Crawford is two years younger than Lee was when he got his six-year deal, and he’s in better physical shape to theoretically hold up longer. A few months ago, adding any kind of big name free agent this winter would have made NO sense for Houston, as the Astros seemed too far away from contending. But ESPN’s Steve Berthiaume has already predicted an NL Central title for Houston in 2011, and the amazing part is that the possibility really could be there. These Astros have been a non-losing team since June 1 and a winning team since late July, with a cast that is likely to return almost entirely next season. An entire season played at their post-May pace would put them pretty much exactly where Cincinnati is right now. Add a six-game swing like Crawford-for-Lee, and you’re looking at 97-98 wins. That’s good enough for the playoffs almost every year.
Drayton McLane likes to show the fans that he’s committed to winning. Signing Carl Crawford wouldn’t quite be like signing Roger Clemens, but it could be close. And if you’re going to spend $100 million on a player, it’s better spent on an all-around talent like Crawford than on a bat-only guy like Carlos Lee. The Astros likely wouldn’t even have to lose their 1st round draft pick next year, as they’re still sitting at #12 in the draft order right now, and all picks through #18 are protected. Those awful first two months this year may end up being the best thing that could have happened to this team.
I do have one big caveat to bringing Carl Crawford on board: J.D. Martinez. You’re not going to get Crawford on a two-year deal, which guarantees that he would still be in town by the time you expect Martinez to be ready for the majors. But consider this: Michael Bourn’s arbitration years will be up and he’ll be eligible to hit free agency following the 2012 season. I like Michael a lot, but if he continues to improve, he may price himself out of the Astros’ range by then. You figure that Martinez will start next season in Corpus, then probably move up to Oklahoma City by season’s end. He could start 2012 in OKC, or he could compete for a starting job then – making Bourn (or Hunter Pence) expendable as trade bait to fill other holes. It’s sad to think about either one of those guys leaving right now, but that’s the reason a strong farm system is so important, and that’s how good teams stay competitive for years at a time – replacing old players with new, trading surplus parts to meet needs in other areas. That’s how Houston won four NL Central titles in five years, 1997-2001.
All of that said – I still don’t expect that Crawford will sign here. I do expect that Ed Wade will try very, very hard to move Carlos Lee, if not this winter, then by July 31 next season. If that happens, and they miss out on Carl, then a guy like Pat Burrell might make a lot of sense – lower cost, would make up for most of the power lost in Lee’s departure, and likely wouldn’t still be a barrier by the time Martinez or others were ready for the bigs. I’ve been a Brian Bogusevic fan for a couple of years now, so I wouldn’t mind seeing him given a shot at the LF starting role, either. In any event, this winter is shaping up to be much more interesting than I once thought it would be…

A play in three acts

As we enter the final two weeks of the 2010 regular season (and, in all likelihood, the final two weeks of the Astros’ 2010 season), many have taken the opportunity to look back at all that has happened since April 5 and analyze the season in hindsight. Much has been written about “the Astros since June 1” or “the Astros since the All-Star Break,” but either one of these views shortchanges just how far this team has come in so little time.

Every Astro fan would love to forget April and May of this year. The 2010 Astros matched the 2005 Astros’ 15-30 start, but the comparisons would never hold up. The Clemens/Pettitte-led 2005 squad went 4-2 to finish May and begin a turnaround that ended, of course, in the World Series. The 2010 edition maintained their lose-two-of-three pace to enter June at 17-34, and the infamous tombstone would have looked much more appropriate five years later. Houston was on pace for their worst-ever season by far, 2005 hero Roy Oswalt asked to be traded, and it seemed the Astros had picked up right where they left off in their abysmal ending to 2009.
From June 1 through July 28, Houston alternated stretches of continued futility with runs of improved play, and they went 25-25 over their next 50 games. They showed, as many had expected, that they were not as bad of a baseball team as their first two months seemed to indicate. At the same time, however, they also showed they were far from a first division club, as they posted a 4-15 record against contending clubs (Yankees, Rangers, Padres, Cardinals, Reds) during that stretch. The overall improvement was helped by an infusion of youth, with the callups of Chris Johnson, Jason Castro and Jason Bourgeois, and the acquisition of Angel Sanchez from Boston, but it was clear every time the club ran up against elite competition that there was still work to be done.
July 29 was a day off for Houston’s players, but not for Ed Wade and the front office. Soon came the move that had been hanging over the team since May – Roy Oswalt was traded. When the Astros returned to the field on the evening of July 30, Lance Berkman was out of the lineup too, as it turned out he had also been traded in a move that would be officially announced the next day. It may have been the darkest weekend in franchise history for Astros fans, but the blow was softened at least slightly by a weekend sweep of the Brewers. July 30 marked the beginning of the post-Berkman/Oswalt era in Houston, but it also marked the beginning of the 2010 Astros’ final act. Since that dark day in late July, Houston has gone 30-18, climbed from 5th to 3rd in the NL Central, and they’re knocking on the door of a .500 season that no one dared to fathom even eight weeks ago. Perhaps even more telling, they’re 12-4 against the elite competition (Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Reds) that gave them so much grief in June and July. Now the comparisons to 2005 would seem more appropriate, as they look like a team that could actually have a shot in October, if they hadn’t buried themselves alive in April and May.
Here’s a wild thought: if these Astros manage to win every game the rest of the way, if the Reds lose every game, and if the Cardinals only win half of their remaining schedule, then the Astros are your 2010 NL Central Division champs. Will it happen? No, it won’t. 2006 was once in a lifetime, when the Astros shaved a 9.5-game Cardinals lead to just half a game in the last two weeks of the season, but even that run ultimately fell short (and St. Louis ultimately won the World Series). The Astros could be eliminated from contention as early as tonight, if they lose to the Nationals and if Cincinnati beats Milwaukee. But the fact that they still have any chance at all on September 20, no matter how slim, is a testament to the incredible job that these young guys have done in a remarkably short period of time. Earlier this year, most would have written them off by some date in August.
The 2010 Houston Astros have gone from awful to interesting to exciting – it’s almost felt like three seasons in one. Following the big trades in July, Ed Wade and Drayton McLane refused to say that the franchise was “rebuilding,” preferring the term “retooling” instead, but I scoffed and dismissed it as PR semantics. But maybe Ed was right after all. The last time this team truly “rebuilt” was in the early ’90s before Drayton came on board. 1990 was the aging team trying unsuccessfully to hold onto past glories (1986) – see April/May 2010. 1991 was the young team that often got their butts whupped but that held promise for the future – see June/July. Then 1992 saw the youngsters growing up and clawing their way to a .500 record that no one expected – see August/September this year. 1993 brought new promise and new hope. Even if the 2010 Astros fall short of .500, the new promise and new hope for next year are already shining through. Of course it took until ’97 for McLane’s Astros to finally reach the playoffs (though we’ll never know about ’94), but at this condensed rate, that’s 2012 at worst… 2011 at best.
Encore!

Bad Days, Sad Days

Hello, baseball blog. How have you been? It’s been too long, I know, but a lot has happened. I may not be around every day, but I’m back now and I’ll be back again.

The last nine months have been eventful for Astros fans, and the last week perhaps even more so. The end of the 2009 season saw Houston drop off a cliff in a most demotivational way, but it brought on changes that spelled brighter days ahead for the franchise. I like the hiring of Brad Mills, from perhaps baseball’s smartest franchise, to take the place of Cecil Cooper, whom I never could quite trust in spite of Phil Garner’s endorsement. I like the off-season signing of Pedro Feliz, to bring solid glovework and championship experience to third base, and of Brett Myers, to bring a genuine innings-eater to the middle of the rotation. I like the non-signing of Miguel Tejada, despite the loss of his enthusiasm and his .300+ batting average – trading for him was a mistake, and it was time to move on. And even though Jose Valverde was one of my favorite Astros while he was here, I’m kinda more glad for the draft pick bounty reaped by his departure to Detroit than I would have been if he’d stayed. I wasn’t sure what to make of Matt Lindstrom over the winter, but he’s certainly proven his worth by now.
The problem with those off-season moves is that, while they should at least make the 2010 Houston Astros more interesting than their 2009 predecessors, they’re not really likely to get the 2010 squad any closer to the playoffs than they were the year before. Then again, aside from George Steinbrenner’s brain suddenly being transplanted into Drayton McLane’s body and going on a Sabathia/Burnett/Texeira-like shopping spree, I don’t know that there was really much that could be done to make THIS Astros team THAT much better RIGHT NOW. Ever since Gerry Hunsicker left in the winter of 2004, the Houston Astros have been a broken franchise. The 2005 World Series was the peak before an increasingly ugly decline. Gradually, the pieces have been put back in place to get the Astros back to their standing as one of baseball’s best franchises, as they were for Drayton’s first decade, but that time is not yet. Brad Mills’ second season as an Astros manager will be better than his first.
In the past week came Kaz Matsui’s release, and I’ll admit I was surprised – not that it happened, but that it happened this soon. I expected Drayton and Ed Wade to hold onto their $15 million mistake a little longer, but perhaps it’s another sign of the slow turnaround that they’re willing to admit a mistake sooner. I feel it’s unfair to refer to Kaz as only a “mistake”; Ed was right about Matsui for one year. The mistake was signing an injury-prone player to a multi-year deal, but of course, hindsight is 20/20 and all that. I was annoyed at all of the “good riddance!!” comments from Houston fans upon Matsui’s release; it was time for him and the Astros to part ways, but I wish him well wherever he ends up.
On Friday came the news that Roy Oswalt has asked for a trade, and it was a sad, sad day for Astros fans. Roy has since clarified that this was a request, not a demand, but I still don’t expect him to be wearing a Houston jersey any longer come August 1 – pitching is at too much of a premium for some contender NOT to come calling with a golden offer this summer. It seems that Roy has no ill will towards the franchise, stating that he’d even play an extra year just to end his career here, but the hope for Houston fans had been that Oswalt & Berkman would be the next Bagwell & Biggio – lifelong teammates who never played anywhere else. As much as I’d like to be angry that Roy seemingly wants to bail on a sinking ship this year, I can’t harbor ill will against him either; he’d like to win a championship before his career is done, and he knows as well as anybody that that’s unlikely to happen in Houston during the two years he feels he has left to give. Every kid that ever picks up a bat and glove dreams of one day winning the World Series (including me), so I can’t fault Roy for that; I’d be much angrier if the team had traded him against his will (hello, Billy Wagner), or if Roy had fled via free agency for bigger bucks elsewhere. Whenever he leaves, he’ll be leaving as the greatest pitcher in franchise history, but if the Astros can get a deal like the one they gave up for Randy Johnson – a pair of solid young starters and a future All-Star middle infielder – then maybe it’s best for the franchise in the long run anyway. But the fan’s reality is still sad. Early rumors have Roy going to the Dodgers, Twins or Rangers… my wife and I have discussed driving down to Arlington to catch the Golden Boot Series there in late June. I may finally get to see Roy pitch in person for the first time that weekend, but for the opposite team…
And then came yesterday. The last time I saw the Astros play in person was over a decade ago, in the Summer of ’99 and their last year in the Dome. That was the summer before I left for college in Arkansas, so I was barely still a “kid,” but I got my first (and last) autograph in person from a big leaguer at that game. The big leaguer was Jose Lima, in the midst of his magical career year; he signed my navy & gold Astros cap, and I treasured that cap until repeated soakings in the rain caused his signature to bleed into nothing more than a black smudge underneath the bill. But the memory was worth more than the cap, and that memory has never faded. I know that Bagwell or Biggio would have done the same thing for a fan given the chance, but Jose went out of his way to create those chances. He drove his opponents to madness with his antics, but you loved him if he was yours, and few players are remembered as fondly and as well. My last memory of watching “Lima Time” was on television for the 2004 NLDS with the Dodgers. Of course Los Angeles ultimately lost that series, but I remember being proud that Lima – our Lima – had done his part to keep the dream alive. Gone too soon, Jose. You will be sorely missed.
The good news for the 2010 Astros is that with a win tomorrow night in Milwaukee, they would actually be ahead of the pace of the 2005 World Series team. The difference is that this team doesn’t have Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to anchor the rotation behind Roy O, and there’s no one this year swinging the way that Morgan Ensberg, Lance Berkman, Biggio and Jason Lane did that year, including Berkman himself. I believe, like Berkman, that things will get better, and the Astros aren’t as bad as they have been for the last three months of baseball. I hope they’ve finally hit bottom. But there’s still a long climb to get back to the top.