Yeesh. 7 games, 7 days, 7 losses – and that chatter about positive run differential, getting back to .500, all of that? Yeah, that’s gone now, or at least pushed to the back burner for a while. The warnings about “young teams can be streaky”? Well, there you go.
Houston opponents have finally outscored the Astros on the year, 226-213, so their run differential is now on the same side of even as their record. Even still, Houston has under-performed their X_WL by three games (25-27, versus actual WL of 22-30), and they’ve still got the third best X_WL in the division (behind St. Louis and Cincinnati) in spite of being fifth place now in the standings. If they can snap this streak and get back to playing as they were before, I believe they’ve still got a shot at .500 on the year and third place in the division. But honestly, lowered expectations after this past week are more realistic for a rebuilding franchise coming off their worst season ever.
All of that said, Astros fans do at least have a few positives to take away from an otherwise brutal week. In five of these seven losses, Houston has shown a lot of fight, rather than just rolling over and taking it as they might have a year ago. Last night’s loss not withstanding, the sputtering offense looked significantly better during the four-game series in Denver (though maybe we can blame that on a defective Humidor and an equally defective Colorado pitching staff). The team is back home now, where their play has been in stark contrast to their road allergies this season. And looking long-term – Jeff Luhnow had mentioned that this team might be buyers at the trade deadline. Frankly, no one likes losing, but I don’t believe that the time for buying is yet, as exciting as that might have been. If it takes a nasty seven-game stretch to protect that long-term vision, then so be it. As surprisingly gratifying as the Big Four Contracts (Lee, Lyon, Wandy, Myers) have been in 2012, I’d still rather bid farewell to any or all of those guys than to any of our youngsters or prospects down on the farm.
We heard this morning that Fernando Martinez is getting the call from AAA, which is exciting. Of course the even bigger news for Astros fans is the looming MLB draft on Monday, the most important for the franchise in 20 years. I am not a scout or an amateur baseball expert, so I won’t pretend to know who the Astros should pick 1-1, or thereafter. I have my preferences, but I’ll trust Luhnow, Heck & Co. on this one, and I expect I’ll be excited with their selections regardless. I’m still encouraged by the direction this team is headed, and it’s still a great time to be an Astros fan.
The Astros are now nearing the end of their 5oth season, and that’s inspired a fit of nostalgia. My first clear memories of following the Astros date back to when I was 7 years old, in 1987. That led to the obvious realization that after this year, for the first time I’ll have witnessed more seasons of Astros baseball myself than I’ve read about in the history books.
The first of those memories from 1987 was my mom taking us on a tour of the Astrodome a few weeks before the season began. At the end of the tour, we stopped in the gift shop, and my mom bought two things: an ’87 Topps Houston Astros team set for me, and A Silver Odyssey: 25 Years of Houston Astros Baseball on VHS for herself. I have no idea now what happened to that tape, and the documentary has never made it to a DVD release – unsurprising – but Google helped me turn up the majority of the clips on AstrosDaily.com. It’s a must-watch for any die-hard Astros fan, but the film ends on a bittersweet note, with Houston’s defeat in the legendary ’86 NLCS Game 6. Now with 25 years further history between us and that game, and still no World Series title to show, the memory is rather like a Greek tragedy for Houston fans. But it’s a memory that we cherish nonetheless.
So that led me to indulge some historic curiosity. Of course Cleveland has been waiting for a new World Series title 13 years longer than the Astros/Colt .45s have existed. Of course Cubs fans have been waiting 40 years longer than that. And of course 7 other franchises have likewise never won a Series; 2 have never been there at all. But as most Astros fans already know, Houston now has the dubious distinction as the city with the most current seasons of MLB history and no title at all to show. That distinction did belong to the Astros’ opponent this weekend, San Francisco, until the Giants finally won last October to cap their 53rd season in California. Likewise did it take Brooklyn until their 53rd season to win – the beloved ’55 Dodgers – after the World Series began in 1903. But Astros fans can take heart, as they’re nowhere close to the record for futility yet: that mark belongs to the Phillies. It’s easy to forget given their recent dominance, but it took the Phillies 78 seasons, from ’03 until ’80, before they finally claimed their first title.
Another historical oddity discovered while digging all that up: to date, 753 different players have worn a Houston MLB uniform. The Astros’ 1962 expansion brethren, the New York Mets, have used 911 different players over the same 50 seasons. Two franchises 7 years younger, the Padres and Expos/Nationals, have also used more – 793 and 815, respectively. The Angels are only one year older, but they’ve used 107 more players than Houston (860 total), and the Senators/Rangers have used 174 more (927 overall). And the other two 1969 expansion teams, Kansas City (740) and Seattle/Milwaukee (736), are only just behind the Astros in 7 years less time. Assuming a starting roster of 25 players, that means that Houston has used an average of 14.56 additional players each season. The Blue Jays are the next closest expansion-era franchise, with an average annual turnover of 15.83 players. I’m not sure what that means, except that it appears the average Astros player spends more seasons in Houston than the average player for any other expansion-era team. It’s interesting, at any rate.
EDIT: Technically Washington has had a longer wait than Houston since their last title, too. Between the Senators/Twins, Senators/Rangers and Expos/Nationals combined, 2011 is Washington’s 54th non-consecutive season to have an MLB team but not win a World Series.
EDIT 2: Other historical notes – Houston has the second lowest franchise ERA of any expansion team at 3.78, only just behind the Mets at 3.77. And in spite of this year’s troubles, the Astros still have the third highest winning percentage of all expansions teams at .495, behind Toronto’s .497 and the Angels’ .499.
So the 2011 MLB non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone, and the Astros were expectedly very active. Though perhaps surprisingly less active than some/most had expected or predicted. But I don’t believe that they’re done dealing yet.
Hunter Pence is gone. Michael Bourn is gone. Jeff Keppinger is gone, too, and 9 prospects have come back in return for that trio so far, with one more yet to be named. I’m… numb. Sad. And worn out. Though less sad at this time this year than I was one year ago (Bourn & Pence don’t have nearly the Houston legacy that Oswalt & Berkman did). And maybe… more hopeful for the future now, too. Last year’s trades were a sign that the Astros recognized the need to rebuild, but other moves (like the Wandy/Myers extensions) were signs that they hadn’t yet fully embraced the idea. There’s no question that they’re in full-on rebuilding mode now. As well they should be.
It would be easy to argue that Ed Wade should have received more in return on any or all of the deals he made this month, and I might even agree with that. I’d be a good deal more enthusiastic if Domonic Brown and Mike Minor were wearing Astros pinstripes tomorrow. But regardless of what anyone – myself included – may think, reality is that the trade value for Pence & Bourn was never going to be higher than it was this week. They needed to be dealt now for the best possible return, and if this was the best than anyone else was willing to give up for them – so be it. Pull the trigger. We’ll never know if a better deal could have been had, so there’s no point in wasting further energy moaning about it now. We’ll take what we’ve got and move on. As is always true in any trade involving prospects, we won’t know for years whether these deals were honestly good ones or bad ones anyway.
What we do know now is this – the Houston farm system is notably stronger today than it was a month ago. I believe it will get stronger still this month, too, as I expect at least Wandy to find a new home before September 1, and very possibly Myers or Michaels or Barmes as well. If Myers and Wandy aren’t dealt in August, they’ll be traded over the winter, which is fine, as they don’t have the same urgency for maximum value as Bourn & Pence. Michaels and Barmes will (and should be) allowed to walk as free agents if not dealt, leaving Carlos Lee (35) as by far the elder statesman on the 2012 club. Unless by some miracle they manage to move Lee too, which would be great news for Brett Wallace and which should perhaps be the top priority for a rebuilding club. That would leave Brandon Lyon (31) as the highest paid and oldest regular on the 2012 club; I don’t expect they’ll be able to get anyone to take him on after his health & performance this season.
We also know that the Astros should officially have a new owner by the end of August. I expect we’ll have a new GM this winter, as well, and it wouldn’t shock me to see a new field manager too. Whatever else may happen, the 2012 Astros will be much younger, much less experienced… but hopefully the start of great new things. Only time will tell, but at least we know now they’re not holding onto delusions of past glories any longer. The fastest way back to success from here is to tear it down and start over.
Astros fans, want to see your team dominate atop the standings again? Then look no further: http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/reversestandings/
Maybe that’s tacky, but as bad as this season has been already, I’d feel even worse about it if they somehow put on another huge late surge and play themselves out of the #1 draft spot. Fortunately (or unfortunately, take your pick), they’ve buried themselves far enough down that it will take a huge late surge to look down on anyone else. The Mariners have lost 16 straight and still lag 10 games back of worst.
So who do you like for 2012? Mock drafts abound, though of course it’s much, much too early to consider anything even remotely concrete. It’s one of the few things Astros fans have to look forward to these days, however, so it’s fun to speculate. The consensus seems to be that there’s no consensus – no Bryce Harper or Steven Strasburg this year – but there does seem to be a lot of chatter about Lance McCullers and Mark Appel. Both are exciting prospects, I’ll grant, but I’m leery of taking any pitcher #1 overall. Sure, you’ve got David Price, but you’ve got a longer list of luminaries such as Brian Bullington, Matt Anderson, Paul Wilson, Kris Benson, Ben McDonald and Brien Taylor. Even Strasburg is still hurt, and who knows if he’ll be the same? The Astros are a team sorely lacking in power, so I’d much rather see them go after a Trey Williams or a Victor Roache. Or… I’m really starting to like this Nick Williams kid out of Galveston Ball. We shall see what we shall see…
Our other hope of a bright spot right now is Sunday’s looming trade deadline, and is it bad that I’d be most excited to see Bourn, Pence, Myers, Wandy and Barmes all wearing opposing uniforms on August 1? Not that I have anything against any of those guys – Bourn, Pence and Wandy in particular are favorites – but the 2011 Astros are truly, historically bad. Their bad-ness may be the best thing that could happen to this franchise right now, as it’s unmasked entirely the need for rebuilding, with no false hope of contention left to hide behind. For a team with this many holes, the fastest way back to contention is to trade every veteran you can for the best prospects that you can, then let the young guys grow up together (see: 1991 Astros, who laid the groundwork for the most successful decade in franchise history).
I’m as eager as anyone for the Astros to get on with the future and blow up the roster now, but I don’t expect all five of those guys to be gone by next week. But, y’know – that’s okay. With the exception of Barmes, it’s important to remember that none of the Astros’ key veterans are in line for free agency this winter. So anybody they don’t trade now, they could still move for prospects in the off-season. It could be argued that they’ll get better value in the heat of a pennant race, but that’s not always necessarily the case, so it behooves the club to find the best possible deal. No, they shouldn’t set their asking price so high now that they’ll be forced to take a lesser deal later, but neither should they trade anybody now just for the sake of offloading them immediately. It’s an inexact science, and it’s maddening, but the flexibility is ultimately better than having their hand forced by expiring contracts right now. Or it should be. I’ll be most upset if the team doesn’t look drastically different – and younger – by 2012.
“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us.” -Heinrich Heine
These are sad days to be an Astros fan. The first domino has fallen with the trade of Jeff Keppinger this week, and over the next 10 days we expect to hear of several more. I’m on board with that; our Astros, in their 50th season, appear to be worse in 2011 than they’ve ever been before. I feel like it will be a huge upset if they don’t end up beating the 1991 squad for the worst record in Houston history, if they don’t end up over 100 losses and last in the big leagues this year. Admittedly, nothing that happens the remainder of this month will likely be quite as depressing as the weekend before July 31 last year, when we learned how it would have felt to see Bagwell and Biggio in opposing uniforms. But as we wait for news about who else is leaving town, and as we wait to face nemesis Carlos Zambrano this afternoon, my mind turns to thoughts of the ways that Brad Mills & Co. can make the remainder of 2011 more exciting than a race for the #1 draft pick.
Catcher: We love Humberto Quintero. He’s not Brad Ausmus, and he’s not Tony Eusebio, but we love him nonetheless. Q paired with any available backup on hand is fine; there’s not much wrong you can do here, other than rushing Jason Castro back from his knee surgery. If Castro is legitimately ready to go by September, then I’d love to see him, as Q really shouldn’t be more than a backup. But as long as Jason gets the lion’s share of the starts in 2012, then I’ll be happy.
First Base: Brett Wallace. All the way. Let’s start seeing Brick every day regardless, and quit with this Carlos-Lee-at-1B-versus-lefties nonsense. Whether Astros management manages to trade El Caballo, releases him, benches him or just lets him play out his contract, it’s certain that Lee won’t be here beyond September 2012. Brett Wallace will. You’re not gonna win this season, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you won’t win next season either, and Brick is one of the few young talents that Houston has, so let him play and prove for himself whether he’s an everyday guy or only a platoon player.
Second Base: Jose Altuve is the brightest spot in the 2011 season so far. I certainly didn’t expect to see him before September at the soonest, or 2012, but I’m all about running him out there every day now that he’s here. I like Matt Downs a lot, but giving him or Angel Sanchez even 1/4 of the starts here would be infuriating. Let’s go, Mighty Mouse!!
Third Base: I’m a Chris Johnson kinda guy. Sure, I know that his defense is less than great, and his bat has dropped off even more than expected from last year, but his bat has also been a lot better the last several weeks than it was during a dismal start to the season, so his overall numbers are misleading. I know that Matt Downs deserves more time, too, but CJ has not (IMO) played himself out of this job yet. Let him keep it for the rest of 2011, unless he gets awful again, then let him and Downs duke it out in Kissimmee next Spring.
Shortstop: This is a tough one. As long as Clint Barmes is here, the job should be his, but I don’t see Clint in our long-term plans. He may not even be in our plans at all (hello, Milwaukee) after the next 10 days. But if/when he’s gone? Angel Sanchez is great off the bench, and I know that Matt Downs is more of a 2B/3B guy than SS, but this is where I’d be inclined to give Downs more time. If you want to give Angel the majority of the starts, that’s fine, but don’t let him take time away from Altuve and CJ. And don’t go back to Tommy Manzella. This is a stop-gap position until one of our middle infield prospects (Paredes? Villar? Mier? …Sutil?) is ready for the Show.
Outfield: No one knows what to expect here. I strongly doubt that Ed Wade will be able to send Carlos Lee anywhere, so as long as he’s here, leave him in LF. Michael Bourn is (or should be) serious trade bait, but Hunter Pence’s name is drawing a lot more attention than Michael’s, so who knows if he’ll be moved at all. I really… don’t want the Astros to trade Hunter, but reality is that he’ll likely hit free agency by the time that Houston is a legitimate contender again, and he should fetch better prospects than anyone else on the current Astros roster. So moving him might be the smartest thing that they could do, and I kind of expect now that it will happen. I’d really like to see Bourn traded, too; he’ll hit free agency – under Scott Boras – a year before Hunter, so you’ll probably get more for him now than next year, when he would be a “rental.” Jason Bourgeois is back from the DL today, so assuming that Pence and Bourn move and Lee doesn’t, I’d like to see a Lee-Bourgeois-Bogusevic outfield to finish out 2011. Though I know we’re more likely to see Jason Michaels than Bogey, but I don’t see Jason here beyond this year either, so I’ll be frustrated if they don’t give Bogey the shot. Unless they get somebody back in trade that can play outfield immediately, too. Or they put J.D. Martinez on the Altuve Express and don’t make him wait for a call until El Caballo rides off into the sunset. Summary: Whatever. But just not Michaels.
Pitching: Jordan Lyles is the other brightest spot for the 2011 Astros, and I’m thrilled to hear that he’s on an innings limit. If that means we get a month of Nelson Figueroa or Ryan Rowland-Smith in September, so be it; Jordan Lyles is VERY much a part of Houston’s future plans, so he needs to be protected more than the 2011 squad needs to win one or two more games. Bud Norris has been another big bright spot, better than I thought he’d be, so he should be a part of the grander plan as well. J.A. Happ has been mostly a black hole this season, but he is still young, so there’s no harm in continuing to run him out there and hope that he figures it out. Really though, we might see a lot more of Figgy or Hyphen before September, because I don’t expect Wandy or Brett Myers to be wearing Houston pinstripes after next week either. So let’s move Aneury Rodriguez back to the rotation and see what he’s got. Old or not, I’d love to see Andy Van Hekken get a shot. Then if you need a starter after those two guys, give Figgy or Hyphen a call. Of course trade acquisitions are the wild card here, too, but based on who we know we’ve got, I’ll be happy to finish the year with Aneury and Andy at the back end of the rotation.
I know that I haven’t touched on the bullpen, but that’s been so fluid for the last few years that I hesitate to name names. I like Mark Melancon a lot, and Wilton Lopez. We know that Brandon Lyon is under contract for next season – fine. He’s good when healthy. But the fundamental point of this whole exercise is to say: Give the young guys a chance. Angel Sanchez is not your savior for the future, nor is Jason Michaels. Nor is Carlos Lee at first base. If we can see more Castro, and Wallace, and Altuve, and CJ, more Bogey and Bourgeois and maybe some J.D. next year, then I’ll be excited even if we lose 100 games again. I know that even all of those guys aren’t likely the long-term answers, but they’re all a step in the right direction until the pipeline on the farm starts a steady flow again. If “these are our Astros,” then let’s make that so and stop giving time to guys that won’t be here when our future Astros arrive.
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.
an Astros fan