Drayton McLane, Gerry Hunsicker and the rest of the Astros front office weren’t exactly met with holiday cheer after the announcement of the Mike Hampton trade two days before Christmas. The Astros were blasted by radio callers and the local newspaper alike. Houston Chronicle columnist John P. Lopez carped, like he did when Carl Everett was traded a couple of weeks earlier, that the Astros have become a farm system for big-market teams.
Consistently overlooked is that it was Hampton, not the Astros, who refused to discuss a contract extension. Thus, even if the Astros had wanted to make him a generous offer, say, $11 million a year, Hampton wasn’t prepared to listen. Hampton was obviously aware that the Astros weren’t in a position to offer him Kevin Brown money, but, frankly, after one break-out season, Hampton isn’t necessarily a good gamble at $15 million a year. Since Hampton, by his own actions, looked extremely unlikely to stick around after 2000, the Astros did the sensible thing and got what they could for him.
Also commonly ignored is the immense value of getting rid of Derek Bell. He may well have been the deal-maker, with the Astros only willing to give up Hampton if the Mets agreed to take Bell. Unloading Bell has myriad benefits. It eliminates $5 million in wasted payroll. It reduces the crowd in the Astros outfield. It removes from the clubhouse Bell’s attitude when he’s not playing every day or hitting where he wants in the batting order. And, most important, it takes Bell’s bat, which last year cost the team lots of outs without a commensurate return in runs, out of the line-up. The positive benefit of moving Bell shouldn’t be underestimated.
In addition, Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel are more than the minor-league prospects teams often acquire in these kinds of trades. The notion that they won’t contribute immediately is questionable.
Cedeno’s most regularly discussed benefits are his batting average and speed. Yet his most valuable asset, by far, is his on-base percentage. Cedeno had a .396 on-base percentage last year and has a career .357 on-base percentage despite playing in atrocious hitters’ parks. Not only did he steal a lot of bases last year, 66, good for second in the league, he was successful 79.5 percent of the time. His career success rate is an excellent 80.9 percent. The Astros apparently intend to bat Cedeno behind Craig Biggio, which doesn’t make much sense since Cedeno got on base slightly more often last year and is faster, whereas Biggio has more power. Cedeno is only 25 years old.
At 5.38, Dotel’s earned-run average was lackluster, but his secondary pitching statistics were superb and promising. He had a .226 opponents’ batting average, struck out 8.97 batters per nine innings, and allowed only 7.28 hits per nine innings. Had Dotel pitched enough innings to qualify among the league leaders, those numbers would have made him fourth in opponents’ batting average, second in strikeouts per nine innings, and third in hits per nine innings. Not too shabby.
His weakness is walks. Dotel walked 5.17 batters per nine innings. On the other hand, last year was his first in the major leagues, and he’s only 24 years old. Working with Larry Dierker and Vern Ruhle, there’s no reason Dotel can’t work out some of his wildness. If Dotel maintains his other pitching characteristics and reduces his walks, he’s going to be a fantastic pitcher.
The proper way to look at this trade in terms of worth is to compare a) the positive value of one year of Hampton and b) the negative value of one year of Bell to c) the positive value of at least two or three years of Cedeno and Dotel and d) whatever else the Astros can do with the difference in salaries between Hampton and Bell and Cedeno and Dotel.
Even in the short run the Astros are likely still plenty strong to repeat as Central Division champions and contend in the play-offs. Last year Hampton’s 239 innings of 2.90 earned-run average saved the Astros about 44 earned runs allowed compared to the league average. Despite his promise, Dotel almost certainly isn’t going to make up that difference. On the other hand, if a pitcher with the league earned-run average of 4.57 had been in Hampton’s place last season, the Astros still would have been fourth in the league in earned runs allowed. Thus, the Astros staff remains one of the best in baseball.
Moreover, the Astros offense should be better in 2000. Last year the Astros were just eighth in the league in runs scored after finishing first in 1998. The decline was almost entirely in the outfield. Everett’s heroic 1999 performance wasn’t enough to compensate for Moises Alou’s absence and Bell’s hideous season. In fact, it is possible to argue that Everett’s positive contribution was negated by Bell’s significantly below-average level of play.
In 2000, with Bell out of the picture and barring any more transactions, the Astros will likely start an outfield of Alou, Cedeno, and Richard Hidalgo, with Daryle Ward and Lance Berkman waiting to step in if Alou and Hidalgo are unable to recover from injuries. Glen Barker and Matt Mieske will also be available to come off the bench. Overall, this outfield should be more productive than last year’s version, which should mean more runs for the offense as a whole.
And after shaving about $13 million off the payroll in the Everett and Hampton trades, the Astros have money to spend on further acquisitions if they see fit. Or they could decide to retain the savings to ensure that Jeff Bagwell, who might end his career as the best first baseman in National League history, remains with the club beyond 2001.
Whatever the Astros decide to do with the excess, the fact remains that the 1999 team was roughly $20 million better-paid than the one that won the Central Division in 1997. In other words, the payroll has already been significantly increated in anticipation of the opening of Enron Field. If the Astros were truly seeking to dismantle the team to save McLane money, they wouldn’t have raised the payroll almost 60 percent since 1997, they wouldn’t have extended Craig Biggio’s contract to make him the highest-paid player in club history, and they certainly wouldn’t be hoping to offer Bagwell an even bigger extension next year.
Indeed, if the Astros were really turning into a farm system for big-market teams, Biggio and Bagwell would be among the first to go, since they are the most expensive players on the club and would bring the most young talent in return. This has not taken place, however. In contrast, an effort has been made to put a consistently excellent team on the field for much of the decade. No team other than the Braves and Yankees has won more regular-season games in the ’90s. The lack of playoff success has hinged more on untimely slumps than stinginess on McLane’s part.
While McLane whines too much about being a middle-market team, he has still enabled Hunsicker to assemble a roster that produces a regular winner. The Hampton trade has not reversed that effort. Fans might be upset now, but they would rightfully have been more angry if the Astros had let Hampton walk away for nothing after next season or, worse, paid him the kind of ridiculous salary only teams like the Dodgers, Braves, Mets, Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox, Indians, Angels and a couple of others can afford, effectively dashing any hopes of re-signing Bagwell.
It’s hard to see Hampton go, but in many ways it’s his own doing.