There are no great teams in Major League Baseball. Sure, the Dodgers and Red Sox appear to be running away with the the National League West and the American League East, respectively. And certainly, there are T-ball teams with a better chance of making the playoffs than the Washington Nationals. But other than the six division leaders, there are 23 additional teams within 10 games of being in the playoffs. So that’s 29 out of 30 teams with a shot at the playoffs. Twenty-three of those teams are at worst 5 games below .500. Everyone is “in”, at least on June 23rd. In theory, it should make for great baseball, with every team feeling like they are in it each and every game. So the season should be chock full of moments like this past weekend when eleven games were won in the last at-bat.
Instead, you have one horrid team, 2 pretty good teams (and based on the level of competition, who knows how good they actually are), and 27 other teams all kind of lumped together playing mediocre, inconsistent baseball. Since mediocre and inconsistent should be in the logo for this year’s Astros team (now taking the field, Your Inconsistent Houston Mediocre Astros), they fit right in. And while realistically, most of the 27 are going to fall by the wayside over the next couple of months, the wild-card format allows for the opportunity for a 2007 Rockies (or 2005 Astros) type team to catch fire and ride it all the way to the World Series. So, right now, if you’re not the Nationals (or Diamondbacks, Royals or Indians) you probably consider yourself a “buyer”. Which is why it’s the perfect time for the Astros to become “sellers”.
The Astros have several free agents to consider after this season, none of whom are likely to back. Just operating off of memory here…Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, LaTroy Hawkins, Tim Byrdak, Pudge Rodriguez, Brandon Backe, Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton are all free agents to be. Maybe Jason Michaels, Geoff Blum, and Darrin Erstad, too. They also have options on Doug Brocail (club) and Brian Moehler (mutual) to consider. On the current 25-man roster, you figure that Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Sampson, Wesley Wright and Michael Bourn will almost certainly be back next year. Kaz Matsui too, but only because he is almost completely un-tradeable (and unlove-ed). By my count, that’s sixteen open positions on the 2010 team. Six. Teen. From this year’s roster, the Astros will still have Alberto Arias, Jeff Fulchino, Felipe Paulino, Humberto Quintero, Edwin Maysonet and Jeff Keppinger though some form of club control/arb-eligible blah blah blah stuff that smarter people than me can explain to you.
If the Astros had to open the 2010 season today, not only would their calendars be completely worthless, but it’s hard to say they could field a team. The infield would have Berkman at first, some combination of Matsui and Maysonet at second and big nasty question marks at third, short and catcher. The starting outfield, one of the most productive in baseball this year, comes back intact with Lee, Bourn and Pence, but right now there isn’t a fourth outfielder, not to mention a fifth outfielder, but the Astros aren’t carrying one of those right now anyway. The bench likely includes Keppinger, Quintero and whichever of Matsunet isn’t playing. The pitching looks to get a lot thinner (if you can imagine that) with Oswalt and Wandy at the top and three days of praying for rain. Right now, only Paulino has any major league experience as a starter, so I guess add him there. The bullpen would “feature” Wright, Sampson, Fulchino and Arias, but there’s no closer and no established set up man.
The organization doesn’t have a major league ready catcher (sorry Mr. Towles) and will need to answer internal questions at short (Tommy Manzella, maybe), third (ditto on Chris Johnson), in the outfield (Brian Bogusevic or Yordanny Ramirez) and on the mound. Is anyone out of a group that includes Bud Norris, Yorman Bazardo, and Polin Trinidad ready to be a major league starter? Is there a closer in the wind somewhere?
While the front office of your local nine is currently saying the right things about building this team, you have to wonder if they mean it when they’re 4 games out of a playoff spot. Are they content to get a slew of supplemental picks for letting guys leave at the end of the season? Are they really willing to part with a Miguel Tejada or Jose Valverde for the right deal? It’s pie in the sky, but if you could pry away a Clay Buchholz (or rather THE actual Clay Buchholz) from a contender who might need some offense as well as someone who could stand in the shortstop position play shortstop, how much would that hasten the rebuilding? If you could get Brandon Wood from the Angels for one of the top closers in baseball for their stretch run, would that help? If it makes it go smoother, the Astros could probably still part with Tejada and Valverde and stay just as much in contention as they are right now. Tell Drayton that, Mr. Wade.
This is the last gasp for the post-Bagwell/Biggio Astros (the Berkman/Oswalt Astros doesn’t sound as good), and while they could still make a run (and they probably will) the organization has to take the opportunity to look forward and be bold. Go on, forget about raging against the dying of the light and be “sellers”.
Everything Old Is New Again
History recycles. It’s green as hell in that patterns repeat, if you want to see them. I’ve struggled to come to terms with why this year’s Astros team isn’t all that interesting to me. I mean I watch the games, I read the articles and quotes, I even, from time to time actually discuss baseball (kinda) on various (one) media outlets. It hit me (conveniently in time to do another column) that I’ve seen this team before. Only then they were called the 1990 Houston Astros.
The 1990 team was, as most in the history of the Houston franchise to that point, a dog of a team, but they didn’t know it going to the season. The opening day roster featured Houston favorites, including Gerald Young, Craig Biggio, Billy Doran, Glenn Davis, and Ken Caminiti. Mike Scott was joined in the rotation by Jim Deshaies, Danny Darwin and Mark Portugal. The bullpen was led by closer Dave Smith, Larry Andersen, Juan Agosto and Charlie Kerfeld.
They had reason to believe that 1990 might be a pretty good season, by Houston standards anyway. Led by second year manager, Art Howe, the Astros were coming off a rebound 86-76 1989 campaign. Scott and Deshaies had combined for 35 wins. Davis and Doran were the stars and the motor for the team, offensively. Biggio, Caminiti, Portugal and Eric Yelding were exciting young players to watch. Plus the much anticipated Eric Anthony was going to take over in right field. It looked like Houston had a good mix of youth and experience and were poised to make a move.
They proceeded to completely fall apart. By Memorial Day, 1990, Houston was 14 games behind Cincinnati. It proceeded to get worse from there. Scott battled injuries. Deshaies had a bad season. Bill Gullickson got 32 starts. Davis played in only 93 games and was replaced by Franklin Stubbs at first. Gerald Young, Dave Smith, Alex Trevino, Charley Kerfeld, Juan Agosto, and Jim Clancy (thank god) were let go. Caminiti and Yelding regressed. Eric Anthony was Eric Anthony. Glenn Wilson retired to his gas station in Humble (or wherever). Doran was traded to the Reds for Terry McGriff, amongst others. And Larry Andersen was traded to the Boston Red Sox for some skinny AA third baseman who was buried in their organization. Houston finished the 1990 season in 4th place in the National League West, at 75-87, 16 games back.
All told, sixteen players who opened the 1990 season with the Astros were elsewhere by April 8th, 1991. It was as complete a flush of a sports organization as has ever been seen in Houston, and predictably, the Astros finished even worse in 1991 at 65-97. However, Jeff Bagwell, Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch, Kenny Lofton, Curt Schilling, Scott Servais and Tony Eusebio all made their Houston debuts. Luis Gonzalez, Andujar Cedeno, and Darryl Kile and Caminiti played their first really meaningful stretches with the Astros.
The moves in 1990 and 1991 were the foundation for an 15-year stretch that saw your Houston Astros go 1272-1093 (.538) with 6 playoff appearances and a National League Pennant. From 1994 to 2006, the Astros either first or second in their division 12 of those 13 seasons. It’s the greatest stretch in Astros history, by any measure. It changed the perception of the Houston franchise throughout baseball.
It feels like there’s a similar opportunity, just 19 years later.