San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 6th, 2008
So, what is the Astros’ plan?

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
 

We’ve seen the moves. So, what’s the plan?

Presumably, Tal Smith is hatching a master concept from his office at Houston’s Union Station, perhaps a frontal assault on free-agent starting pitchers next winter with an eye on winning again in 2009.

In the meantime, Smith might suppose, he can entertain Houston Astros fans with a different kind of loser in 2008. And if a pitcher shows up or the Astros hit better than any other club in the National League, they might even take a shot at the playoffs.

The speculation is necessary because no rendering of a plan for the Astros to this date makes a bit of sense. No analysis of how the Astros have changed from the end of last season to this day adds up to a program for creating a winning ball club in 2008 or beyond. No accumulation of answers adds up to anything but questions.

The new general manager, Ed Wade, has certainly reshaped the Astros, but not to the extent of reshaping a loser into a winner. Instead, he has changed a glimmer of future and no hitting into a glimmer of hitting and no future. It still adds up to a loser in 2008, although a loser with – ahem – a plan.

Here’s how Wade described the plan last month to the Houston Chronicle: “We think with the offense we have, if our starters can get us deep enough into the games, the back end of the bullpen is in pretty good shape and we should be turning leads over to the middle relievers.”

That’s not a plan. It’s a wish. Best case scenario: The Astros will be strong enough in the bullpen and batting order that they can still win when they trail by three or four runs after the sixth inning.

The Astros have substantially improved their bullpen in the offseason. Jose Valverde is an upgrade over the snake-bitten Brad Lidge in the ninth inning. Geoff Geary, Doug Brocail and Oscar Villarreal are competent middle relievers. Maybe prospects like Sammy Gervacio and Brad James will even give the Astros a deep bullpen.

But their starting rotation, past Roy Oswalt, is a fashion show modeling the many styles of the 5.00 ERA. You can do it with a 40-year-old right hander (Woody Williams), with a pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery (Brandon Backe), with a puff-balling left hander (Wandy Rodriguez) or with a converted shortstop (Chris Sampson).

If all goes according to form, the Astros will lose the front halves of games and win the back halves of games, which is better than losing the front and back halves of games. But form, in baseball, is a complicated picture, and this gets us to the heart of the matter.

Astros fans hoped for a fresh start when Smith and Wade took over the baseball operation after last season. As the hope put it, Smith would insulate the baseball side from the whims of club owner Drayton McLane. A fresh start would wash away all the old fixations and neuroses.

But the fresh start has done no such good, as the trade for Miguel Tejada so vividly illustrates for insightful Astros fans. The Astros have been fixated on the declining slugger for going on two years, since the trading deadline in 2006. Finally, the Astros landed Tejada, at an outlandish cost.

For the privilege of writing Tejada’s name into their lineup as the shortstop for the next two years, the Astros gave up a decent left-handed hitter (Luke Scott), two of their very top pitching prospects (right hander Matt Albers and left hander Troy Patton), a much-needed power hitting prospect at third base (left-handed batting Mike Costanzo) and a big right hander who may or may not amount to something (Dennis Sarfate).

Any responsible rendering of the trade should also factor in that the Astros immediately declined to tender a contract for their excellent defensive shortstop, Adam Everett, who subsequently signed with the Minnesota Twins. Unless a move to the National League helps Tejada produce his 30 homers, 100 RBI and .300 batting average of the old days, the Astros gave up way too much. And even if Tejada hits that well for the next two years, they might still have given up too much.

Wade’s first trade made sense, bringing in center fielder Michael Bourn, along with Costanzo and Geary, for Lidge and infielder Eric Bruntlett. Wade’s second trade made some sense, bringing in Villarreal for center field prospect Josh Anderson, a favorite of this publication who is, basically, the same player as Bourn. Wade’s fourth trade made sense, bringing in Valverde for Chris Burke, Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez. Signing Brocail, second baseman Kaz Matsui, left-handed hitting Darin Estad and switch-hitting Geoff Blum made sense.

But the trade for Tejada, combined with Everett’s dismissal, is simply a poor value proposition. It could be the right move for a ball club that’s ready to win now. But the Astros aren’t ready to win now. They’re in decline, a steep decline. They may have checked their decline for the immediate future, but at grave risk of accelerating their decline over the long term.

With the retirement of Craig Biggio and the house cleaning in management, knowledgeable Astros fans knew the time was right to tweak here and there for a closer and some left-handed hitting, then give people like Patton, Albers and Gutierrez their chances in the rotation. Most of Wade’s moves have exhibited that spirit. But the Tejada deal demonstrates that the Astros must have something else in mind.

When a losing ball club that can’t hit and responds by trading its few immediate pitching prospects to gain a hitter for only two years, what can it mean? It certainly doesn’t mean the Houston pipeline is flush with pitchers. First, the Astros already owned very little pitching at the high minor league levels. Second, the draft poses a major problem because McLane won’t defy the commissioner’s office by paying above the slotted bonuses.

Assuming Smith is rational, which is a well-grounded assumption, there’s only one other scenario. He’s got to be thinking about free agent pitchers, fully knowing the market in that commodity is weak this winter. So, he’s playing for next winter.

The good pitchers are drawn by two amenities – big money and reliable offensive support. The Astros are as willing to pay as almost any club in baseball. If they can match that with demonstrated offensive support in 2008, they could become a factor on the 2009 free agent pitchers market, which, assuming no trades or contract extensions, will include Johan Santana, Ben Sheets and C.C. Sabathia. The market could also include Brad Penny, though the Los Angeles Dodgers have an $8.75 million option on him for 2009. Until Jake Peavy signed an extension with the San Diego Padres last month, he was in that mix, too.

Perhaps, also, the Astros have enough offensive credibility to take a chance this year with a free agent or two along the lines of Livan Hernandez, Jon Leiber or Freddy Garcia. At this point, they might even be attractive again for Roger Clemens.

Except their master plan can’t quite that far-fetched.

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