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November 2, 2010

GM for a Day

Houston Astros

by Steven Goldman

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Top 10 things I would do if I were the general manager of the Astros:

10. Find out whether being Astros GM gives you enough cachet to get a date with a Texans cheerleader.

9. If so, treat her to a romantic candlelit picnic on Tal's Hill.

8. Call every member of the 1969-1972 teams until I had learned all the words to the rude songs they used to sing about Harry Walker.

7. Cook and eat Brett Wallace.

6. Indulge in frequent puns juxtaposing Jason Bourgeois with the works of Karl Marx, things like, “Jeff could play more for us if he could hit, but despite being Bourgeois, he doesn’t own the means of production.”

5. Draft some really unconventional players so that Michael Lewis will write a book about me and Brad Pitt will star in the movie of my life.

4. Campaign for reintroduction of the Dead Ball Era so that my offense doesn’t stick out as badly.

3. See if my resume is now good enough to get me hired by a real team.

2. Hope that Carlos Lee experiences a sudden burst of retirement.

1.  Kill myself.

 

I would like to stop the article right there, but no doubt you would like to hear my brilliant plan for bringing the Astros back to the postseason for the first time since 2005. Sadly, this is not a realistic short-term possibility. The road back begins not with exciting general manager action, but with some adroit drafting for the first time in years. The Astros farm system is deader than Socrates due to miserable June work—Baseball America graded the 2005-08 drafts as an F, C, F, and B respectively, and that last grade presumably relied heavily on Jason Castro momentarily seeming to posses the potential to be “average to a tick above-average starting catcher in the major leagues,” something that appears much less likely after he hit .205/.286/.287 in 217 plate appearances. This club needs a huge influx of prospects, followed by a thorough purging of the roster. The current Astros who will be around to contribute to the next great Houston team are no one.

This may seem pessimistic given the team’s strong second half. Although the Astros rebounded from a miserable start to post a winning record (40-33) after the break, they didn’t deserve the record. Their runs scored/runs allowed ratio was barely above the break-even point, and all the rally served to do is give the team some ill-founded confidence, disguising the fact that this was a team that deserved to lose 95 or more games, and not just due to the cold facts provided by their Pythagorean record, but the abysmal quality of the roster.

The best you can say of the team was that the pitching staff was merely subpar. Brett Myers was surprisingly good. Bud Norris had a fine second half, one that gives hope for next year, Wandy Rodriguez was dominant after the break, journeyman Nelson Figueroa filled in ably, and Roy Oswalt and the man he was traded for, J.A. Happ, combined for 33 starts, 201 innings, and a 3.53 ERA. The offense was one of the worst in baseball, averaging 3.8 runs per game. The former in particular strongly resembled the kind of collection put together by an expansion team. The club finished ranked ahead only of the Brewers and Pirates in defensive efficiency.

Our hypothetical GM for a day is hamstrung by contractual matters. There are only three players of note under contract for next year. Lee is signed through 2012 at $18.5 million per year, and he’s not going anywhere barring a sudden bout of inflation that renders his contract worthless. Myers, the team’s only real success story in 2010, and reliever Brandon Lyon are the other two. This is a problem, and not just because of Lee’s combination of high salary and low production. With so few players signed, the Astros have a small army of players heading for arbitration. In the strictest sense, none of them are worth spending on, and in the normal course of business, several might be traded, released, or non-tendered. The Astros can’t do that. With few quality prospects in the system and just one, right-hander Jordan Lyles, who has a chance of breaking through next year, there are no in-house replacements available and the free agent market is thin. Somebody has to play for Houston next year, so the Astros are going to have to pony up for some mediocrities.

Among those mediocrities, here defined as players a team in a rebuilding mode might look to trade rather than pay, are Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and Rodriguez. Pence is not a terrible player, but he’s also not a very good one. The average major-league right fielder hit .270/.342/.442 in 2010. Pence’s abilities are well-established at this point, and he’s just not far enough above the average to be more than a complementary player on a good team. He’s a career .281/.328/.460 hitter on the road, which suggests not a true slugger but the kind of player the pre-Sandy Alderson Mets would have coveted and been disappointed by when he failed to hit up to inflated expectations.

Bourn is a fine defensive outfielder, in one group’s eyes the best defensive center fielder in the game. He is also the game’s most valuable baserunner. With these two assets, he has had a positive impact for the Astros despite a hitting game that leaves much to be desired. If the Astros had a deeper lineup or were about to break in a bevy of young pitching, I would be eager to hold Bourn. However, neither condition is true, and speed is an attribute that is always an injury away from breaking down.

Rodriguez has been a good story for the Astros. Signed out of the Dominican Republic way back in 1999, he took approximately a hundred years to work his way through the farm system and another three to establish himself in the manors. From 2008 on, he’s been an asset to the club, putting up a 3.36 ERA in 538 innings, striking out 8.4 per nine innings and walking just 2.9. He’s also 31, his long and winding road having eaten up his 20s, throws 88-90, and is in his final year of arbitration, meaning he will be a free agent after the coming season. His combination of age and stuff makes him a bad long-term bet for a team that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

All three of the foregoing are headed for arbitration. Again, with no replacements on hand for these players and them being unlikely to bring sufficient value in trade, individually or as a group, to fill out a proper lineup, there is no choice but to hold steady. Therefore, with hands tied, I would pursue the following few remedies in order to begin the rebuilding of the club:

Do anything to trade Lee, and failing to do so, eat the contract. This is a lot of money for a team to throw away, but it has to be treated like a sunk cost. Fortunately, this was Tim Purpura’s deal, so the blame can rest with him. Even if his bat were to return to the just-OK levels of 2009 (.300/.343/.489), his defense is so appallingly poor that he would still likely be below replacement level. Lee is the ultimate dead weight, damaging to the offense with his inability to get on base, killing the pitching staff with his lack of leather. He has to go.

Try to acquire a catcher, any catcher. Rockies sick of paying Chris Ianetta to sit on the bench? Pirates find that Ryan Doumit is no longer a fit? Gents, the trading window is open. The last time the Astros got anything you could call “solid production” from their catchers was in 2000, when flash-in-the-pan Mitch Melusky headed up the position. It’s not quite time to change that, because star catchers don’t grow on trees, but the club can get closer to the norm than the .220/.269/.312 it received from this year’s backstops. Normally, I would be all for giving Castro the chance to find himself, but (A) I’m not convinced there is much for him to find, and (B) enough is enough already.  In 2009, Astros catchers hit .237/.275/.366; in 2008 it was .201/.281/.289. If this team is going to take itself seriously at all, it has to stop tolerating this level of ineptitude.

Deal Chris Johnson while he’s hot. Sure, Johnson hit .308/.337/.481 in 94 games, but he was a career .277/.315/.429 hitter in the minors, and at 25 you have to have more religion than I do to believe he suddenly found his way to productivity. You also have to dismiss his .387 BABIP and miserable walk rate—as the former comes down, the latter will strangle his production. Again, any potential deal requires the Astros to receive an unbalanced return, because they just can’t replace these players.

Try to improve the defense up the middle. Astros opponents hit .256 on ground balls, one of the higher averages in the National League (average was .238). Jeff Keppinger had a nice little 2010, but he will never be confused with Bill Mazeroski at second base. The less said of the shortstops, who combined to hit .260/.312/.321 and didn’t live up to advanced billing—the reference here is to Tommy Manzella’s glove—the better. Free agent Nick Punto might make for an inexpensive patch here. He’s not much of a hitter, but he can help plug up the leaky infield at three positions, depending on matchups and pitching assignments. 

Draft, draft, draft, draft, draft. The Astros will have the 11thpick in the June, 2011 draft. The jury is still out on the 2010 draft, but in making their top pick Delino DeShields, Jr. with the eighth overall pick, a player not perceived as a first-round talent, was an unwise risk given the pathetic nature of the system. No more Hail Marys for this team; it’s safe, projectable players until the farm has acquired a little bit of depth.

And failing all of that, hemlock. Goodbye, cruel owner.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

30 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ZeusIsLoose

For some reason that painting of Socrates always brings up this movie quote from an underratedly funny movie:

"I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, "... I drank what?" "

Not as funny as this quote:

"You know, um, something strange happened to me this morning...
Was it a dream where you see yourself standing in sort of sun-god robes on a pyramid with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at you?
No...
Why am I the only one who has that dream? "


Got nothing to say about the astros, seems like a train wreck, but maybe as GM you can get Texans cheerleaders to throw pickles at you.

Nov 02, 2010 07:39 AM
rating: 0
 
mymrbig

I root for the Astros and Mariners, but I've kind of given up on the Astros until they get a new GM and owner. Even when they play tolerably, which isn't often enough, they just aren't very fun to watch.

Nov 02, 2010 08:16 AM
rating: 1
 
Scott44

Great write-up. I can't believe how far this team has fallen from the Killer B days of Biggio, Bagwell and Berkman.

Nov 02, 2010 08:32 AM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

I'm really disappointed with this article. It's not trendy to be an Astros fan right now, but BP does have a few in their readership. None of the other GM-FAD articles have been treated as complete jokes except for this one.

First off, unless I'm missing an obscure reference, I think you mean Jason Bourgeois, not Jeff.

Second, there's not even a halfhearted suggestion for continued development of Bud Norris, Jason Castro and Brett Wallace, none of whom are poorly-thought-of prospects even if they aren't projected stars.

Third, as for Chris Johnson, sometimes players take a while to develop, like Andres Torres and Jose Bautista. Your minor league numbers don't tell his whole story. From 2006 to 2008, Johnson hit 266/328/395 which is pretty terrible. But in 2009 and 2010 in the high minors (which are supposed to be more difficult, no?), Johnson hit 299/372/499. He doesn't project to be an All-Star but if he develops a little more, it's not a complete stretch to say he could produce like a slightly-above-average major league 3B. At his cost, it makes complete sense for the Astros to find out rather than trading him away for another A-ball project.

Fourth, the starting pitching staff was NOT "merely subpar". Their collective starters had one of the lowest ERAs in the NL after the All Star Break, and even SIERA had no real beef with them. For the season, Rodriguez, Myers, and Norris all came in well under 4.00 while Paulino and Happ below 4.50. Since SIERA is notriously hard on "lucky" pitchers like Happ, is his SIERA of 4.35 over 72 IP really that bad, given by 2012 he chould easily be the #4 starter?

Sure, the farm system is a mess and both the owner and GM don't have stellar reputations. I think you could have given us something a little more thought-through than a complete hazing of all things Astros. If they manage to trade or cut Lee (doubtful), there are a couple decent 2B's who could be available (Jose Lopez? Mark Ellis?) and plenty of starters to fill out a fourth or fifth spot in an underrated rotation without going completely broke. The owner's always been willing to spend, and now Berkman and Oswalt are off the books (not even mentioned in the article? For shame!).

The NL Central is a slapstick comedy of a division and there's no realistic reason why the Astros can't try to improve their team in 2011 while setting their sights on 2012.

Nov 02, 2010 08:36 AM
rating: 10
 
bensonc

Yes.

Nov 02, 2010 10:12 AM
rating: 1
 
mshopoff

CRP,

You are absolutely correct. BP loves to pretend to objectivity, but their clear disdain for both Ed Wade and the Astros lead them to not merely have a lack of coverage, but actually to ignore the facts in front of them while choosing whatever punching bag they see fit.

The Astros have fallen far as a franchise. Unfortunately, so has BP.

Nov 02, 2010 11:49 AM
rating: -3
 
CRP13

I don't know if a blanket panning of BP is in order, but I do agree there's a pretty strong feeling of ill-will towards Wade around here. I know nothing of him before he was the Astros' GM, but I can't say that anything he's done since warrants such strong e-persecution.

Nov 02, 2010 12:24 PM
rating: 3
 
laughingman

CRP,
I couldn't agree more. I was actually looking forward to the "GM For a Day" article on the Astros. Surely all the readers of BP know that the Astros have become one of the worst organizations in baseball. And as a fan of the Astros, why do I need yet another source telling me how horrible the team and the ownership are. I was really hoping that there would be some intelligent and possibly even optimistic...gasp...information here about the Astros.

And how could the trades of Oswalt and Berkman not even be mentioned...the acquisition of Happ and freeing up salary cost is a pretty big step in a new direction for the organization.

Nov 02, 2010 12:21 PM
rating: 2
 
David Coonce

zeus...the first one is real genius....what's the second from?

Nov 02, 2010 10:14 AM
rating: 0
 
mrenick

Second is from real genius as well.

Nov 02, 2010 18:57 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Official petition for a do-over on the Astros' GM for a Day:

+1 here to sign.

Nov 02, 2010 13:25 PM
rating: 3
 
jedjethro

-1,000,000.

You've got to be kidding me. The Astros are the most talentless organization in baseball and probably even more painful to watch than the Mariners. Jason Castro, Brett Wallace as your new wave of stars. That's a freaking joke. Does anybody think Brett Myers will ever have a year approaching this one again? Yes, with the right (or luck ... re Myers) move or two, maybe they could "contend" in the NL Central, but does anybody in the world except you several posters think they have the talent of the Reds, the stars or acumen of the Cardinals, or anywhere close to the core of the Brewers?

Angel Sanchez, Jason Michaels, Jason Bourgeois, Brett Wallace, Jason Castro, Tommy Manzella, Carlos Lee, etc. etc. These are the guys who make up your starting lineups? Pence and Bourn are decent players, nothing more. Rotation's decent, but who's your hammer? Name the future stars in your minor league system.

Don't blow this up? Don't worry. The Astros have already allowed it to blow up on its own. The only do-overs needed here are humor-deprived members of the Ed Wade fan club

Nov 03, 2010 07:48 AM
rating: 0
 
onegameref

Does playing C-Lee at 1B make any sense? He would not have to move as far and he is not totally unathletic as a former 3B? This is a sad team for certain and makes my Cubs look like a contender in comparison.

Nov 02, 2010 13:30 PM
rating: 1
 
CRP13

He actually played a decent 1B for a few games, but now you're talking about stunting the growth of a five-star prospect, Brett Wallace. Sure, his star has dimmed but most still see him as becoming a decent major-league bat.

Nov 02, 2010 13:35 PM
rating: 0
 
ofMontreal

I don't think we need a do over CRP, cause your doing it yourself ;-).

So my question is, is Wallace just not workable at third? Making room for Lee at first? I thought Lee played well enough at first to warrant another look. I know it was supposed to be for shopping purposes, but I'm under the impression he just had a bad year in 2010. I expect him to hit far better next season. And without him, the Astros just have no lineup.

Nov 02, 2010 19:43 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

"I don't think we need a do over CRP, cause your doing it yourself ;-)."

Haha, good point. The Astros are about the only team I could talk about and not sound like I have my head in my butt. I'm almost done posting on this thread, I promise.

From what I've heard, Wallace is a pretty bad defensive 3B and besides, Johnson was fine last year. BABIP isn't everything, he still had to make contact with the ball. They need to just leave Lee in left field. They have two of the best defensive CF and RF in baseball, let them shift and cover for him for another year and turn him loose when it won't cost the club a zillion smackers.

Nov 03, 2010 06:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Benjamin Harris

I'm not an Astro fan, so maybe I'm biased (or unbiased I suppose), but this was my favorite GM of the day article. It's not that often I actually laugh out loud while reading a BP article. I'm glad I don't care enough to take it personally.

Nov 02, 2010 13:35 PM
rating: 4
 
CRP13

To clarify, I didn't take it personally, I thought it was funny too. However, the suggestions amounted to cutting Carlos Lee and signing Nick Punto. I like to think that their options are slightly more varied than that.

Nov 02, 2010 13:36 PM
rating: 0
 
Jay Taylor

Go back and reread the Cubs GM for a day. The recomendation there was "wait until the contracts are gone."

I've been enjoying this series of articles, but there have been a few that I would have liked to see a bit more thought put into, though I do understand that there are several teams that just don't really have much choice on what they can do.

Nov 02, 2010 13:39 PM
rating: 2
 
CRP13

Well to be fair, an honest assessment of the 2009 Astros would have been "wait until the contracts are gone". Now, other than resident albatross Carlos Lee, the contracts are gone. And the Astros are recommended to sign Nick Punto.

Nov 02, 2010 13:54 PM
rating: -1
 
Jay Taylor

I don't know that you are being completely fair though. He recomends trading Bourn and Pence, getting a catcher, trading Chris Johnson, getting someone like Punto, and drafting as best you can.

In the Cubs GM for a day there was literally nothing other then sign a first baseman to a one year contract, and put Jeff Samardzija in the bullpen.

I realize that you probably didn't like what Steven had to say about the Astros, but it's not like he didn't have at least SOME suggestions.

Nov 02, 2010 14:03 PM
rating: 5
 
CRP13

They were pretty weak arguments for trading their three best hitters. Honestly, what purpose would trading two 26-year old All-Star/Gold Glove outfielders and a cheap 25 year old 3B with power? At their very worst, Pence and Bourn are above-average and they're still under team control. What will they do for a replacement? Sign Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen?

Nov 02, 2010 14:12 PM
rating: 0
 
Jay Taylor

Well his stance was that the Astros are so far from contending that none of those guys will be a part of the next playoff bound Astros team, so they might as well sell while the guys have good value, and then just throw out a team of scrubs next year. I'm not so sure that isn't the best move for the Astros at this point.

Pence and Bourn are nice players, but they aren't guys you build a team around. They are guys that when they are your third best outfielder, you feel pretty good about your team.

Nov 02, 2010 15:06 PM
rating: 6
 
Yatchisin
(487)

Not an Astros fan, so not so sensitive, but I also award lots of leeway to any writing that can go from the low comedy of point 7 to the high comedy of point 6 so quickly. That's one of the things I most admire about BP--the wide range of reference its writers bring to the table.

Plus, if we can't laugh at our crummy teams--and I say that as a fan of those Mets that Goldman aptly zings in an aside about Hunter Pence (trade you Jason Bay for him, Houston)--then we're just taking the game too seriously.

Nov 02, 2010 17:08 PM
rating: 1
 
lesmash

First, ss a Royals fan I sympathize with exactly nobody. And I was an Expos fan before that. No, really. So I am not about to start crying for a team that made the WS a few years ago. But the Astros are bad and there's no short term solution so might as well take your medicine and rebuild. No silly contracts for Pence or anything like that.

I actually sort of like the idea to move CLee to 1B but Brett Wallace is now in the way. I kind of think Wallace will max out at about the Lyle Overbay level, so not really anything to get excited about. The Jays were willing to let Wallace go for Anthony Gose since, in the eyes of Toronto, Gose has a chance to be a very high impact major league player while Wallace will never be more than ~ average for his position. Gose is probably a classic high risk, high reward type, but in the ultra competitive AL East, I believe Toronto recognizes that they need guys with high ceilings in the hopes that they pan out to compete against their deeper-pocketed rivals. All of this is to say that I don't see Wallace as a 5 star anything, so if you could somehow deal him for a different MLB ready youngster at a position of need I would do it. Call TBay, a team that may be tiring of Carlos Pena, to see if Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce are available.

There are many ways to win baseball games but they all involve scoring more than your opponent. The Astros are not going back to the mashing Killer B days so they need to prevent runs as much as possible. Might as well keep Bourn and Pence, then, because they are both solid glove guys. I also agree that keeping Johnson is an easy choice. You also have some decent arms in the rotation, so you may be able to limit the opponents' runs if nothing else.

I'd go after Jesus Flores at catcher since I think Washington is more than set at that position. Flores is still young and has shown he can hit, albeit in limited playing time so far. I'd also make a play for Chris Young (the pitcher) if he could be had for a bargain this offseason; he could be a great player to sign and flip at the deadline to a contender in order to help restock the farm system.

Nov 02, 2010 18:42 PM
rating: 3
 
ScottyB

I hate hate hate the whole "we can't compete next year, so let's tear everything down" philosophy.

The Astros have some financial resources and have, IMO, an obligation to provide some entertainment to their fans. Obviously, they should make no short-term moves that jeopardize long-term strategy, but there's no reason they couldn't:

- have slightly-above-average starting pitching with mostly the same crew
- patch together a bunch of live arms and churn their way to a decent bullpen
- go SF Giants and sign a bunch of relatively cheap vets who may or may not bounce back, only giving 1-2 year commitments

all while they draft and develop their prospects, and save some cash for 2013 FA signings.

the astros have enough resources to get decent

Nov 02, 2010 20:56 PM
rating: 5
 
CRP13

This.

Nov 03, 2010 06:29 AM
rating: 0
 
monkey

Honestly, trading Johnson is something that would not go over well within the fanbase, but if they could get some prospects for him, you have to do it. If ever there was a player who was a "flash in the pan", it is Johnson.

I understand fans not wanting to believe this (As an A's fan, Daric Barton will hit 30 homeruns next year. I CAN FEEL IT), but it is better to look at the situation from the vantage point a few years down the road.

Nov 02, 2010 23:42 PM
rating: 0
 
FRL

The fans continued to come out this year, somewhat surprisingly, and I don't think they're ready to clean house any more by shipping out the "new guys". Johnson was a line drive machine this year, and he certainly changed his approach in his second stint up to hit more liners the other way, sacrificing some power. He does have 25 HR power IMO, and this organization seems devoid of power bats at the moment.

Are the Reds that dominant a force in the Central, that the Astros need to tear down and totally rebuild for a later date to have a shot at competing? I'm seriously asking, because the issue (the weak division) isn't addressed at all in this article.

BTW Goldman, suicide jokes are hilarious.

Nov 03, 2010 21:49 PM
rating: 1
 
rynoman7

I'm an Astros fan, and while I agree that the STARTING pitching was better than "subpar", the bullpen might drag down the overall pitching to that level.

That said, most of the article is accurate. Chris Johnson *might* put up a line similar to Hunter Pence, as he's not going to have another .387 BABIP. Hunter has cut down on his strike out rates since coming up, which is what Chris will need to do if he's going to put up similar numbers. Both are average players at best.

Castro can not catch up to a major league fastball, plain & simple. If you watched enough of the games last year you know this. He can be a good defensive catcher which, while working on decent offensive teams, just brutally hamstrings the current Astros lineup.

I like the idea of both Punto & Lopez as signings. A true #4 starter would be nice, along with improvement in the bullpen (I have no idea why we're going to offer arby to Lindstrom). We need to but Lee.

Bottom line is Drayton needs to start paying for prospects, both in the draft & in Latin America. He has spent on major league talent, yes, but been historically cheap in the draft & overseas.

We spent our talent to push for the playoffs for years & then didn't pay to replace it. It's going to be 3-4 years before we're relevant on an annual basis again. And that sucks to say.

Nov 05, 2010 07:17 AM
rating: -2
 
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