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May 20, 2011

On the Beat

Rebuilding the Astros

by John Perrotto

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It seems $680 million only goes so far these days.

That is the amount Houston businessman Jim Crane has agreed to pay Drayton McLane to buy the Astros. The rest of the major-league owners are expected to approve the sale at their next quarterly meetings in August at Cooperstown.

For his $680 million, Crane is buying a team that has a 15-29 record, worst in the major leagues. The Astros are likely to finish under .500 for the third straight year and the fourth time in five seasons, while extending their string of seasons without making a postseason appearance to six.

The Astros also have one of the worst pitching staffs in the game, as they are 29th among the 30 major-league teams in runs allowed, giving up 5.21 a game. Catching the ball is also a big problem, as the Astros rank last in the majors with a .679 Defensive Efficiency.

The offense is so-so at best. The Astros' 4.02 runs per game ranks them 19th in the big leagues, and the farm system doesn't have a lot of top-shelf talent. Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein did not give a five-star ranking to any of the Astros' prospects coming into this season. Right-hander Jordan Lyles and second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. got four stars. While Lyles is likely to get a call up from Triple-A Oklahoma at some point this season, DeShields, last year's first-round draft pick, isn't even a full year removed from high school.

While Crane said he would not be afraid to spend money to improve the Astros, it was not a surprise that his plan is to rebuild the franchise by adding talent to the farm system.

"Our style will be smart," Crane said during his introductory press conference on Monday. "I think it starts with the draft. We want to make sure we're building the team for the future. If you look at the model teams that have been successful for long periods of time, build it from the bottom. That will be the style when we start."

The Astros haven't had a lot of success in developing players in recent years. Catcher Humberto Quintero, third baseman Chris Johnson, right fielder Hunter Pence, left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, and right-hander Bud Norris are the only significant members of the major-league roster who are homegrown. None are younger than Johnson and Norris, both 26.

Thus, it seems likely the Astros will be in for a major rebuilding over the winter if they continue to struggle this season. McLane always took pride in saying rebuilding wasn't in his vocabulary, but Crane certainly doesn't sound like he would be opposed to a significant overhaul.

"There's only a certain amount of money you can spend," Crane said. "I can guarantee the partners in this room will not be happy writing checks every year. We will spend every dollar wisely. We will appreciate every dollar spent here."

It is believed that Crane will give general manager Ed Wade a chance to prove himself to the new ownership group through at least next season. Wade has been criticized heavily for his affinity for fading veterans during his four years with the Astros, but he has also been working for an owner who resisted a youth-oriented approach.

However, one young player is emerging in this disappointing season as a keeper if the Astros should indeed decide to rebuild. That is first baseman Brett Wallace, who at 24 is the second-youngest player on the team after 23-year-old right-hander Aneury Rodriguez.

The stocky, left-handed-hitting Wallace has a .303/.379/.444 slash line in 162 plate appearances to go with a .team-leading .297 True Average and 0.9 WARP, standing second to Pence's 1.2. Wallace's performance is in contrast to last year, when he made his major-league debut in July after the Astros acquired him from the Blue Jays for outfield prospect Anthony Gose, who Houston had acquired a few days earlier from the Phillies in the Roy Oswalt trade. Wallace had a .244 TAv and 0.1 WARP in 159 plate appearances last year to go with a .222/.296/.319 line.

Many scouts and front office types have questioned whether Wallace, who twice won the Pacific-10 triple crown as a collegian at Arizona State, could be an effective major-league hitter because of his lack of power in professional baseball. In addition to beginning his major-league career so poorly, Wallace is also already on his fourth major-league organization. The Cardinals drafted him in the first round in 2008, then sent him to the Athletics the following season in a trade for Matt Holliday. During the 2009-10 offseason, Wallace went from the Athletics to the Blue Jays for Michael Taylor, who Toronto had just acquired the day before in the three-team trade that sent Roy Halladay to the Phillies and Cliff Lee to the Mariners.

Wallace says the biggest difference between last season and this year is that he is much more relaxed following the whirlwind of trades.

"I had a hard time getting settled in once I got traded to the Astros," Wallace said. "I was getting to know a new team, a new group of guys, and a new organization, as well as adapting to playing in the big leagues for the first time. I just wanted to show people what I could do. I was trying to hit so many home runs and was doing too much. The best way to establish yourself is to play your own game and stay even-keeled."

That is exactly what Wallace has done this season. He is showing the same plate discipline that made him a successful college hitter and spraying balls from gap to gap.

"I go up to the plate and I believe in myself, and I have the same game plan that I've played with my whole career," Wallace said. "You tend to put the major leagues on a pedestal when you're trying to reach this point and when you first get here. You realize eventually it's the same game you've played all your life."

The last remaining question about Wallace is whether he can develop the power teams look for in a first baseman. He has hit just five home runs in 321 big-league plate appearances, but Astros manager Brad Mills is confident that figure will eventually increase significantly.

"His swing stays in the zone for such a long time," Mills said. "It's kind of like a line drive-type swing now. The more experience he gets and the more he gets used to major-league pitching, he's going to start catching more balls and hitting them out of the park."

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Rumors and Rumblings: Look for Dennis Gilbert, a special assistant to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and former player agent, to emerge as the leading contender to buy the Dodgers if owner Frank McCourt is forced to sell the franchise. Gilbert is a Los Angeles native and led a group that finished second last year in its bid to buy the Rangers to a group led by Nolan Ryan and Chuck Greenberg. … The Phillies are getting closer to calling up top prospect Domonic Brown from Triple-A Lehigh Valley to take over in right field for Ben Francisco. … Twins catcher Joe Mauer and second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka are likely to start rehab assignments next week. … The Rangers are expected to have left fielder Josh Hamilton and right fielder Nelson Cruz back in their lineup at the beginning of next week after they conclude rehabilitation assignments this week. … The Rangers are also considering using right-hander Tommy Hunter out of the bullpen once he comes off the DL and keeping Alexi Ogando in the rotation.

The Royals plan to have right-hander Jeremy Jeffress pitch as a starter after optioning him to Triple-A Omaha to see if he could fit into their long-term plans in that role. … The Diamondbacks are likely to call up right-hander Micah Owings from Triple-A Reno to take the rotation spot vacated when Armando Galarraga was designated for assignment. … According to research by Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News, the Braves have produced 13 players on this year's All-Star ballot, the most of any organization and one more than the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Cardinals. The Orioles and Giants are last with four each. … Bill Arnold, who writes the syndicated Beyond the Box Score column, reports that Mariners designated hitter Jack Cust led the major leagues in called strikeouts with 22 (of 45 total) and Astros second baseman Bill Hall was tops in swinging strikeouts with 42 (of 47).

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Scouts' views:

Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez: "They finally wised up and moved him down to No. 8 in the batting order. I can't figure out why they ever thought he could hit second. You're looking for a guy who gives you a good at-bat in the No. 2 hole, and this guy takes the worst at-bats in the leagues. He's clueless."

Phillies closer Ryan Madson: "The school of thinking around baseball was he would never be more than a setup man because he couldn't handle the pressure of closing. Well, he's proven everybody wrong. He's been great this year. If I'm the Phillies, this guy stays as the closer even after Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge come off the DL. Why ruin a good thing?"

Braves catcher Brian McCann: "He has really struggled to hit for power this season but you can see him starting to swing it better lately. At the end of the year, he'll have his usual good numbers. For me, he's the most underrated player in the game."

Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton: "I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out every time he starts, but he's a different pitcher this year. He's pitching with confidence, he's attacking the strike zone, and his sinker is so heavy that the hitters can't do anything with it, which reminds me of when Brandon Webb was healthy and at his best."

Mets second baseman Ruben Tejeda: "The poor kid was overmatched last season and had no business being in the major leagues. I think he'll do all right this time. He's a smart hitter and good defensively, and I think he's got a helluva lot better chance of flourishing under Terry Collins than Jerry Manuel."

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

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