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September 5, 2008

Prospectus Today

Houston, We'll Have a Problem

by Joe Sheehan

I suppose if I can write a column on the Rockies when they're six games out of a playoff spot, nine games under .500, and having been outscored by 53 runs, I pretty much have to give equal time to the Astros three days later. The Astros are six games out of a playoff spot and have been outscored by 25 runs, but have a record of 74-66-nearly 10 games better than what the Rockies had when I put them under the microscope. Fair is fair, so here goes…

The Astros' season is essentially a failure. They're not going to leapfrog three teams to win the NL wild card. They're chasing much better competition than the Rockies are, their fundamental talent level is pretty accurately captured by "-25," and they've done nothing this year to improve their talent base for 2009 and beyond. They flat-out threw away their first-round draft pick, and if this draft was better than 2007's just because they signed more of their top selections, it did little to keep them out of the bottom few organizations in terms of overall talent. The Astros are old on the field and thin in the system, a combination that leads very quickly to the bottom of the standings for an extended stay.

On KZNE yesterday, I was asked by Louie Belina whether Ed Wade was to blame for the Astros' stagnation. Wade is an easy target-he failed to put the finishing touches on a good core in Philadelphia, showing an affection for middle relievers and a lack of recognition of what the Phillies needed in his waning days. It would be easy to ridicule him for making the Astros older and more expensive in his tenure while not turning them into more than a pseudocontender for the pseudo playoff spot. That, however, would miss the point. Wade wasn't hired to build a championship team. Wade's misguided mandate from owner Drayton McLane was to win as many games as possible in the short term. He's done that; the Astros, projected by me to win 73 games (and -77 differential) and by PECOTA to win 72 (-82), have already won 74, on their way to more than 80. It's hard to say that Wade didn't do the job he was asked to do.

Now, that might have made them an NL Central contender in the past few seasons; no NL Central team has won 90 games since 2005. However, what McLane-and arguably Wade-failed to see was that the competitive landscape had shifted. The Cubs were getting better. The Brewers' young talent was coming together to make them a true contender. The days of taking the NL Central with fewer than 90 wins were clearly numbered, and there was little chance that the 2008 Houston Astros would get to that level, not with no leadoff hitter, no back end of a rotation (or bullpen, for that matter), and a very weak team up the middle. The Astros were built to win 80-something games and catch some breaks, which is not just the wrong plan at the wrong time, but the wrong way to build a baseball team, period.

Of course, McLane's mistake is the NL's problem in a nutshell. For nearly a decade now, the emphasis has been on being good enough, rather than on being great. The Yankees and the Red Sox, the A's and the Angels, all set tones in the AL in the early part of the 2000s, forcing everyone to either build teams that could win 95 games, or abandon hope of contending. Some teams did the latter, which is why the AL, while being the superior league, has had something of an underclass of franchises in constant rebuilding mode. At the top, however, the work by the front offices and the willingness of a number of owners to plow profits into the baseball operation set the standard for the entire league.

The NL didn't have that. There was no NL version of Billy Beane or Theo Epstein, and there was certainly no George Steinbrenner or Arte Moreno. There was no striving for excellence, but rather an understanding that, if you built a decent team, caught some breaks, and maybe made the right move at the trade deadline, you could win 89 games and reach the postseason. For most franchises, it was enough to aim lower. Over time, the effect was a league with inferior talent, on field and off, and an incredible amount of parity. That's how, in consecutive seasons, an 82-win team and an 83-win team have made the playoffs. It's how a team with no more than 85 wins made the postseason in each year since 2004, a streak that will probably continue this year. The NL isn't inferior to the AL just by chance. It's inferior, to a large extent, by choice-the kind of choice that Drayton McLane made when he hired Ed Wade and told him to try to win in 2008, and the choice he'll make when he tells him to try and win in 2009.

Come 2010, there won't be any trying to win; there'll just be an aging roster, a high payroll, and eventually a new GM. Maybe at that point, McLane will make the choice to strive for excellence, and to authorize the kind of effort it takes to build a championship team. Until then, however, he'll get exactly the team he deserves.

So no, I'm not impressed by 74-66, or the eight-game winning streak, or Ty Wigginton's career month, or the fluke season by Brian Moehler. I see exactly what I saw five months ago: a team with little present and no future, deluding itself and its fans. That they've been successful in their modest goals does little to change the fact that those goals were the wrong ones, and reaching them will do more short-term damage to the organization than the kind of reality-check season that the 2008 Mariners have had could ever do.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  The Streak,  Ed Wade

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