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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. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Streak,  Ed Wade

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

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Lou Doench

As a Reds partisan I can't say I'm sorry for the prospect of the Astros falling past us into the cellar with the Pirates for a few years.

I know baseball/football comparisons run into all kinds of problems, but isn't this state of affairs a bit similar to the old days of NFC dominance back in the 80's and early 90's? The NFC had the 49'ers and most of the NFC East beating the crap out of each other to get to the postseason, constantly challenging each other (especially in the pre-cap days)whilst the AFC sent a constant stream of underachievers to the slaughter each January.

Of course in baseball, its quite possible for one of those mediocre teams to win it all, hence maybe the Astros were justified in going for it in this diluted system?

Sep 05, 2008 17:44 PM
rating: 1
 
Scott D. Simon

Here's the devil's advocate position to Joe's column:

Back in March, Vegas had the Cubs winning over 87 games (-120) and Milwaukee winning over 84 (-110). Though PECOTA predicted 91 wins for the Central champ, it's not unreasonable to have believed that 88 wins would have been enough.

It's easy to look back now and see the Cubs as one of the best teams in baseball. But they were relying on Ryan Dempster and Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood, veterans who were considered mediocre or perpetually injured. The Cubs had an "unproven" Geovany Soto and an "unknown" Kosuke Fukudome and had no real centerfielder.

Similarly we have the Brewers. If we could have been certain that they'd overcome the loss of Yovani Gallardo, that Ben Sheets would stay healthy, that Ryan Braun would avoid a sophomore slump, that Jason Kendall would put up a positive VORP, and that they'd trade Matt LaPorta for Doyle Alexander, we all would have said that THIS would be the year Milwaukee makes the jump (ignoring '06 and '07 when we said the same thing).

It's unfair to look back in August and say the Astros failed to see "that the competitive landscape had shifted." Maybe Ed Wade and Drayton McClane watched the 2006 Cardinals World Series video while planning their '08 season and got stars in their eyes. But there was a consensus belief that the Central could be had for fewer than 90 games, and the Astros were operating under that assumption.

Sep 05, 2008 18:42 PM
rating: 1
 
danweasel

Astros fan here. And all I can say is that you're right, and it depresses me. To "get untracked": yeah, you're right, the team had a shot at being competitive, but they weren't built to be competitive longterm, so it was basically a matter of improving their slim chance to compete this year in exchange for reducing their chance to compete in subsequent years.

Wade's not the issue. Drayton is the issue. He steadfastly refuses to have the "r" word (rebuilding) applied to his club, but also won't spend the kind of money the Yanks do to stay competitive while a young core is grown. That equals...pretty much exactly what he got. A mirage.

Wade was in a very tough spot, but he was hired mainly because he told Drayton what he wanted to hear, told him the team didn't have to rebuild. The moves he made this past offseason were about the best that could be expected under the circumstances. But then Tejada aged by two years. Bourn and Towles never materialized. Even in the best case scenario the team wouldn't have been competitive beyond 2009.

About 2009? Ugh. Berkman won't be traded, Lee can't be traded, Oswalt shouldn't be traded. Tejada could demand a trade (though why would he?), but will likely continue declining for more money than any of them. Maybe Bourn and Towles will show up like they were supposed to this year, but maybe not. Basically, as an Astros fan I'm left with enjoying the young career of Hunter Pence and hoping Drayton sells the team to someone who understands baseball.

Sep 05, 2008 19:21 PM
rating: 1
 
DWrek5

Though not directly said, it was hinted at more than once. The '06 Cardinals have set a bad example for the NL. Walt Jockety was a very short sighted GM, which eventually led to his ouster. Did this bring them a World Series Championship? We know the answer, but how often is a team barely over 500 going to win a World Series? I'd rather not take my chances.
Now the Cards are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the 2nd year in a row. They havent recieved much help from the farm this season and werent able to complete a trade due to the fact that they do not have much in the way to trade in prospects outside of Rasmus.

Sep 05, 2008 20:48 PM
rating: 1
 
MikeJordan23

Silly comments. Under Jocketty the Cardinals went to 6 post seasons, 4 NLCS, 2 World Series, and won a championship. You act as if he ran the team to be a low 80s win team every year. The Cardinals won 100 games two season in a row with Jocketty at the helm, and averaged over 90+ wins over a decade, only two other teams can say that in that span. You are really shorting Jocketty.

And the Cardinals farm system isn't a problem, it's the owner Dewitt who doesn't really open up his pockets.

Sep 06, 2008 11:08 AM
rating: 3
 
bossfan101

I disagree that Jocketty was a short-sighted GM. While it's true there was very little in the way of top-shelf talent in the farm system at the time of his departure from St. Louis, the Cards had a sustained run of excellence for a decade, and it only happens that the year they caught some breaks in the postseason was the year in which their team began crumbling.

Sep 05, 2008 23:10 PM
rating: 1
 
anderson721

It seems to me the Dodgers are the textbook case for going for short term gains at the expense of long term positioning. If they do catch the Dbacks, it's going to inspire even more teams to adopt the strategy.

Sep 06, 2008 04:19 AM
rating: 0
 
gluckschmerz
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Who is worse Dave Littlefield or Ed Wade? Both seem to live in the realm of fantasy.

Sep 06, 2008 05:08 AM
rating: -9
 
The Crawfish Boxes

Joe, I appreciate the cool, objective view of the Astros, but you're wrong on a few counts.

Ed Wade's mandate was to put together a team that would feign contention and fill that stadium, which is smart because Houston's sweet spot on the win/revenue curve is about 80-83 wins, after that the marginal bang just isn't there: Houston fans LOVE mediocrity...we're "clutch city"?a I don't understand how Drayton McLane has exploited the market forces to work that way, but it has, this team knows what it is doing.

The draft was not a failure simply because we took Jason Castro first, that was a failure at that juncture in the draft, but it also allowed us to sign him quickly, and then have a clear picture of how much resources we had to allocate across the rest of our picks. They had some tremendous performances from their draft picks right away. Castro's SLG was lower than his OBP, but his OBP was .380ish and he was adjusting to a wooden bat.

This team is underperforming all the adjusted metrics and Pythag formulas, but Cecil Cooper is a terrible manager. He's left starters into get shelled to save the bull pen, and he's left bull pen guys into get shelled to save other bull pen guys (hell just subtract Oscar Villareal from the season and the gap easily approaches 10 runs). Pitching has been TERRIBLE. Roy Oswalt was also completely off for the first half of the season and clearly struggling from the stretch (at one point 11 of 14 HR came from the stretch and the stretch only). They've also been short projected number two SP Wandy Rodriguez for a month+ this season and have relied on their terrible replacement level. Moehler is definitely a fluke as the last time I calculated, he had a 5+ DIPS 3.0 ERA, but I don't forsee him actually playing a big role next year.

Drayton McLane is about to up his willingness to spend, because as he's seen for most of this year, attendance has been done, which suggests that Astros fans taste of success in '04-'05 has changed their taste and preferences for baseball. He'll have to treat whatever increases in the payroll to accommodate Ben Sheets -- who Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman have both spoken to about becoming an Astros and also spoken to Wade and Drayton about, as well -- a tax on previous incompetence, but he'll do it. With Roy Oswalt not performing miserable for half the year and Ben Sheets making a minimum of 130 IP of Ben Sheets baseball, tell me, please, how this team isn't a upper 80's win team?

If you want to cite offense as the achilles heel, I'll cite Cooper insanely slow learning curve, which he has figured out. He's no longer stacking the line-up with high SLG, low OBP back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Hunter Pence has shown a lot of plate discipline as of late and Bourn is getting his stroke back -- he was simply over matched to start the year. Towles is another guy who was just rushed and may not be a great as his cup of coffee indicated, but still will better than what we've had this year. Wiggy will not replicate August ever, but he's still an adequate NL 3B.

Ed Wade and Drayton McLane aren't anyone who has intelligent grasp on baseball analysis favorites, but they don't have to be unnecessarily trashed. Wade convinced Drayton to take restocking the farm seriously and he's about to get a few compensation picks from the likes of Wolf and Brocail. So give the man some credit and perhaps the absolute trouncing of a team should be left to those who have to watch them play day in and day out all summer.

Sep 06, 2008 07:50 AM
rating: 0
 
oira61

Joe: It's an interesting analysis of the National League, but missing a key component that I'd like to see you explore. Is it more profitable to shoot for 85 wins and hope? Is it less financially risky? Fans never want to hear about business imperatives, but let's face it, if Billy Beane determined that the A's are most profitable as a 75-win team, that's probably what he would shoot for.
I have seen BP's interesting analyses of the financial differences between making the playoffs and not, but I don't think I've seen one on the larger philosophy of team building.
Thanks.
FYI, I'll be glad to see the Astros tumble. Houston gave the nation the Bushes.

Sep 06, 2008 08:45 AM
rating: 3
 
ncimon

Excellent if brutal analysis. The truth hurts but it's one the entire league had better face up to. I'm a Sox fan but I'll be the first to admit it will be all they can do to make their way past the Angels or Tampa Bay. Even the White Sox can kill you if your pitching weakens at all. It's a tough world over in the AL.

And while anything can happen in a seven game series, the law of averages is working against the NL teams in the World Series. Over the long run the AL is going to win more of these because the teams are simply better. In their overall talent and their approaches, whether those embodied by the "fundamentalist" Mike Scioscia's Angels, or the relentless nature of a lineup like the Sox which has a half-dozen guys working between .800 and .950 OPS, the competitive landscape is one the NL finds itself increasingly unable to compete in.

Sep 06, 2008 10:32 AM
rating: 1
 
Patrick Ferrington

I'm really disapointed with this article. I get the impression you felt 'forced' to write it and you gave it short thrift. Put it side by side with the Rockies article and notice the difference. In the Rockies article you go through players and positions, you discuss first/second half performances, you consider their chances against upcoming teams and try to offer an opinion about their chances.

In this article you do none of that. You come in with your position already stated, make it clear early you don't want to write the article and then proceed to tell the world how bad the owner is and how misguided his ideas are - even though you readily admit that as little 1 season ago the strategy he is following would have been successfull and it has been the dominant strategy of the entire league. In fact it would still be a winning strategy in the NL West!

Worse for me is that you do none of the analysis you did for the Rockies article even though you deliberately draw the connection between the 2 articles yourself.

I would have preferred you didn't write it at all to writing something you felt you had to do and your quality suffering for it.

Sep 06, 2008 10:57 AM
rating: 3
 
DWrek5

I'm not saying Jockety was a bad GM, he has obviously done a lot of great things. And I really do appreciate that. But where is the home grown talent outside Pujols/Molina?
MI? Nope, too bad thats a huge weak spot.
3B? Nope
OF? Shumacker is a platoon player, Ludwick didnt come up throught the Cards system, and Ank is a 1 in a lifetime story.
Rotation? I wish, I really do. Wainright, Carp, Piniero, Looper, Wellemeyer, Loshe. No, No, No, No, No, No

I agree its on the rebound, but wheres the top end talent to help out right now? Perez, cricket noses....

Sep 06, 2008 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
MikeJordan23

To be fair, the Cardinals did produce Dan Haren and JD Drew. So there homegrown talent isn't on the team anymore.

And granted the farm system is in much better shape since 2005 then it was prior, however, the system produced enough in the way of trades to make the Cardinals a contender for basically every season he was in office.

The only NL team remotely close to having the Cards success in the last 10 years is the Braves. Jocketty did a lot a great things. Is he perfect? No. Is he still a great GM? Not sure. I do know created a winning template for years. Whether you like his philosophy or not, it worked.

Sep 07, 2008 15:11 PM
rating: 0
 
DWrek5

100% agree.
You have called my comments silly and have said I disagree with Jockety's philosophy. Butit soundls like you are agreeing with me.
Traded Haren and Drew. Short sighted moves that were made to make the team better now. Thats not necessarily bad, the Cards went to 2 World Series. Love it!

"I'm not saying Jockety was a bad GM, he has obviously done a lot of great things. And I really do appreciate that." = "I do know created a winning template for years."

What I am saying is, the team is in a state of flux and could use some help from the farm. I'm trying to compare the Cards current state to the Astros future state.
From what I understand is that he was ousted b/c he didnt agree witht he philosophy of Lunhow. Short term vs Long term.

I thought it was a decent comarison, but apparently enough people disagree. I could be wrong.

Sep 07, 2008 19:59 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

Didn't whoever wrote the Astros chapter in the BP Annual applaud their choice to go for it? On the grounds that with nothing in the system anyway but passable talent on the ML roster, the best/least awful option was to go for it 1 last time?

Sep 06, 2008 11:55 AM
rating: 1
 
Keith Law
(13)

Joe is just biased against the Astros. That's your entire problem.

Sep 06, 2008 14:32 PM
rating: 2
 
Vinegar Bend
(477)

I hope Tim Purpura is having a good laugh about the Astros. The way they treated that guy was really unfair, and I hope they regret it.

Sep 06, 2008 14:58 PM
rating: 0
 
danweasel

Seriously? Seriously? Drayton may be the Astros primary and enduring issue, but Pupura was an utter failure. He screwed the team over so many times in so many ways that I can't even rage anymore. If I saw Pupura walking down the street I would punch him in the face. Repeatedly.

Sep 09, 2008 09:56 AM
rating: -2
 
Vinegar Bend
(477)

Sorry to hear about your rage problems, danweasel.

Yes I was serious.

I don't see how taking a team to the WS qualifies someone for the title of "utter failure."

Sep 11, 2008 09:51 AM
rating: 0
 
greensox

It seems to me that fielding a competitive team is precisely what teams SHOULD do. I know there is a love of accumulation of minor leaguers, but at some point, the idea is to win major league wins. And the Astros have done that pretty well - certainly better than most.
Let's compare them to an organization beloved in these parts- the Cleveand Indians. That would be ONE playoff appearance in the Shapiro era. And that bunch is considered a success.
No, the Astros won't spend much time in the cellar because they have the guts to make the moves that will ensure that they don't stay in the cellar. Couple that with the fact that the cellar in their division is occupied by 2 professional minor leauger accumulators - the Reds and Pirates.

Sep 07, 2008 12:44 PM
rating: 3
 
Adam Madison

The comment system really needs work -- mainly, people should not be able to rate comments because it never works the way it should; people will give a negative rating just because they disagree with what's being said. And if one negative comment is all one needs for it not to be seen, that's really lame.

Sep 07, 2008 22:03 PM
rating: 2
 
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