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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

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