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September 23, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Houston Astros

by Baseball Prospectus

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 70-92, fifth place
Current record: 70-80, fourth place

Is it too soon to start clamoring for Jeff Bagwell to come in as the manager here?

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: Most of Houston's aging and expensive stars struggled, for one reason or another. Roy Oswalt, hampered by back trouble, won just eight games, the fewest victories in any season in his career. Lance Berkman, now 33, performed so poorly that he was intermittently rested; he will likely finish the year with his fewest RBI in a season since 2000. Miguel Tejada struggled in the second half; he will likely be let go as a free agent. The Astros were four games over .500 on July 24, and now they might not reach 75 wins-which goes a long way towards explaining why Manager Cecil Cooper was fired.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: The Astros intend to slash their payroll, which opened in 2009 at a whopping $102 million, but trying to make the team better while cutting the budget will be like trying to draw oil out of a bone-dry well. Carlos Lee is right in the middle of a deal that will pay him $18.5 million for next season. Berkman has one more year on a contract that will pay him $14.5 million in 2010. And Oswalt will make $15 million for next year. That's almost $50 million for three players. In addition, rival talent evaluators say the top of the Houston farm system doesn't have a lot of high-end talent. Whoever replaces Cooper as manager will have a brutal challenge.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

A year after besting their Pythagenpat-projected record by nine games, the Astros have fallen on hard times thanks to a poorly-constructed roster. This puts the franchise in the precarious position of not being able to presently compete, with little help on the horizon from the farm system. Though Ed Wade's not entirely at fault, the odd collection of over-the-hill veterans and young players without much chance of becoming superstars has led to a team median of 33 years of age. Outside of Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, both of whom are already 26 years old, the team relied upon Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Geoff Blum, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Michaels, Chris Coste, Darin Erstad and Kazuo Matsui, all of whom are on the wrong side of 30 years old and most of whom did not produce up to their contracts. This isn't to say Berkman or Lee put up pedestrian numbers, but rather to suggest that the ages of these players will preclude them from being Astros' employees the next time the team has a legitimate shot at contending. They were not expected to succeed at all this year, so perhaps the fact that they could potentially finish with 75 or so wins with their roster is remarkable in its own right.-Eric Seidman, Baseball Prospectus

Key Stat: 77

Oswalt may have disappointed fans this season, but his 4.12 ERA and 3.91 QERA really only pales in comparison to personal past results; those marks still qualify him as an above-average hurler. Wandy Rodriguez exceeded expectations, even if his turning 30 seems shocking to those thinking he's a youngster coming into his own. The key stat of 77, however, refer to the number of starts between Brian Moehler, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Felipe Paulino and Brandon Backe this season, each of whom may be able to pass as a fifth starter or swingman for a fledgling team-but none of whom should be used in addition to one another when filling out a rotation. As a group, they posted an aggregate 1.58 WHIP and 5.50 ERA in 446.1 innings. That's borderline acceptable coming from one pitcher at the back end of a rotation, but not when comprising 60 percent of a starting five at any given time. They finally cut ties with Backe, who for a while seemed like the worst starting pitcher to receive regular playing time. They also eventually parted ways with Ortiz, but the relatively solid bullpen could not counteract the poor production from that remaining quartet.-Eric Seidman, Baseball Prospectus

Rumor Central

Free Agency: Hard to believe that we'd ever ask this, but which franchise would you rather be next year out of these two NL Central powerhouses? Houston has a shade under $50 million committed to Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee. The Pirates have less than $30 million committed-to their entire roster. It matters because neither team has a prayer to compete in 2010, but just one team will be paying for it. Everybody from the Houston Chronicle to Buster Olney say Houston is essentially out of the free agent market. Why? Try big arbitration raises for Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez, for starters. Want a likely big free0agent signing? LaTroy Hawkins! Yeah, they want to bring him back. His dream of being this decade's Mike Morgan may die, sadly.

Moves: The 'Stros killed their off-season rumor mill by finally axing Cecil Cooper. Next up? The week or so of speculation that there's a small, tiny chance the team will re-up clubhouse leader Miguel Tejada before they let the free-agent market take him elsewhere. In fact, don't even expect a bid.

Who 2 Watch 4: Sadly, nobody

With one of the weakest systems in baseball, the Astros are starting to turn around thanks to the work of scouting director Bobby Heck, but it's going to be a bit of a slow burn. The upper levels of the minors remain barren. Bud Norris is a decent enough arm who might profile better as a reliever, while catcher Jason Castro is close, but not a difference-making player. The high-upside players are hard to find, and any you could make an argument for, like righty Jordon Lyles, are at least two or three years away.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap
Signed: 34 of 51
Spent: Just under $3.5 million.
Hit: Jiovanni Mier, SS (21st overall). Mier was Keith Law of ESPN.com's 18th-best prospect, and he headlines a rather uninspiring crop for the Astros. But as an above-average defender at short with a potentially above-average bat, the California native could make Houston's 2009 draft a success all by himself.
Miss: The Astros passed on several catchers (including Max Stassi) as well as Jacksonville State right-hander Ben Tootle to take righty Tanner Bushue with the 69th overall pick. Something tells me they'll regret that in a few years, despite Bushue costing them just $500,000.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

When Kevin Goldstein put out his Top 100 Prospects article for BP prior to the season, each team had at least one representative, but only two teams had exactly one: the Detroit Tigers, and the Astros. The Astros' farm system is widely regarded as one of the-if not the-worst in MLB, and there is absolutely no sign of a change coming anytime soon. Perhaps the failure on display this season and the barren farm will work to help Ed Wade convince him that the roster needs to undergo an extreme makeover. Oswalt and Berkman both needed to be packaged in deals last year to extract premium returns, and nobody else on the current roster aside from Hunter Pence could even bring back anything worth acquiring. The time has come for the Astros to look at themselves in the mirror and accept the fact that they will need to experience a few losing seasons for the betterment of the organization. If they fail to reach this epiphany, expect more of the same level of mediocre in the coming years.-Eric Seidman, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

BP Comment Quick Links

CRP13

Sigh...

Sep 23, 2009 11:46 AM
rating: 1
 
elferguson80

Does Jason Churchill sleep in Max Stassi pajamas?

Sep 23, 2009 12:12 PM
rating: 5
 
ragerd

i was just going to ask if Churchill thought Max Stassi should have gone #1.

Sep 23, 2009 12:24 PM
rating: 2
 
amazin_mess

wow...and I thought being a Mets fan was bad.

Sep 23, 2009 12:21 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

Yeah at least media outlets sometimes try to give Mets fans a little hope, even if it's manufactured. Come on - who to watch for: nobody? Gotta do better than that, BP. Even the Astros should have a three- or two- star prospect that might at minimum give fans reason to tune in and watch the team fail spectacularly. Manzella and Johnson aren't good prospects, but they will probably crack the roster next season. Tell us what we should expect instead of simply feeding our misery.

Sep 23, 2009 13:11 PM
rating: 2
 
Ira

Whats truly sad about the Astros organization is that it didn't have to be this bad. Ed Wade NEEDs to be fired. No GM can allow their cupboard to get THIS bare. Sure it will take some money. But more importantly it will take a commitment to scouting, to coaching, to player development, to Latin American academies, to far eastern free agents, to better training facilities, etc. Letting Ed Wade broker a deal to send Roy Oswalt out is not going to solve the problem because 1 top prospect and 3 mediocre prospects won't turn the entire system around. No one's going to pull another Teixeira trade, and even without that trade, the Rangers also had the Gagne trade, the Laird Trade, Lofton for Max Ramirez, drafts of Kiker, Main, Beavan, Borbon, and Holland, international signings of Martin Perez and others.

Turning around the Astros system is going to take a change in philosophy, and asking Ed Wade to do that might be asking too much of him.

Sep 23, 2009 12:48 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

What exactly was Wade supposed to do with the budget he was given to work with (approx $40 mil for the entire team, excluding four players)? Piling on Wade is easy, but it's not accurate (yet) in this case. Give the guy time to fail. Put the blame where it belongs - on the owner.

Sep 23, 2009 13:12 PM
rating: 3
 
Andrew
(38)

I don't believe it's Wade's fault for the position the Astros are in - they were pretty much on this path before he was hired.

The blame is on the owner, who decided that the Astros will never rebuild (lest they take a hit in attendance), and hired a free-agency/veteran type of GM in Wade to keep the team "competitive", which is a low threshold in the NL Central.

This is the same owner that pretty much ignored the draft as a means of eventually helping the big-league team for many years. Perhaps Wade convinced McLane that he should spend a little on the draft, rather than sign another veteran reliever.

Unfortunately all the valuable pieces are getting more expensive (and older, and not aging well), and the cost of sustained mediocrity continues to go up.

But hey! How about that 2005 NL Title! Woo!

Sep 23, 2009 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Yeah I'm not sure why you guys are discussing Wade when literally my 2nd or 3rd line mentions how he is not entirely at fault for the issues here. Sure he hasn't done anything particularly fantastic, but his moves are not what have sunk the Astros. To get big returns, he would have needed to trade Oswalt and Berkman a few years ago, when he wasn't even the GM, etc.

Sep 23, 2009 14:33 PM
 
CRP13

Eric, I've noticed on the Astros' site that a majority of the active fans are consumed with who to blame. For some reason Wade is taking a lot of heat for decisions made by McLane and Purpura. Wade is pretty low on the list of people responsible for this particular mess. Are there metrics to predict where the blame falls in the eyes of the fans based on a team's standings, payroll, and geographic location?

Sep 23, 2009 14:51 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Chris, it was admittedly weird to hire Wade in the first place, and as I'm sure most people know, I'm a Phillies fan, so I experienced him as a GM for several years. He isn't awful, but he isn't the guy to really right a ship under very tight constraints. He was basically given a team with a poor farm system and made it slightly poorer through moves to improve the big-league club marginally, and their run last year that defied logic didn't help. The Astros problems lie with McClane, a man much more successful than I am, clearly, but who has demonstrated a knack for not making the right calls as an owner of a baseball team.

Sep 23, 2009 15:01 PM
 
CRP13

Absolutely agree. But Astros fans can't judge Wade's tenure with the Astros based on what he's done in Philly, because what he's done in Houston hasn't had time to yield any results yet. Indications are that Wade isn't quite as hamstrung by ownership as Purpura (at least that's what's being conveyed), and I hope that it's true, regardless of how boring a choice Wade was in the first place.

Sep 23, 2009 15:09 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I realize GM jobs are limited, but Wade isn't exactly new to the industry either... he had to know the kind of situation he'd be entering and what kind of constraints would be on him in Houston. So yeah, I can fault him for that.

Let's also say that Wade is the voice of reason in a house of madness. If he was objecting repeatedly to each signing and each trade, then wouldn't a "control freak" owner like McClane have fired him? Or did Wade just smile and nod when they signed Ortiz, Hampton, traded for Jennings, etc. I'm sure that a majority of the moves made by Wade, he thought were good moves at the time, including signing Tejada after he magically aged a year and got swept into the PED scandal.

And, by the way, whose bright idea was it to fire Cooper with only 15 games left remaining? Wouldn't Wade have counseled to wait until the end of the season?

I can blame McClane for things like blocking trades that might've reduced salary or parted with veterans... but I have to believe that, at best, Wade was at least complicit in a lot of the moves the Astros have made. At worst, he was the insitgator of a lot of the moves made.

So yeah, I mostly blame Wade... though I'm a Cubs fan, so I don't mind if he goofs up.

Sep 23, 2009 17:49 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

To me it always just seemed like he wanted another GM job and never really bought into what Houston had in mind, instead merely going through the motions.

Sep 23, 2009 18:48 PM
 
CRP13

Not enough time here to answer at length, but the Jennings trade was pulled by Tim Purpura, before Wade was hired. Ortiz and Hampton was all McClane would let him afford, because they had all their money tied up in Roy, Lance, Carlos, and Miguel. It's also been long reported that McClane has wanted Tejada in Houston for a long time. Blame the puppetmaster, not the puppet.

Sep 23, 2009 18:48 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

There are literally hundreds of waiver wire pitchers, Rule 5 picks, minor league free agents and other players that were less expensive than Ortiz and Hampton. Also, both of those pitchers (Ortiz, Hampton) had a history of control problems while other reclamation projects have had better track records.

Thanks for the correction on Jennings though.

Sep 24, 2009 07:57 AM
rating: 0
 
achase

fyi, "not entirely" implies that it's mostly his fault, even if "not entirely."

probably just a writing clarity issue.

Sep 24, 2009 08:47 AM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess

I think Jordan Lyles is a good one though...his K rate was one of the best in the minors this year. I picked him up in my ultra league.

Sep 23, 2009 14:55 PM
rating: 0
 
ackbar

Paulino's peripherals and BABIP portend a significantly better pitcher in 2009, not really fair to lump him in with that group.

Sep 23, 2009 22:40 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Yes and no. His peripherals portend more success moving forward, so in that regard he doesn't belong with Backe, Moehler, Hampton, Ortiz, but it doesn't mean he wasn't bad this year, and this is a fallacy too many people fall prey to. Peripherals better than the actual simply means we would expect performance to improve next year, but it does not automatically transform a 5.50 ERA into a 4.00 or anything like that. So, ultimately Paulino does not belong with those guys in that sense, but as I said in the article, any of those guys would have been fine as a fifth starter--true for Paulino as well--but not as 3/5 of a rotation at any given time.

Sep 24, 2009 05:46 AM
 
ackbar

You're suggesting in the article that the Astros shouldn't have expected Paulino to be able to fill a non-fifth starter slot in the rotation. His numbers suggest that, because of an astronomical, not-in-line-with-previous-performance home run rate, he's a pitcher the quality of a third or fourth starter who's had some bad luck. You're judging the outcome and saying it was a poor process.

Sep 24, 2009 13:00 PM
rating: 2
 
CRP13

What do you see the Astros doing in the offseason to the rotation? Obviously, they can't or won't go after anybody GOOD, but they literally have nobody after Wandy and Oswalt. Norris will probably play, but who are some free agents or trading partners they're likely to target? They have to start the year with 5 pitchers, even if they stink.

Sep 24, 2009 06:53 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I can see them making a push to sign someone like Erik Bedard, as they might be desperate to the point of not offering him as incentive-laden of a deal. Maybe a big overpay for Harden.

More likely though would be bringing in Wolf+Garland.

Sep 24, 2009 07:00 AM
 
CRP13

A self-respecting Astros fan would not complain about those signings, even as risky as they are. Would be a big step up, for sure.

Sep 24, 2009 09:13 AM
rating: 0
 
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