The Astros have some significant decisions to make leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. The course they take over the next 10 days could alter the direction that the franchise heads in—either way, that R word no fan base likes to hear will be used, but the length of time the Astros and their fans have to suffer can be lessened significantly.
General manager Ed Wade has a chance to be the Houston Astros' personal Hari Seldon. If he deals Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Brett Myers for pieces they can use in the future, Houston's Dark Age (which it is already in the midst of) will be much shorter than if they are left to build entirely from within. We're not talking the difference between 1,000 years and 30,000, but there is a difference between a five-year plan and a Pittsburgh Pirates-esque fall into the under-.500 abyss that could ultimately last much longer.
We'll focus more on the future of the franchise in another piece this week, but for now, the spotlight is on what to do with Oswalt, Berkman, and Myers. All three are under contract through 2011 (Berkman and Myers have options—Berkman has a team option with a $2 million buyout, Myers a mutual option with a $2 million buyout) and Oswalt has an option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout. None of these three players will be around in their current useful capacity by the time the Astros are relevant for something other than mean-spirited tweeting and blog posts about their awful offense.
The word leaked by a multitude of rumor sites and reporters is that Astros owner Drayton McLane will settle for nothing less than Oswalt's contract (1) paid in full by the team receiving him and (2) top prospects. The chances of a team meeting both of those demands are slim, as no one with the prospects to give up is going to pay the remainder of Oswalt's 2010 salary as well as an additional $18-32 million (depending on whether his option is picked up or bought out) alongside dishing out top-ranked talent to acquire him. Oswalt is considered a face of the franchise alongside Berkman, which is all well and good except that they are essentially the kings of nothing in Houston, and keeping them to front a team going nowhere is in the best interest of nobody.
Oswalt has the potential to bring Houston prospects that are close to the major-league level, which is not something they have had of late. Jason Castro, their No. 2 prospect (and one of just two four-star prospects in the organization according to Kevin Goldstein) is in the majors now, but their next-best talent, pitcher Jordan Lyles, is in Double-A and was a 2008 supplemental draft pick. The rest of their prospects won't see the majors for years. Organizational depth remains an issue that needs fixing, and although the system is healthier the further down you go, it has not improved enough to be anything but one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Dealing Oswalt allows them to make up for draft mistakes of the past, as they can take another team's talent to fill holes in their own system.
The way they are offering Oswalt up now is not going to work, though—it's just not an attractive offer, especially when you consider many suitors are in the American League. White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has already shown he is hesitant to go after Oswalt given the difference between the leagues and the price tag (it's possible Williams is still a bit gun shy after sending four pitchers to the Padres for Jake Peavy). The way to make Oswalt a more viable trade piece, one that will do the most good for the Astros in the long run, is to eat his entire guaranteed salary, including the buyout on the option, and ask for prospects alone in return.
While $18 million is a large chunk of change to swallow, the Astros are on the hook for it if if they don't move him. If they o move him but refuse to eat the salary, the quality of the prospects they get back will suffer, and they are showing their priorities are out of order. Money is not something this organization needs to be worried about as it rebuilds—if they do things right, they are not going to be spending that much on their major-league roster until they're ready to contend again. There's room in the budget to eat Oswalt's contract—think of it as an investment for the Astros' future. It's the cost of doing business. This is the price to acquire talent that the Astros do not have within your organization. Would the Rays balk at acquiring Roy Oswalt if they were able to get him at an even lower price than Wade Davis for possible 2 1/2 seasons? Would Kenny Williams be as nervous about acquiring Oswalt if he knew the tab was being picked up in Houston? This destroys the risk factor for AL teams looking to acquire him, and they will open their farm system faster than if the Astros were to ask for both talent and money.
Berkman's salary is not nearly as much of an issue. His option for 2011 can be bought out as stated, and this rental can turn into draft picks for a team that would like those as compensation for losing him as a free agent in the winter rather than picking up the option. The idea for Oswalt also applies to Berkman: offer to pay his 2010 salary in order to bring back better talent. This works in more than just theory—the Rangers could not afford to pay for all of Cliff Lee's contract this year due to their financial and ownership issues, so the Mariners chipped in and received players of a higher quality in return than they would have had they made the Rangers pay full fare. Berkman may not be as much of an issue to move as Oswalt because he's not under contract past 2010, but if it means better talent will be brought back, it's a worthwhile investment. There are plenty of teams looking for a first baseman or a designated hitter down the stretch—look no further than the interest in the Nationals' Adam Dunn for proof—and given Dunn's price tag in prospects, offering Berkman up sans a paycheck may be a great way for the Astros to get those Dunn fans intrigued and swipe some talent for themselves.
Myers does not have near the value of Oswalt and Berkman, but is inexpensive for his production and more than one team could use his arm down the stretch and even into October. Even mid-level prospects are worthwhile in a farm system this empty, and if the Astros can bump up the prospect quality by paying his way, then they should do so. It is worth, at the very least, exploring with each one of these players on the market in Houston.
As a losing organization that arguably has the least amount of hope for its future of any team in the game, the Astros have to turn these sunk costs into investments. The money is already spent—flipping these assets into useful commodities is the next logical step. It may not be the most emotionally satisfying route—sure you would love to have important faces like Oswalt's and Berkman's around the next time you contend, but how realistic is that? The free-agent market doesn't have the talent that allows the Astros to rebuild that way (nor can they afford to hand out any more draft picks as free-agent compensation), and Houston has little to offer in terms of trades from the minor-league system in order to stock up on major leaguers. Selling is the lone option, and while the Astros recognize this, they need to do it the right way in order to heal what ails the franchise in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
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I would think that even with just trading off their soon to be FA the Astros would still not be close to having the talent to compete for several more years.
So, why not go one step further? Although entirely unrealistic given the delusions of ownership, a true fire sale is what the Astros need. Pretty much any player currently on the MLB roster isn't going to figure into the contender they could conceivably build. So, why not trade everyone? Pence, Bourn, Rodriguez, Lindstrom, etc. Lee is problematic, but I would heavily consider throwing a lot of money into a trade to unload him as a sunk cost. This would result in fielding a truly horrible team for 2-3 years before things started to come back together. But, it would also net the organization a few #1 picks in the draft and could turn them back into a contender within a 5-year time frame. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and there isn't a single organization in baseball more in need of a complete overhaul than the Astros.
The Pirates did what they had to do last year and while not all of those deals will hit, they should get enough pieces from the deals to fill in where they have holes on the ML team.
One reason - you have to have someone around to bring people to the ballpark. Look at what the Marlins' "everyone must go" fire sale following 1997 did to their attendance. It has never recovered. I don't know that the same would happen in Houston, but I'd hesitate before getting rid of every recognizable player on the team.
Fire Ed Wade.
Wade has not ignored that. He hired one of the best scouting directors around, convinced a historically draft-hesitant owner to spend money on players, opened a new latin america baseball facility, invested in the Pacific Rim, and only signed free agents to short-term deals that would carry the team from Point A to Point B (except for Brandon Lyon...nobody's perfect). The REAL fact is what COULD he have done? 60% of his payroll was locked up in aging stars from the early 2000's (not his deals), and to date there has been no obvious argument to convince a perpetually optimistic owner that they SHOULD rebuild, due to their contention thru September all the way until the 2008 season.
*The 2005 Astros were a horrible hitting team. One of the worst in the NL. Their WS appearance was built on overpaid rentals of Clemens and Pettite, plus Oswalt in his prime and unrepeatable freak performances by Brandon Backe. This prevented them rebuilding when they SHOULD have.