What franchise in baseball has the lowest chance of success in the near future? A few years ago, the answer could have been the Washington Nationals, but now they have a promising young core thanks to a pair of Zimmerman(n)'s, Stephen Strasburg, and the newest super-prospect, Bryce Harper, should he sign by the August 15 deadline. The Pittsburgh Pirates also would have fit the bill, but with Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and the rest of the cavalry, as Rocco DeMaro would call them, in the majors now, this team could have a different outlook soon. The Kansas City Royals, another recent candidate, have a minor-league system stocked full of quality prospects—say what you will about decisions at the major-league level, but things are looking up for that organization.
That leaves the Houston Astros: The franchise is bereft of upper-level prospects, the ones they do have lack impact-player value, and there is little of anything worth saving at the major-league level. Outside of Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence, the Astros have not developed much in the way of productive talent for most of the decade. Neither is young enough to matter much by the time this team is competitive again, either—Rodriguez is in his age-31 season and Pence, while still just 27 years old, is not producing at the level expected given the splash he made back in 2007.
Yesterday, we discussed the way they should go about trading Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Brett Myers (and anything else of value that isn't tied down), and the need to do so is evident once you take a peek at their farm system. Their top 11 prospects, via Kevin Goldstein, heading into the season included two four-star prospects (one of whom is already in the majors, Jason Castro), six three-star prospects, and three two-star prospects. There were also a handful of projects at the back end of the list that, in many organizations, wouldn't have made appearances.
There is very little in the way of depth, though scouting director Bobby Heck has tried to reverse the trend that began before his takeover. Part of the reason the Astros find themselves in this situation is due to drafts like 2007 (the last one before Heck began to oversee them). The Astros, who were already low on minor-league talent (they had two farmhands in the top 100 prospects that season, Hunter Pence and Troy Patton), did not have a first- or a second-round draft pick due to free-agent compensation. They gave up their first-round pick to the Texas Rangers in exchange for the rights to overpay Carlos Lee, and their second-rounder was given up to the Padres for Woody Williams. While this is bad enough, their third- and fourth-rounders didn't sign—for all intents and purposes, their first pick in the draft was their 171st overall selection.
That was not the lone draft to go south, though: In 2006, Bud Norris was selected in the sixth round, which isn't quite enough to make up for the fact none of the five guys in front of him turned into anything. Tommy Manzella ended up being the big haul from the 2005 draft—the third-rounder just hit his way right back into the minors. It just hasn't been a productive second half of the decade for Houston.
The team learned its lesson from that draft, though—they have had at least one first-rounder and sometimes even compensation picks as well ever since, and their 2008 pick has already reached the majors. It's clear that the farm is being replanted, but given Heck is working on barren soil, it may take a while to bear fruit.
What should the Astros’ focus be? First off, they should be trading Oswalt, Berkman, and others, as explained before. Second, they need to figure out what to do with Rodriguez and Pence—should they let them walk when they become free agents, and take the picks they will bring back? Should they trade them at the deadline, or in the winter, and see if they can bring some more depth to their minor-league teams? They have options, but they are going to need to pick a direction, and it better start with "R" and end with "-ebuild".
One way to bring additional talent into the system is to identify players that can be flipped at the trade deadline in order to bring something back to the team. This is where the Astros can do themselves a huge favor, given contention is out of the question (especially if they do the right thing and deal everything with a pulse out of town in the next nine days). There are some intriguing names for these purposes in the 2011 free-agent class: Ty Wigginton, Maicer Izturis, Brandon Webb, and, of course, the middle relief corps that teams so desperately crave come July 31. Assuming signing these players won't cost the Astros any picks, there's no reason not to do some homework to acquire some names and trade them like commodities when the time comes.
Scouring the minor-league free-agent list, non-roster invitees in the spring, and using the Rule 5 draft to snag some talent other organizations can't hold onto—these may seem trivial to some fans or even some clubs, but they are an important part of the team-building process, and the Astros have the roster space up and down their system, including at the major-league level, to take advantage of the toys other clubs are done playing with. There are occasional gems in the minor-league free-agent list—where would the Red Sox be without Darnell McDonald this year?—and the Rule 5 draft is known for, on occasion, giving a worthwhile player the second chance he deserves. Instead of letting someone like Matt Murton run off to Japan so he can crush the ball, why not throw him a contract and see if he can turn into anything? Sure, he won't be around when the Astros are relevant again, but if he does well, Houston would have a league-average player at a low cost, and maybe he can be trade fodder as well.
The Astros are in a position to take risks on just about anyone, assuming these risks don't cost them draft picks. Yes, the major-league roster is going to continue to be ugly, but we're talking about a team that hasn't fielded a team worthy of a .500 record since 2006. They were close in 2007, but were well over their 72-90 expected win-loss record. The same goes for 2008, when they won 86 games but finished with a run differential of -31. In 2009, they managed 74 wins with a run differential of -127, an ugly number that they have surpassed this year (-135) with plenty of season left to go. Given the state of the organization, a decade without fielding a competitive team will have passed before you know it. That makes the days leading up to the trade deadline that much more important for Houston.