Back in the 1990s, Astros owner Drayton McLane came in like Texas’ answer to George Steinbrenner. He interjected himself into team operations, pushing to spend money on free agents such as Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell and churning through multiple managers who presided over winning teams. He pushed to become a force in labor relations, joining the Executive Committee and establishing himself as a hawk in the management/labor battles. He pressed the city of Houston and state of Texas to build the Astros a mallpark, one that has become a cash cow for him and his ballclub.

It was a lower-profile, lower-impact McLane who owned a pennant winner, however. The Astros of 2004 and 2005 were a largely homegrown team, led by a new generation of talent, guys like Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Brad Lidge, and Morgan Ensberg, all products of the development system. The free agents who contributed did so on short-term contracts, and all in part because of their desire to play in Texas. You can’t separate the 2005 Astros’ pennant from the contributions of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, but you also can’t argue that either player was in Houston because McLane had outspent the competition. When McLane elevated Tim Purpura to the GM slot to replace Gerry Hunsicker in 2004, it was a validation of the Astros’ 21st-century approach: draft, develop, and spend money wisely.

So it’s disappointing to see McLane run so far away from the plan that put his team in the World Series for the first time ever. Let down by the Astros’ failure to get back to the postseason in 2006, McLane took an active hand in shaping the 2007 team, and he did so in a way that guaranteed an expensive failure. By committing the organization to Craig Biggio‘s run at 3000 hits, a move that established the 2007 season as a farce, McLane tied Purpura’s hands in building a lineup. McLane then pressed for a big-money commitment to left fielder Carlos Lee, a player who didn’t fit the Astros’ needs in any way. The Astros’ problems in 2006 weren’t power or corner players, but rotation depth and incompetence up the middle. Choosing Carlos Lee and Craig Biggio over the alternatives-for the sake of argument, Chris Burke, Jason Lane and $20 million to address some of the team’s more serious problems-was indefensible and guaranteed that the 2007 team would not contend.

Once McLane dropped the hammer, Tim Purpura was left to try and build around those pieces. The presence of Biggio pushed him to move Willy Taveras in an effort to add pitching and create space for Burke in center field. That trade, in which the Astros acquired Jason Jennings, turned out to be a complete waste of talent for the Astros, and didn’t look very good at the time, either. Purpura shoulders the blame for that deal, while sharing responsibility for the circumstances surrounding it.

Firing Purpura, as McLane did yesterday, is an act of incompetence. Not only was it Purpura’s work-he ran the Astros’ player-development operations for seven years prior to becoming GM-that built the pennant winner, but with the expensive problems he inherited and the meddling of McLane, it was impossible for him to move the Astros in the direction they needed to go. He was essentially a caretaker, needing to preside over a rebuilding process and never being allowed to do so, and he’s now out of a job largely because his employer has returned to being completely irrational about what his team is.

Purpura’s performance as a GM was a mixed bag. He made his share of missteps, such as the Taveras trade and the Woody Williams contract. However, he showed a terrific ability for making the smaller moves that add value at very little cost. In three seasons, Purpura made something-for-nothing pickups such as Mike Lamb, Aubrey Huff, and Mark Loretta. The player-development program he built continues to generate contributors such as Luke Scott, Wandy Rodriguez (check out his peripherals this year), Chad Qualls, and Troy Patton. If left to his own devices, I have no doubt that Purpura would have limited the Astros’ rebuilding process to a few short seasons, and come out on the other side with a team prepared for a long run of success.

Instead, he’s out of a job. Tim Purpura isn’t to blame for the Astros’ disappointing 2007 season, and that he’s being fired for it is ridiculous. Drayton McLane set these events in motion by abandoning what had worked for close to a decade-staying out of the baseball staff’s way-and instead making his own bad decisions about what the Astros needed. McLane wanted a year-long coronation of Craig Biggio, and he got it. He couldn’t have that and a contending baseball team, however, and his refusal to see that-and his subsequent dismissal of Purpura and Phil Garner as scapegoats for his own mistakes-ranks as one of the game’s great embarrassments of 2007.

Tim Purpura was one of the game’s top GM candidates when he landed the Astros’ job, and standing on the unemployment line today, he regains that description. If he’s out of work for longer than a couple of days, the industry is making a terrible mistake. Purpura is a better GM than a dozen guys who hold that title at the moment, and I sincerely hope he gets an opportunity to do the job correctly, an opportunity that was denied him in Houston.

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