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
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
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 .