Two weeks ago, the Astros did some housecleaning, firing manager Phil Garner and general manager Tim Purpura, with owner Drayton McLane being quoted in the AP story as stating that the Astros “needed a fresh start.” It’s hard to argue with that, as the Astros are basically the National League version of the White Sox–an aging team struggling to stay out of last place just two years removed from a World Series appearance, with a minor league system that will offer little help in its current state. The Astros have been very active in their pursuit of a new helmsman, interviewing or setting up interviews with at least 11 candidates that we know of:

Ruben Amaro, Phillies Assistant GM
Jim Beattie, former Orioles GM
Ricky Bennett, Astros Assistant GM
Dan Evans, Mariners Special Assistant, and a former Dodgers GM
David Gottfried, Astros Assistant GM
Muzzy Jackson, Royals Special Assistant
Steve Lubratich, Indians Director of Player Development
John Mozeliak, Cardinals Assistant GM
Ed Wade, Former Phillies GM
Bob Watson, MLB’s Vice President of Operations, and a former Astros GM
Logan White, Dodgers Assistant GM

That’s certainly a long list, and a group of men with qualifications ranging from solid to spectacular. The Astros want to have their new man (or woman, if Kim Ng of the Dodgers gets the interview she certainly deserves) in place by the end of the season, giving the new regime time to come up with a plan for the offseason.

Interviewing prospective general managers is more of a two-way communication than your everyday job interview. Yes, all of these candidates are interested in the position, but at the same time, they want to make sure they’ll have the freedom needed to make the necessary changes that will return Houston to the top of the standings. The changes that need making are numerous enough, but the first order of business wll be the scouting and player development system. Here is one very important question that these candidates should be asking the Astros’ interview staff, including McLane, as part of the process:

Are you prepared to make a real commitment, in terms of both money and personnel, to amateur scouting and the draft?

It’s pretty clear that the Astros aren’t making that commitment now. Let’s go through the team’s last three drafts, looking at their top picks as defined by signing bonus.

2007 Draft
1. Colin DeLome, OF, 5th round, $135,000
T2. David Dinelli, RHP, 6th round, $123,000
T2. Russ Dixon, 2B, 7th round, $123,000
T2. Devon Torrence, OF, 16th round, $123,000
5. Luis Pardo, RHP, 9th round, $80,000

That, folks, is an embarrassment. Not only did the Astros not have a first- or second-round pick, they failed to sign their third- or fourth-round selections. Yes, DeLome had a nice debut and has some interesting tools, but do you really want the face of your draft to be a player that was the 171st selection overall? After that, the other four picks all had borderline embarrassing debuts. Dinelli posted a 7.66 ERA; Dixon, coming out of a big-time college program, hit just .256/.300/.381 in the New York-Penn League; Torrence hit .149 in Rookie ball with 48 strikeouts in 87 at-bats; and Pardo went 0-8 with a 5.35 ERA, walking more (22) than he struck out (15) in 35 1/3 innings. What the Astros should have done this June is selected one of the many talents that dropped to their selection point, paid him what he needed, and converted their first selection into an instant first-round pick. Three such available players–Jake Arrieta, Will Middlebrooks, and Brad Suttle–all came from Texas-based colleges or high schools, making for a potential public relations coup as well. Unfortunately, the Astros are notoriously conservative in the upper rounds of the draft, not going over slot in any significant way unless the player happens to be Roger Clemens‘ son. And how’s that working out?

2006 Draft
1. Max Sapp, C, 1st round, $1,400,000
2. Sergio Perez, RHP, 2nd round, $550,000
3. Nick Moresi, OF, 3rd round, $390,000
4. Chris Johnson, 3B, 4th round, $242,500
5. Casey Hudspeth, RHP, 5th round, $163,000

Sapp’s full-season debut was an all-around disaster, as he put up a 663 OPS at the plate while providing sub-standard defense behind it. Perez had an ERA of 4.00 at High-A with fewer than six strikeouts per nine, thereby establishing himself as yet another arm in the system with good velocity but little else. Moresi is a college product who hit .231/.320/.393 in the Sally League. Johnson showed a little bit of power (14 home runs) this year, but hardly enough to offset a .298 OBP. Hudspeth had a 4.57 ERA across two levels to go with just 88 strikeouts in 151 2/3 innings. Are you depressed yet?

2005 Draft
1. Brian Bogusevic, LHP, 1st round, $1,375,000
2. Eli Iorg, OF, 1st round, $900,000
3. Ralph Henriquez, C, 2nd round, $485,000
4. Koby Clemens, 3B, 8th round, $380,000
5. Tommy Manzella, SS, 3rd round, $289,000

Bogusevic has done little since signing, and while Iorg has put up decent numbers when not injured, he’s also two years older than most players at his level because of the time he devoted to a Mormon mission; he enters 2008 as a 25-year-old who has yet to play above A-ball. Henriquez is all but done after a .185/.227/.280 line at Low-A, and while Clemens showed a bit of progress in his second Sally League season by hitting .252/.344/.412, he’s still unable to play third base well, so it doesn’t mean much. (Ed. note: Clemens committed 29 errors at the hot corner this season, making for a .891 fielding percentage, below the Hobson line of .900.) Manzella looks like no more than a classic great-glove/no-hit shortstop.

That’s a miserable three-year record, and the solution unfortunately is an ugly one. The first step is a thorough housecleaning–what happened this June is inexcusable, making Sapp the first high school catcher selected in 2006 when Hank Conger was on the board is laughable, and the 2005 group is starting to look just as useless. There has been a failure on the scouting front, in terms of both talent evaluation and their selection philosophy, and it needs to be corrected.

The second step will have to involve a change of philosophy at the organizational level. As evidenced by their free agent signings, the Astros are not a cash-strapped franchise, but they desperately need to re-route some of those dollars into their bonus pool next June. Many of the candidates currently being interviewed have impressive scouting resumes, but they also have a track record of being willing to spend the necessary money to bring top-notch talents into the system–something Houston has been unwilling to do in past years.

As it sits right now, the Astros will have the sixth pick in next year’s draft, but at the same time, they’re only 2 ½ games “out” from having the top selection. Here’s to hoping that whoever gets the job has the freedom of action and the wherewithal to do the right thing with that pick, and can take the best player available and pay him whatever it takes to add an elite-level talent to a system in desperate need of one. It would be just one signing, but it would also be a start in the right direction.

Thank you for reading

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