This is one of a series of posts in which belittle each team for their befuddling offseason blunders, and possibly praise them for any prescient pre-season pickups.
The Astros were in deep trouble even before the offseason started. Even before Ed Wade started his wheelings and dealings to drive this once-proud franchise even further into the ground.
I know these posts are supposed to focus on what happened during this current offseason, but I think it would be difficult to understand exactly how fast and how breathtakingly far this organization has fallen without a bit of a recap on the past year.
It is almost hard to remember that just two years ago, the Astros were representing the National League in the World Series, and coming off nearly a decade as perennial contenders in the NL Central, including six playoff appearances in nine years.
But that all changed a year ago when the Astros had just about one of the worst offseasons imaginable. Things began when the Astros lost 2/3 of their rotation by making no effort to re-sign Andy Pettite, and consequently, lost Roger Clemens as well. The Astros attempted to fill this gaping hole with Woody Williams, but grossly overpaid for a 41-year-old pitcher whose numbers had been greatly enhanced by pitching in the best pitcher’s park in baseball for all those years in San Diego.
The Astros also tried to make a splash by signing Carlos Lee, but even at the time, many questioned giving a 6-year contract to one of the worst defensive outfielders in all of baseball who was already in his 30s and already seemed to be having signficant problems with his weight.
But the biggest blow of all was when the Astros inexplicably and bafflingly traded fan favorite centerfielder Willy Taveras as well as their two best pitching prospects, Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz, to the Rockies for pitcher Jason Jennings, who had just one year remaining on his contract.
Not surprisingly, most of us here at UmpBump predicted disaster for the 2007 Astros, and our predictions were borne out in almost every way possible. While Pettite pitched well for the Yankees, and Taveras helped the Rockies reach the World Series, putative no. 2 starter Woody Williams fell off a cliff to an 8-15 record and a 5.27 ERA, Lee gained 30 pounds, won the NL GIDP title, cost the team 16 runs with his defense, and broke shortstop Adam Everett’s leg, and Jennings, who had come at such a high price, never looked right all year, posting an execrable 2-9 record with a 6.45 ERA. Overall, the team stumbled to a 73-89 mark, its worst record in eight years, and both manager Phil Garner and GM Tim Purpura lost their jobs.
Thus the Astros headed into the 2008 offseason in desperate need of a creative reboot. Despite the fact that they were locked into the bad contract with Lee and had a barren farm system, there was some reason for hope that the team might head in a new direction and launch a long awaited youth movement, now that the Craig Biggio farewell tour was over, Biggio was safely retired at least two seasons later than he should have, and the battle cries of “we have to try one more time to win a World Series for poor Craig Biggio” could be laid to rest.
Unfortunately, the man the Astros hired to replace Purpura, former Phillies GM Ed Wade, was simply not the right man to take the Astros in a creative new direction.
To be as fair as is possible to Wade, he was handed a pretty bad hand, given orders from owner Drayton McClain to put a contender on the field rather than rebuild, and handed one of the worst collections of talent in baseball. If we give points for trying hard, we have to admit that Wade has certainly been very active this winter, and has tried his very best within the limits of his understanding to improve the team.
It’s just that pretty much every decision he has made has been questionable. At the very least, it would have been wise for Wade to try his best to hang on to whatever prospects he had left, but instead he completely traded away every last near-major-league-ready prospect or marginal prospect the Astros had left in order to land Miguel Tejada and closer Jose Valverde, completely emptying the cupboard and taking what had been one of the five worst minor-league systems in baseball and turning it into the absolute worst.
Wade compounded mistakes by deciding to keep Tejada at shortstop. This made no sense, since Tejada’s defense is no longer even adequate at shortstop, and the Astros already had one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball firmly under control in Adam Everett. It would have been a perfect chance to shift Tejada to third, where the Astros had a gaping hole in the form of Ty Wigginton, a player who can nominally play any position on the diamond, but only because he is equally terrible at all of them. But instead, Wade decided to keep Tejada at short, and keep Wigginton – a player even the Devil Rays didn’t want. He then actually non-tendered Everett – one of the top two or three defensive shortstops in all of baseball – losing a valuable player that was still under the team’s control and getting nothing in return, while insuring that any gain to the offense from what pop remains in Tejada’s unjuiced bat will be negated by the absolutely abominable left-side defense.
Mistakes continued in other areas as well. While Valverde is a useful player, his acquisition necessitated the trading away of the Astros’ last remaining major-league ready pitching prospect. And the whole reason Wade had needed to get Valverde in the first place was that he had traded away incumbent closer Brad Lidge to the Phillies to get one of his old favorites from his days in Philadelphia, centerfielder Michael Bourn. Although Bourn is an exciting speedster and a well-liked teammate, he is projected by most systems to be a fourth outfielder type at best so one has to wonder if will help the Astros much at all.
Finally, there is the awful signing of Kazuo Matsui to a 3-year, $16.5 million deal. I almost can’t express in words what a terrible idea this was. It reeks of big-name-itis, a desire to get someone, anyone, who might have been affiliated with the Rockies’ magic mojo of last season, and a complete lack of understanding about how ballparks might affect hitting numbers. Given that he was playing half his games in Coors Field last season, Matsui’s batting numbers are truly frightening, and we can expect a severe drop off as he returns to sea level. One wonders if Matsui’s numbers next season would be better than even another season of Craig Biggio, as bad as Biggio was in recent years.
So where do all Ed Wade’s moves this leave the Astros in 2008? In the NL Central cellar, alongside the Pirates, and with a very dim future.
The Astros offense should be okay, but with the loss of Lidge, Chad Qualls, and Dan Wheeler they have not much bullpen after Valverde, they have one of the worst infield defenses in the major leagues, and they have perhaps the worst rotation in all of baseball, despite the presence of ace Roy Oswalt (I mean seriously, Wandy Rodriguez is the number two starter?!?!). You are also talking about a team with the worst farm system in all of baseball, a meddling owner who interferes with his GM, a hide-bound GM stuck in old ways of thinking, and no hope of doing anything at all at any time in the anywhere near future.
In other words, in just two short years the Astros have gone from World Series runners-up to the worst organization in all of baseball.
Offseason Grade: D
Additions: SS Miguel Tejada, CL Jose Valverde, 2B Kazuo Matsui, CF Michael Bourn, CF Darin Erstad, OF Jose Cruz Jr., RHP Shawn Chacon, UT Geoff Blum, RHP Oscar Villareal, RHP Doug Brocail, RHP Geoff Geary, RHP Chad Paronto, OF Reggie Abercrombie
Losses: 2B Craig Biggio, RHP Brad Lidge, SS Adam Everett, RHP Chad Qualls, 3B Mike Lamb, OF Luke Scott, 2B Chris Burke, UT Eric Bruntlett, LHP Trever Miller, RHP Matt Albers,
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer:
CF Michael Bourn – .277/.348/.378, 18 SB
2B Kaz Matsui – .288/.342/.405, 32 SB
SS Miguel Tejada – .296/.357/.442, 18 HR
1B Lance Berkman – .278/.386/.510, 34 HR
LF Carlos Lee – .303/.354/.528, 32 HR
RF Hunter Pence – .322/.360/.539, 17 HR
3B Ty Wigginton – .278/.333/.459, 22 HR
C J.R. Towles – .375/.432/.575, 14 ML games
RHP Roy Oswalt – 14-7, 3.18
LHP Wandy Rodriguez – 9-13, 4.58
RHP Brandon Backe – 3-1, 3.77
RHP Woody Williams – 8-15, 5.27
RHP Chris Sampson – 7-8, 4.59
CL Jose Valverde – 47 SV, 2.66