This is one of a series of posts in which we berate teams for their offseason blunders and grudgingly praise them for the occasional wily move.
Here it is folks – your best bet for the worst team in the Major Leagues in 2009.
After a brutal offseason a year ago in which owner Drayton McLane forced Ed Wade to trade away whatever was left of a tattered farm system in order to “contend,” the Astros had yet another brutal offseason this year when McLane decided to completely close up his wallet in light of the financial crisis. With no prospects and no free agents, the Astros were left with no options at all for improving the team, and indeed, the team has not improved in any way whatsoever.
Now, the Astros had a decent year last season, surprising many by hovering on the fringes of contention through August, and ultimately winding up with a very respectable 86-75 finish. The problem is, just about everything is trending downward for the Astros for 2009, and no help is on the way.
Sure, Lance Berkman got off to a scorching start last year and finished with strong numbers, and while he is likely to approach last year’s numbers again, he is not very likely to improve on them at age 33. Meanwhile, Carlos Lee is also 33, fatter than ever, and starting to have trouble keeping himself on the field, and Miguel Tejada continues his fall back to Earth from steroid-induced (and age-falsified) heights, posting an OPS+ under 100 for the first time in a decade and hitting a mere 13 homers, his fewest since 1998.
And that’s actually the good part. Once you move past the team’s three superstars, things start to get really ugly, really fast. One-time hot prospects Hunter Pence and J.R. Towles took significant steps backward last year, and need to step it up this year just to get back toward average. Kaz Matsui had a career year in 2009, but it is doubtful he can approach those numbers again, given his previous performance level. With Wade forced to let Ty Wigginton walk — due to having no money to pay him – third base is going to be manned by a platoon of Geoff Blum and Aaron (Bleepin’) Boone. Finally, center field is going to remain in the hands of speedster Michael Bourn, who is unstoppable once he gets on base, but never actually got on base thanks to his vomit-inducing .288 OBP last year.
The ugliest part of all, however, is the pitching staff. While Jose Valverde is a decent closer, and ace Roy Oswalt remains on a Hall of Fame track, otherwise the Astros are trying to get things done on smoke and mirrors, with Ed Wade pulling a 3-year $27-million offer to Randy Wolf off the table when the financial crisis struck. Relying on 42-year-old Doug Brocail as a setup man is nobody’s idea of wise move, Wandy Rodriguez as a number two starter is a stretch at best, and when Mike Hampton is pencilled in as your third starter, you know it’s bad, bad news. If Hampton even makes it out of May without going down for the season, Ed Wade needs to call the Vatican and somebody needs to get canonized, because a genuine miracle has just occured.
But you really know your team is in trouble when they not only sign Russ Ortiz (yes that “Russ Ortiz”), but actually think there is a chance he will wind up in their rotation. (Having not thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues in almost 600 days, Ortiz points out that he is “good and rested.”)
Look, there are some teams in baseball that have talent but won’t spend money (like the Marlins), or have talent but are completely mismanaged (like the Nationals), or have no talent but spend lots of money (like the Yankees), but no other team in baseball combines an utter lack of talent in their system with brutal mismanagement *and* a total unwillingness to spend money they way the Astros have this offseason.
Offseason Grade: F
Acquisitions: P Mike Hampton, IF Aaron Boone, OF Jason Michaels, P Russ Ortiz, P Danny Graves, P Clay Hensley, C Lou Palmisano (Rule V from Arizona)
Losses: P Randy Wolf, IF Ty Wiggenton, C Brad Ausmus, IF Mark Loretta
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer
C J.R. Towles
1B Lance Berkman
2B Kazuo Matsui
3B Geoff Blum/Aaron Boone
SS Miguel Tejada
LF Carlos Lee
CF Michael Bourn
RF Hunter Pence
SP1 Roy Oswalt
SP2 Wandy Rodriguez
SP3 Mike Hampton
SP4 Brian Moehler
SP5 Brandon Backe
CL Jose Valverde