Guest column courtesy of poster Austin Swafford (unedited by me – well, except for a couple of typos.)
Like a sucker playing Blackjack at a high-stakes casino where they are grossly overmatched, the Astros have sweated out the last few seasons, choosing not to sit with their hand that adds up to 17, but saying “hit me baby, one more time.” I just knew you were looking for a mangled gambling/Britney Spears cross-reference, and you’re welcome. They have busted time and again as they dip into the free agent scrap heap, building an overloaded team (or hand, if you will) made up of players too untalented to win, but too old to develop.
Since their improbable run to the World Series in 2005, the Astros have just missed the playoffs twice, compiling a 241-244 record that (trust me) is even worse than it looks. They barely missed the playoffs in 2006 with an 82-80 record only because the Cardinals nearly suffered a monumental collapse before their unlikely run to World Series victory. They just stunk in 2007, leading to Phil Garner’s firing not even two years after he went to the World Series. And they barely missed the playoffs last year, despite only putting together three months with winning records. Their record going into August was 50-56. In typical Astros fashion, they put together a few weeks where they looked unbeatable (until the Hurricane Ike scheduling debacle), but all told, it was really a pretty bad season.
So, how did they get here? How did they go from postseason Cinderallas to having a team AND minor league system stocked full of old, has-beens-if-they-even-ever-weres? It started in 2001…
2001 – In an attempt to recover from a humiliating first season at Homerun Field, the Astros sign 35 year-old journeyman infielder Charlie Hayes. Not that he was expected to save the franchise or anything, but I like noting that in 31 games and 50 at-bats, he somehow managed to not hit a single homerun in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball history. One who was supposed to significantly bolster the team was Kent Bottenfield. Too obese to be considered an athlete in my book, the mantra from the Astros front office was that he was an 18-game winner, conveniently noting the one good season he had and ignoring the 26-37 record he compiled in all of his other major league seasons. He went 2-5 with a 6.40 ERA for the ‘Stros before heading to the minor leagues for a “rehab assignment.” He got released after being shelled in a AA game at Round Rock. But here’s the point – it was the beginning of the era where the Astros would fail to cultivate their once very rich farm system. Sitting in the minors when Bottenfield and Hayes were on the opening day roster? A few names you might know. Carlos Hernandez, Brad Lidge, Roy Oswalt, Morgan Ensberg and Adam Everett.
2002 – In a year that was still not bad but an indicator of things to come, the Astros sign preseason contracts with washed up pitchers C.J. Nitkowski, T.J. Mathews and Hipolito Pichardo. Also begins the obsession with backup AAAA catchers with the signing of Gregg Zaun and Alan Zinter. Zaun was billed as a great offensive catcher even though he’d spent seven seasons as, at best, a platoon catcher with inconsistent offensive numbers. In those seven seasons he played in an average of only 61 games per season. Not starts, TOTAL GAMES, including subs and pinch hitting appearances. His OPS was all over the map, he never collected more than 7 homers in a single season and in his most productive year, he had only 33 RBIs. Well, of course, he wasn’t good on offense OR defense for the ‘Stros. They traded him in the middle of the 2003 after batting .220 with 4 homers, 37 RBIs and 50 Ks in 135 games. Zinter…what can you say about Zinter? He was a career minor leaguer who was 33 at the beginning of 2002 season. The real life Crash Davis, ladies and gentlemen. He somehow managed 39 games and 44 at-bats for the Astros that year, despite a .136 batting average (which was also his on-base percentage because he didn’t walk, no, not once).
2003 – Fairly quiet this off season. They held on to Daryle Ward for way too long, and a guy who at one time grabbed top-notch offers from other teams ended up only landing a minor league pitcher named Rudy Lugo. Ever heard of him? Yeah, me neither. The Astros also signed Bruce Chen as a free agent. I think you know Lisa’s well-founded worries about getting pitchers the Braves didn’t want anymore. He didn’t last long. 12 innings, 8 ER on 14 hits and 8 BBs for a 6.00 ERA.
2004 – After missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year in 2003, Billy Wagner made some critical comments about the Astros front office, basically saying that if they wanted to win, they needed to get real about it and get some starting pitching. The fact that he was right was cast to the side, and Drayton McGrocer no doubt ordered Gerry Hunsicker to trade Wagner ASAP as the Astros suddenly, it seems, didn’t have enough money to resign him. Right. They’d manage to find the money for Pettitte and Clemens, but they couldn’t afford Wagner. Okay. It resulted in Hunsicker, a 3-time GM of the year who was known for his astute trades, making the one truly horrific trade he made in his tenure with Houston. He gave Wagner to the Phillies for Brandon Duckworth, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio. Duckworth did nothing, Astacio was a homerun machine, and Buchholz was a very nice surprise (though Purpura would take care of that). Almost to spite Wagner, it would seem, the Astros signed Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. This off season was a crucial turning point for the Astros. As we’ll see, the excitement over these acquisitions and the team’s subsequent success seem to have contributed in great part to their current free agent blunders. They traded for Mike Lamb who, despite my early misgivings, ended up playing quite well for the Astros. And, in redemption for the Wagner trade, the Astros traded Jeriome Robertson (who somehow broke Oswalt’s rookie win record by going 15-9 with a 5.10 ERA) to the Indians. He posted a 12.21 ERA in 8 relief outings for the Indians and hasn’t seen the Majors since. Oh, and did I mention the Astros ROBBED THEM BLIND by getting Luke Scott and Willy Taveras? That’s the Gerry Hunsicker I know. Sadly, those two would be vilified and misused and ultimately traded away for nothing by subsequent GMs.
2005 – post-NLCS collapse. Sadness. Gerry Hunsicker gone. Start the parade of washed up old relievers. We lose Carlos Beltran and replace him with Turk Wendell, Dave Burba and John Franco. The Astros finally make the World Series. Begin the search for the one missing piece.
2006 – Astros sign a slew of old Tigers, career minor leaguers, washed up pitchers and lefty relievers they didn’t need. Dave Borkowski, Steve Sparks, Danny Klassen, Eric Munson, Trever Miller and Cody Ransom. Also, Alan Zinter’s back at the spry age of 37! Oh, and Preston Wilson’s on in left field. That oughtta do it. He got painted as a five-tool player despite the fact that he’d shown that kind of talent only sporadically. The strikeout king who was surprisingly slow (it looked like he took his first two steps in wet cement) played 102 games as an Astro, recording 94 whiffs against just 9 HRs and 6 SBs.
2007 – The search for the one missing piece continues. The Astros get Carlos Lee (nice) and Woody Williams (not). I can live with Lee costing them a first-round draft pick. That Williams cost them a second-round draft pick makes that acquisition too dumb for words. The Astros also make possibly the worst trade in club history, dealing top prospects Taylor Buchholz, Jason Hirsh and Willy Taveras to the Rockies for Jason Jennings. Quick side-by-side, just for fun. Buchholz has gone 12-11 with one save, 22 holds, 117 Ks and a 3.38 ERA. On top of that, he’s 28 and still in Colorado along with 26 year-old Jason Hirsh, and Willy Taveras was an important piece of their appearance in the World Series. Jason Jennings went 2-9 with 71 Ks and a 6.49 ERA and now plays for the Rangers. That one didn’t work out so well, and that’s a small understatement. The Astros also proceeded to get a lot older without getting any better (and doing that after getting rid of Clemens and Pettitte is really something). They sign Mark Loretta, Stephen Randolph, Richard Hidalgo (remember that guy!?), Brian Moehler, Rick White and Scott Sauerbeck. Suddenly the Astros aren’t good, their prospects are severely depleted and their minor leagues are stocked with 30 year-olds who didn’t make the cut out of spring training. Uh-oh.
2008 – Phillies rob the Astros again, this time by taking advantage of new GM Wade Philips who loves former Phillies like Purpura loved Texans who couldn’t play baseball. Phils get Brad Lidge and Eric Bruntlett (both of whom would be important in their World Series victory). Astros get Michael Bourn (Taveras clone except without the batting average), Mike Costanzo (projected lifetime minor leaguer) and reliever Geoff Geary (labeled a “veteran” because it’s not that nice to call a guy old and not that good). They get Oscar Villarreal from the Braves (RED FLAG) for Josh Anderson, because the Astros don’t like outfielders who hit singles, steal a lot of bases and field their positions well. Um…unless they’re former Phillies who hit .229 at the top of the order, I guess. The Astros signed Villarreal to a two-year contract before he pitched a game for them. And after he posted his 5.02 ERA this year, I couldn’t be happier with that decision. Astros get suspected roider Tejada who overperformed with the glove while underperforming with the bat. And all they had to give up was Luke Scott (erasing that great Jeriome Robertson trade), Matt Albers, Troy Patton, Dennis Sarfate and Mike Costanzo. So, anything even coming close to resembling a prospect is gone. BUT, they weren’t done signing old players, because they still have to get Darin Erstad, Lance Niekro and Jose Cruz, Jr. To say nothing of Shawn Chacon. Yes, Erstad played very well, but that’s not the point. As I keep saying, the Astros are getting older without getting better.
This is how they’ve gotten here. This is how the Astros are sitting here with an old team without that much talent and no prospects on the horizon. As the Royals and Pirates could have told them, this is a story of warning against thinking that you’re one piece away from winning at all. The Astros have been shortsighted, refusing to look beyond October to see what they need to win in the future. The best their fans can hope for now is that the front office gets wise, realizes that having a losing season isn’t the end of the world, and will concentrate for a while on restocking the minor leagues rather than having a team of veterans posting 77-win seasons.