A Time For Difficult Decisions

added 7/8/2003 by Todd Brody

Awful. This has been a terrible month for the Astros who are 7-16 since no-hitting the Yankees. I felt like throwing up watching the Astros get swept by the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates. So here we are, more than half-way through the 2003 baseball season, getting our lunch eaten by some of the worse clubs in baseball, but sitting only one game back in the Central Division thanks to the similar futility of the Cardinals and Cubs. Where do the Astros go from here? Should they be looking to improve the team for the playoff stretch? Or should they give up on the season – like the 1997 Chicago White Sox – and try to move some high-priced players to rebuild for 2004 and beyond? With the all-star break next week and the trade deadline looming, there are decisions to be made that will impact this team for years to come.

The Astros really have four options: (1) they can obtain a impact player for the stretch run (think Randy Johnson); (2) they can obtain some lesser players to fill the gaps (think Mark Loretta); (3) they can do nothing and hope that Roy Oswalt and Jeff Kent returning from injury will be enough to win a weak Central Division; or (4) they can admit that this team, even if it wins the Central Division, will not be competitive in the playoffs and trade off star players for prospects.

Let’s talk about the last option. The Astros have two players that they will never trade – Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. For good and bad, the Astros are stuck with Biggio through at least next season and with Bagwell through at least the 2006 season (unless Bagwell decides to retire prior to that time). Neither one wants to leave Houston (and as 10/5 players they can reject all trades) and it would be a public relations nightmare if the Astros even try to trade them. So how does this impact the team? First, it means that the Astros have two positions (first base and centerfield) where they have below average players. Accept this as fact – what you are seeing now from Biggio and Bagwell is what you can expect from here on out. Bagwell’s arthritic shoulder isn’t getting any better. Biggio is not getting younger or faster and his bat speed is not going to improve. And more important, Biggio and Bagwell are eating a disproportionate amount of the Astros’ limited payroll, thus preventing the team from being a player in the free agent market as well as from paying our own future free agents. (While Biggio’s base salary for next season is “only” $3 million, with easy to reach incentives based on at-bats rather than performance, he will make $4.5 million next season). If I were the Astros, I would not pick up Biggio’s option for 2005 and I would seriously consider trying to buy-out Bagwell’s contract as soon as possible (unless we see what I believe would be a miraculous comeback). But if you can’t buy out Bagwell’s contract, and unless ownership decides to increase payroll substantially (which would be a huge departure for Drayton McLane), the Astros will have a hard time fielding a competitive team until at least the 2007 season (and perhaps even later, because of Bagwell’s deferred compensation). The Astros have to pay Jeff Bagwell $7 million just to buy him out in 2007.

If you believe as I do, that the Astros are going to have a hard time competing over the next few years, then you find yourself thinking that the Astros have a lot of players they should be trying to trade. Of course the Astros should be looking to trade Billy Wagner, but they should also trade Octavio Dotel who will soon become a free agent and who the Astros won't be able to afford. Yes, the Astros should be looking to trade Richard Hidalgo, but Lance Berkman(whose contract ends after 2004 and will probably make $8-10 million per season going forward) should also be traded. Dotel and Berkman presently make a lot less money than Wagner and Hidalgo and, consequently, they are far more attractive to other teams and will bring back more valuable prospects. Of course, the Astros should also trade Kent as well as Geoff Blum, Orlando Merced, Greg Zaun, and anyone else who doesn’t fit into the Astros’ plans beyond 2007. Would this mean a couple of lean years in Houston. Probably. But the Astros have a bunch of very intriguing young position players who could grow into very capable major league players – Jason Lane, Chris Burke, Tommy Whiteman, John Buck, Anthony Acevedo, Henri Stanley, and Brooks Conrad. Along with Morgan Ensberg and Adam Everett, a pitching staff of Oswalt, Wade Miller, Brad Lidge, Carlos Hernandez, Tim Redding, Kirk Saarloos, Rodrigo Rosario and Jeroime Robertson, and whatever the Astros receive in return for the players they trade away, the Astros would be developing a core of talent that will have this team ready for contention in 2007 and perhaps earlier. And if the team is ready to compete earlier, the money will be there to bring in quality free agents. I think that the fans in Houston would be far more accepting of a team of exciting young players who are trying their hardest to compete than of a team of “grey beards” who everybody knows has no chance of winning the World Series even if they manage to survive the war of attrition in the Central Division. I see this happening in New York where Mets fans are tremendously disappointed about the team’s performance over the past few seasons but are excited about young players like Jae Weong Soe, Aaron Heilman, Ty Wiggington, and Jose Reyes.

Clearly, there are other options. But I don’t think that the Astros are going to get a Randy Johnson type impact player this season. Gerry Hunsicker was recently quoted as saying that the Astros have approximately $1-5 million to spend this season on a veteran pitcher. And I don’t even believe that an impact player is available this season. With the White Sox and Diamondbacks making their own push for the playoffs, what impact pitchers are available? And what impact position player is available at shortstop or catcher (the only positions not manned by Biggio or Bagwell where the Astros are receiving subpar offensive performance)? And frankly, the concept of picking up a pitcher like Brad Penny, Jeff D’Amico, or Jeff Suppan doesn’t really excite me. I don’t think it gets the team any closer to winning a world series. In fact, it only hastens the collapse. The Astros could also stand still and do nothing and hope that they make the playoffs where every team has a “chance” of winning the World Series. But this option precludes the Astros from making trades to get prospects, which I believe is the real key for future contention.

I think that the Astros are in the same position that the Rockets were in a few seasons ago. Hakeem Olajuwon was clearly at the end of his tremendous career. But instead of trying to trade Olajuwon when the opportunity presented itself, the Rockets kept Olajuwon and brought in more old players like Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley to make one more push for glory. Not only were these moves downright failures, but they also slowed down the rebuilding process, from which the Rockets might finally be starting to emerge. The Astros have important decisions to make right now. And these decisions will be unpopular. How can Astros give up on a season when they are only one game out of the playoffs? How can the Astros even consider trading Lance Berkman and Octavio Dotel? Once again, we need to focus on the goals. Winning the Central Division is not the goal. Winning the World Series is the goal. And hard as it is to say, as long as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are on the team, the World Series is a distant dream. Astros’s management needs to focus on 2007 and beyond.

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