Identity Crisis

added 12/5/2005 by Scott Barzilla

The hot stove league can be a funny thing sometimes. Anxious Astros fans are listening to the radio, reading the reports on the internet, and watch Sportscenter and waiting for the Astros to do something. They watch as the Cubs shore up their middle relief and make a serious run at Rafael Furcal. They even here rumors of the Cubs sending strikeout machine Corey Patterson to the Marlins for Juan Pierre. It became worse when it was rumored that the Cardinals would trade Jason Marquis and Al Reyes to the Phillies for Bobby Abreu. Is it time to panic?

The questions are simple: are the Astros going to do anything this off-season and if so when? Those questions have easy answers. The answer is that we likely won’t do much and we won’t do anything until Roger Clemens and Brad Ausmus make up their minds. However, they bring up a more thought provoking question. How did we get in this mess?

It’s hard to look at a team that just won its first pennant as being in a mess, but in a way the Astros are. When your off-season depends partly on what an aging mediocre catcher chooses to do, that is a sign of trouble. I don’t mean to demean Brad Ausmus, but sometimes it comes naturally. Ausmus will go down as a solid big league catcher when all is said and told. He’ll go down in the same vain as guys like Jim Hegan, Tim McCarver, Darrell Porter, and if he plays long enough, even Bob Boone. These are all catchers a lot of teams would love to have. Yet, if a GM allows a catcher of that ilk to highjack their entire off-season they should be raked over the coals. Roger Clemens is a different story, but the way the club has approached his situation is still disappointing.

The mess as I have called it is really an identity crisis. This crisis has put the Astros in the situation where they must wait for Clemens and Ausmus. While the Astros may be in crisis, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The noose they have put themselves in will loosen after this season. That noose is the combined money they are spending (or will spend) on Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettitte. Four of them see their contracts expire (or are in a position to be bought out) after 2006. The Astros can get back on the spiraling money train or they take time to ponder who they are. Are they big spenders or are they budget conscious?

Up to the Big Man

One can hardly blame Drayton for being giddy from time to time. Everyone loves their toys and there is no bigger toy than a big league baseball team. Put almost any of us in his shoes and his money and we’d be throwing money around like we were dying tomorrow. Drayton hasn’t done that. Drayton has shown more constraint than most owners in similar situations. This is why the Astros have been so good over the last ten years. Sometimes I feel guilty calling their situation a mess, but there is really no way to describe it.

Like most predicaments, these things start small. Drayton didn’t max out the credit card or suck all the money out of the checking account. He did what most of us do: he saw something he wanted and got it. In his case, it was Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio at first. Then, it was Jeff Kent. The next season it was Clemens and Pettitte. Large contracts to Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman last off-season threw the club over the edge. It started so innocently, but all of the sudden the club had committed around 70 million dollars to five players (including the money owed Jeff Kent). As they say, the balloon payment is now due.

This brings Drayton to his key decision. He can take his winnings from the World Series appearance, local cable deal, and national cable deal and expand his payroll to accommodate his largess. Or, he can continue to tow the line on the 85-90 million level and suffer through a season where he is extremely top heavy. Of course, no team with a rotation of Clemens, Oswalt, and Pettitte can suffer that much, but he has to feel the sting of an opportunity to capture the Houston sports fan’s heart permanently.

The off-season of 2005-2006 should be more about making this decision once and for all than any player the club acquires. The decision can take a day or it can take the whole off-season. Yet, McLane and his staff should not underestimate the importance of their final decision. Unlike in the past, the club must abide by that decision and base everyone of their actions on it.

Playing with the Big Boys

Watching the hot stove league for an owner must be a lot like going out with the boys on Friday or Saturday night. Some will drink and carouse until they have had their fill (or more) while others are content to watch. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but no one can deny that the one half usually wishes they were in the other halves’ shoes.

It’s hard not to watch teams sign players left and right, make huge deals, and hole eye-catching press conferences. However, we have seen enough of these deals to know that many of them go sour. Your buddy may look like he’s having fun drinking almost the entire keg, but we all know he’s going to regret it in the morning. Some of these teams still have the Spring Break mentality where the only way to get rid of the hangover to go back to the booze.

Playing with the big boys isn’t a license to binge drink. You still have to spend your money wisely, but it means you can’t claim poor every time a hole in your team crops up. Sure, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The Cardinals are a big market team, but they filled holes this past off-season with guys like David Eckstein. So, being big market doesn’t always mean breaking the bank. It just means not using lack of money as an excuse not to fill holes. It also means tying up your own stars without buyers remorse later.

Budget Watchers

This is where Drayton McLane has spent most of his ownership. Contrary to popular belief, the Astros can win it all this way and no, McLane will not be the second coming of Scrooge if he does this. However, there are a few important things McLane must do before he goes down this road on a permanent basis. First, he needs to get out of the way.

Don’t get me wrong, Drayton can serve a lot of valuable purposes in the baseball side of the business. Few people are as persuasive at rubbing elbows and twisting arms as Drayton is. Yet, that is a game that should be saved for signing the big name free agent or keeping the local star at home. Drayton has been good at the game for as long as he’s owned the team. However, one cannot sign nearly as many of those guys when watching a budget. The best way to run a team in this paradigm is to sit back and watch the baseball guys use that budget to build a team.

Whenever you hijack the budget to sign the big ticket players you hamstring the baseball people’s ability to fill out the roster with competent players. The Astros have been fortunate that they have had younger players that have filled in capably. That doesn’t always happen in any organization. Even the vaunted Yankees have had down years when their young players weren’t up to snuff (1965-1976). Every team must rely on some young players to get it done, but if you rely on too many you usually end up feeling it in the end. The 2005 season isn’t a lesson that it can be done. It was a magical combination that doesn’t happen very often.

Now, there are all kinds of set ups when it comes to an organization. A Tal Smith is a great guy to have around. Gerry Hunsicker may not have liked his presence, but Smith knows his baseball. Tim Purpura also knows his baseball. Unfortunately, the fans don’t get to see that because he has been up against the budget two years in a row.

Decision Time is Now

The Astros can clear more than fifty million dollars in the payroll after this season. This season is the season they can make a clean break from the current regime. Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte will likely go on their way. Brad Ausmus could be on his way out too. What the team decides will dictate what they do with that money. As inactive as the Astros have been this year, they could be the Blue Jays of 2006-2007. They could throw their money around at everything that moves.

However, the Astros would be putting themselves in the same situation down the road. How do you think the Mets will feel in 2008 when they are giving big money to Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, and Pedro Martinez when all of them are 35 or older? How will they feel in three years if Carlos Beltran is just another slugger that happens to play centerfield (read: minus the speed)? Do the Astros want to put themselves down that road again?

When you go out drinking with the boys there’s always the chance that you’ll end up consuming too much. The hangover usually feels worse and last longer than the fun you had leading up to it. The same is true in baseball. Yet, some clubs can get through it by making good decisions. However, we cannot sit on the fence anymore. We must decide which direction we’re going in. Both can be paths to fortune, but once you choose a path, you can’t change directions midstream.