added 12/10/2006 by Scott Barzilla
Coming into the off-season there was optimism. The Astros had a dirty pile of money to spend it was burning a hole in their pocket. They got their coveted slugger and a decent bottom of the rotation starter. They thought if Pettitte and Clemens came back they would be ready for business. Sadly, that isn't in the cards. Now, suddenly everyone in town (including our resident Chronicle columnists) are gripping. You would think that someone just barrelled through the neighborhood and ran over their dog.
I've heard all kinds of people talk about how underappreciated Andy Pettitte was when he was here and how we suddenly need a bonafide number two starter. Baseball-reference.com has similarity scores and they match Andy Pettitte with fellow lumanaries like Jimmy Key, Dave McNally, and Ron Guidry. His top ten features one Hall of Famer and I'd bet most fans would be hard-pressed to give you three facts about Lefty Gomez. I might be more daring than the scribes at Houston's leading information source, but I would say that Pettitte has actually been over-appreciated through the years. Lee Sinins sabermetric encyclopedia tells us that he's won seventeen more games than he should have in his career. Now, he gets to go back to the land of run support. Good for him.
The last time I checked my calendar, we haven't even come close to Christmas yet, so we are in a lot better shape than we were two years ago. Then, people were crying over how a guy tht spent three months in Houston had betrayed us. At least Pettitte spent three years here. We have time to fix this situation and maybe even come out looking better. The powers that be just need to keep their heads about them and keep their options open. Let's take a look at the available characters.
If we take a quick peak at ESPN.com's top 40 free agents we see a few names still left on the list. Roger Clemens' name appears near the top, but we will leave him aside for the moment. All of the names will be revealed with a brief description, but most will probably man positions we don't need.
Barry Zito is the highest rated free agent on the board. Dealing with him means dealing with Boras, but he is the only free agent left that could possibly fill the number two spot in the rotation. He is more durable than Pettitte, but he is also a notorious flyball pitcher. Seeing right-handed sluggers going yard at Arthur Andersen Memorial Stadium is not the most appetizing sight in the world, but he will pitch 200 innings. He's also want Schmidt like money over a longer contract.
Jeff Suppan is also still available. When Jason Marquis (and his 6.05 ERA) can get seven million a season it makes you wonder if anyone is sane these days. Yet, Marquis's ERA was inflated artificially by two dreadful outings and Jim Hendry apparently has Fort Knox backing him this off-season. Suppan is the kind of guy everyone inquires about around July 31st when they need that fourth or fifth starter in a playoff drive. I guess that is worth four years and 45 million in this market. Suppan will give you innings and will win between 10 and 15 games by virtue of giving you innings.
Aubrey Huff and Jeff Weaver round out the top 40. Huff is our property, but the club cooled on his demands for a three year deal for eight or nine million per season. Funny how a couple of weeks makes those figures look reasonable. Huff gives the club all kinds of trade possibilities because he can play third, right, or left field. Weaver is Jeff Suppan without the track record. He might not command as much and might be the closest thing resembling a bargain.
In case you've been living under a rock, the Astros almost had a deal with the White Sox for Jon Garland. Depending on who you ask, the deal would have great or terrible for the club. Industry sources are notoriously inaccurate, but if we take the rumors at face value we can assume that arms like Jake Peavy, Jason Jennings, Kris Benson, Rodrigo Lopez, and Garland could be had for the right price. Of course, the right price fluctuates by the day.
Since my critics will have their fun anyway, I'll take this opportunity to go in a different direction. When a hole develops on your team, you will often spend more filling the hole than you would shoring a strength. Other clubs know you are desperate as they can see you coming a mile away. If the Astros have any strength it would be the bullpen, but I would surmise that few would see them coming if they came trolling for offense.
There are three big names available this off-season and all three would improve the offense by leaps and bounds. Miguel Tejada would make a weak offensive position one of the strengths and his price tag (in terms of salary) is now reasonable by comparison. Signing the afforementioned Huff would allow you to deal either Luke Scott or Morgan Ensberg in the deal along with Adam Everett and a pitcher. That should get it done.
The Red Sox came into the Winter Meetings looking to deal Manny Ramirez. Based on his contract and preliminary discussions with other clubs, the cost to the Astros would amount to three years and fourteen million per season. Wow, that's downright cheap in this market. I'd hoped to get out of this column without publishing more numbers, but let me compare Ramirez and Berkman since Berkman became a regular offensive force in 2001 (also ManRam's first year in Boston).
OBP SLG OPS OW% RC RC/27 WARP3 Berkman .422 .572 .994 .729 801 9.13 53.1 Ramirez .416 .610 1.026 .745 777 9.30 51.6
Please don't buy into the malarkey about great hitters making other hitters better. It doesn't happen in any real sense. What happens is that it increases the number of opportunities everyone has. The increased opportunities can make it look like they are better (increased runs and RBIs), but you are basically looking at a Berkman-eque hitter here. Carlos Lee is a chump compared to these two. I can't believe some people when they say they don't want any part of this guy. Sure, you may have to close your eyes when Lee and Ramirez are patrolling left and right, but your 3-4-5 lineup will be the best in baseball.
The last guy on the list is Vernon Wells. The Blue Jays don't want to pay his Beltran plus demands, so they are looking to get good value for him now. The contract is scary, but he would also move into a position where we are weak offensively (centerfield). Wells would likely take a little more than the other two simply because of the buzz surrounding him. He isn't as good as ManRam (few are), but he is as good if not better with the bat than Tejada and he is a good defensive player at his position.
There are a lot of options out there and the Astros have payroll flexibility for the first time in several years. They also don't have Pettitte or Clemens to worry about. They truly have an open field to play. I for one would like to see something bold and outside the box, but Purpura deserves December, January, and early February to show us his final roster. Before then, no one should be decrying how bad this is for the common fan. It could turn out to be the best thing this franchise has ever done.