added 12/14/2008 by Scott Barzilla
You can't really say it has been a good time to be an Astros fan this off-season. The most exciting thing to happen is seeing the last 20 game winner in the 20th century to join the 2009 staff. The fact, that Hampton hasn't won much more than 22 games in the intervening decade is not encouraging. Bringing back Latroy Hawkins and Doug Brocail should be encouraging for a team that is going to rely a lot on their bullpen. However, it was the Winter Meetings and the immediate aftermath that is getting most Astros fans down.
If you look carefully though, most of the teams did nothing during the Winter Meetings. The Winter meetings has never been about massive movement, but more about laying the groundwork for future deals. Sure, you get the Yankees and Mets making major moves. You get the Cubs and Padres huffing and puffing. There was even the obligatory three team/twelve player trade to hang your hat on. Yet, when the smoke cleared, only a half dozen teams had done anything of note (unless you count the acquisition of a few Rule V guys). So, cracking on the Astros for doing nothing is a little harsh.
However, the following few days were puzzling even more most knowledgeable analysts. The Astros decided to non-tender Ty Wigginton. Naturally, they threw in the caveat that they would like to bring him back for less, but with teams like the Giants, Twins, and Reds looking for third basemen, you get the idea that he will not be back. To add insult to injury, they decided to tender Brandon Backe despite his 6.00+ ERA last season. You try and rap your mind around that one while the owner talks about being a champion. Still, a cursory look through baseball history and a history of the Astros franchise demands a little perspective.
The last time our country faced an economic crisis of this magnitude, it didn't necessarily impact all of baseball. If you think the Yankees spending spree started with George Streinbrenner you don't your history. When Babe Ruth proved to be too bloated and slow to remain effective, the Yankees shelled out huge bucks for a centerfielder with a bad knee. All that guy did was take the Yankees from merely competitive to being the best team in the last half of the 1930s. When the Athletics sold off all of their talent from the early 1930s, several teams were ready to pick up the pieces and the Yankees weren't among them. I have to admit, watching the Giants and Braves play with the big boys is mildly interesting.
Harsh economies affect some teams more than others. I'm not going to pretend to know what is going on with the Astros financially or with McLane and his other business interests. McLane himself has admitted to making money in MMP, but others still seem to think he is losing. Baseball has a good television contract and McLane has a good deal with Fox Sports Houston. So, why cut back now? Well, the first answer comes in that we do not know how long this bubble will last. What happens if the major networks decide they can't afford baseball next time around? Then, every team will have to cut back. It's easier to make that work if you hedge your bets ahead of time. Also, if the people on the business side tell you that ticket sales are down then you have to react in some way.
This is where the "rebuild" crowd comes into play. I have to admit that in terms of pure baseball I am among them. However, we all have to recognize the business side of things. Who is going to buy tickets in a bad economy if you have Wedge Fickus playing first base? So, you cut guys you think few really care about and hope you throw together enough talent to compete. It's hard to say whether McLane really believes in what he is pushing. He honestly said that most teams don't have the amount of stars we do. I guess it's a good thing if you believe your line of BS. Otherwise, it would be hard to say the things Drayton says without guffawing.
So, I have two major things to say in this situation. First, consider the fact that most teams do not compete every year. The Astros used to be one of these teams. McLane took over the last time there was a major youth movement. I guess that skewed his vision of baseball because they have not done a youth movement since. There were youth movements in the 1960s, early 70s, late 70s, and the mid 1980s. These things are cyclical. Ideally, you find your way somewhere between the Pirates and Royals and the Yankees. The key is to see a light at the end of the tunnel. If you are Bucs or Royals fan that light is usually an oncoming train. If you are most other teams, you can envision a day when your team will be the 2008 Rays.
Secondly, while patience is a virtue, it is maddening to see non-baseball people influence baseball decisions to this degree. For most hard-core fans, there is little reason to hope in Houston because the minor league system is barren and most of the "stars" are on the wrong side of Houston. There is a difference between hope and delusion. If you have young players it is fair to say you hope they will be good one day. If you have a bunch of guys in their thirties it is delusional to say they may do what they have never done before. It is one thing to say that Mike Hampton might be a nice end of the rotation starter. It is another to say he's winning 20 games because he's back home again.