Astros Have Gone To The Dogs

added 9/1/2009 by Bob Hulsey

On Labor Day, the Astros will have a "take your dog to the ballpark" promotion at Minute Maid Park (you'll need to register by September 3rd to have your pooch admitted). A special section will be set up for fans and fan's best friends to watch the action together. I really hope this section is not near the outfield. It would be embarrassing to watch somebody's mutt jump the rails and fetch a double in the left field corner before Carlos Lee could lope over there to pick up the ball. It would be SportsCenter gold but it would also illustrate what's become of a season that has jumped the tracks.

Back when the season began, I said it was like dealing to an inside straight to hope the Astros would win. Almost everything would need to go right. Well, they actually made us think it might be possible after sweeping St. Louis on July 22nd to get within a game of first place. Yes, they were a mere three games over .500 at the time but the Astros were a notorious second-half team, right?

Not in 2009. The clock struck midnight on Mike Hampton, Ivan Rodriguez, Russ Ortiz, Doug Brocail and a few other Geritol Astros while there was still two months to play. The Cardinals, meanwhile, went on a long winning streak and left Houston (not to mention the Cubs and the Brewers) in the dustbin of mediocrity.

It all fell apart so quickly for the Astros that club dissension was back in the headlines and Manager Cecil Cooper's job appears to be in peril just four months after a contract extension was supposed to silence such talk.

Now there's even room for your pets at Minute Maid Park in September. First, kids got in free. Now dogs. Next, they'll have a promotion where you can schedule your wedding there since we're sure some sections will be devoid of paying customers.

Obviously, teams that pack the house every night don't need gimmicks to increase attendance, even in the "dog days" of summer. The front office is being hounded by some bad personnel moves that have reached critical mass.

It took Roy Oswalt five months to pronounce the team dead but I think the fans figured it out sooner than that. Pick a statistical category and the Astros are likely to be 10th or below in the league rankings, whether it is scoring runs, starting pitching, relief pitching, home runs hit or runs allowed. The only area where they've really excelled is grounding into double plays. They're tops in the league in that department.

In desperation, and in part because Cooper seems inept at handling a pitching staff, the Astros have turned to a bunch of kids from Round Rock to fill out their staff due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Most of them are getting lit, including PCL All-Stars Bud Norris and Yorman Bazardo. But the Astros really have no choice at this point. The trade deadlines have passed and there's just so many arms you can call on. There's also a fear that a pitcher like Norris may get injured from overwork, not having pitched as many innings in the minors as he has overall this season.

Other than barking at the moon, what can be done? The fans seem to have voted with their feet. With football season about to start, many have tuned out the Astros and are looking with anticipation at the start of pigskin watching (mmmmm, bacon!).

I hope Drayton McLane will finally surrender and agree that a rebuilding process is needed. Let's not spend money on quick fixes and old pitchers held together with bailing wire. Let's liquidate assets and rebuild from the ground up. It's a bad economy, so why not go cheap for a year or two? If nothing else, McLane can reclaim some of his losses while waiting for Bobby Heck's draft classes to bear fruit.

If I were in McLane's shoes, one of the first two things I would do when the season ends is offer Cooper a reassignment somewhere within the organization for 2010. Coop's a good man and a baseball lifer, but he's not in a league with the LaRussas, Piniellas and Bakers of the National League Central. Tell Bud Selig you gave his friend a good try but it just didn't work out.

Next, I would be on the phone with St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan and find out what it would take to bring him to Houston. Duncan is apparently still steamed at what happened this year regarding the Cardinals front office, the St. Louis media and Duncan's son, Chris, who was first demoted then traded.

Duncan has proven he's the best pitching coach in the game. He routinely takes pitchers with checkered pasts and breathes life back into their careers. Much of the Astros' future investment is with moundsmen. Doesn't it make sense to bring aboard the best in the business to mold that talent, even if he's paid more than the going rate? I think so. He'll certainly deliver more than whatever we paid for Woody Williams or Mike Hampton.

The Houston Texans of the NFL did a similar thing. They lured the best offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, out of retirement to fix an offensive line that was getting their quarterbacks killed. He's been a success everywhere he's been and has turned the Houston line from a liability to an asset in a short amount of time.

Bringing Duncan aboard not only gets the best out of our young pitchers but it also has the added benefit of weakening our chief division rival. Now how much would you pay? I would even let Duncan have some input on who should be our next manager. Whatever Duncan says he wants for next year, I'd do my best to arrange it. I think it would be malpractice if the Astros didn't, at the very least, find out what would make him happy.

Hitters tend to have a more predictable career curve than pitchers do. It really doesn't take a high IQ to figure out which hitters will hit at the next level. Other than a few guys who refuse to learn and adjust, the good hitters of tomorrow will be the guys that are hitting well now. Sure, there are exceptions but the general trend is easy to track.

Pitchers are a whole different story. Other than a few clearly dominant ones, their results can be all over the map. A subtle difference in arm slotting or release point or pitch tipping can turn a career inside out or upside down. I'd trust a guy like Duncan to stay on top of his staff and make sure each pitcher has a solid game plan.

Let Ed Wade work the waiver wire. Let Heck rebuild the farm and let Duncan mentor our young pitchers. You'll have to stir it and let it cook for a couple of years but that's my recipe for returning to the postseason on a mid-size budget. Pitching wins championships and young pitchers are a valuable commodity. Look at what the Rays were able to do last year for a fraction of what the Yankees and Red Sox paid. Our young arms are too valuable to waste on someone who isn't in tune with their staff.

If McLane adopts that strategy, he'll soon be back to selling every seat at full price in September and October rather than letting kids - and dogs - enter for free.