added 10/13/2009 by Bob Hulsey
So, the Astros have run into the ditch the latter half of 2009. Before I look at possible directions that the team could go to climb out of it, I want to review the key steps that led us to this point.
2005 - The Astros made it to the World Series for the first and only time. Hurray! It was a team that had three top starting pitchers (Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte) and two younger guys with big potential (Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez). The bullpen had a trio at the back end of the game (Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge) who had become quite solid and, in Lidge's case, almost automatic.
The offense wasn't nearly as good as 2004 because they had lost, for various reasons, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and Jeff Bagwell from a lineup that was the most potent first six batters that this club has ever seen. But two players stepped in to fill the void in what now seem like career years - outfielder Jason Lane and third baseman Morgan Ensberg.
In a normal career curve, Lane and Ensberg would still be solid contributors to the Astros lineup in 2009 but both fell back to earth very hard and were shipped out in 2007 for a lack of offensive production. The Astros miss having what both should and could have become.
2006 - Pettitte returns and Clemens, after a brief retirement, does too. But the rest of the staff starts to show cracks and the offense becomes downright dreadful, particularly Lane and Ensberg. Free agent signee Preston Wilson is disappointing, Craig Biggio is a year older and not even a midseason deal for Aubrey Huff can ignite the club. They skid back to 82-80.
As a side note, the player we sent away for Huff, Ben Zobrist, has now developed into a utility player deluxe who would be nice to have around, particularly since we let Huff walk at the end of the year without an arbitration offer.
The Astros start to work in some young pitchers with upside like Taylor Buchholz, Jason Hirsh and Fernando Nieve. Rodriguez' progression is minimal and Backe gets hurt after eight starts.
2007 - Pettitte and Clemens take their act back to New York, leaving a gaping hole in the rotation. Tim Purpura tries to fill this with 40-year-old free agent Woody Williams and Baylor grad Jason Jennings who costs us Hirsh, Buchholz and Willy Taveras. Both deals end disasterously.
Meanwhile, the Astros ink outfielder Carlos Lee to a six-year deal. He restores the cleanup position to the order but becomes something of a problem with his poor defense and high salary. Phenom Hunter Pence bursts onto the scene but misses time due to injury. Biggio's farewell season becomes the feel-good story of the year but it masks a 73-89 record and a fourth-place finish.
Two bright spots show up late in the season to give fans hope for brighter days - outfielder Josh Anderson and catcher J.R. Towles breathe life into two positions that have languished offensively.
However, bad pitching and untimely hitting slumps cost Purpura and Manager Phil Garner their jobs and are eventually replaced by Ed Wade and Cecil Cooper, respectively.
2008 - Wade shakes up the organization, trading away many of the young talent that had come up from the minors in the past three years and acquiring players like Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, Michael Bourn, Kaz Matsui, Geoff Geary and Oscar Villarreal. Despite some misses, the team fights all obstacles to finish 86-75.
Williams is let go and the rotation struggles. The bullpen, after a shaky start, responds well but Villarreal bombs out of a two-year contract. Valverde leads the league in saves while LaTroy Hawkins is rescued from the scrap heap and becomes a solid set-up man.
Bourn and Towles struggle mightily and, while the foursome of Lance Berkman, Tejada, Pence and Lee put up good numbers, it seems they can't get more than two big bats hot at any one time.
Another key to the late-season surge is pitcher Randy Wolf who parlays a bad first-half in San Diego into a good second half with Houston.
2009 - Wade decides to keep Valverde and let Wolf and Ty Wigginton loose in free agency. Both players are missed badly and the patchwork replacements don't pan out. Berkman and Oswalt struggle. The team looks old, uninspired and has difficulty coming through in the clutch.
Yet, for all their faults, they pull within a game of first place in mid-July. It's too close to trade away some big contracts that will become off-season free agents yet there's no payroll room to add pieces for a playoff run.
The farm system, gutted of many of their top prospects and not replenishing them, has little to offer for immediate help other than some pitchers who struggle as the veterans who started the year keep getting injured.
So that's how the Astros have become a team that doesn't score well, doesn't pitch well, doesn't have reinforcements ready on the farm, doesn't have much payroll flexibility and stands to lose some key veterans in free agency without compensation unless Wade wants to risk overpaying for them or having them opt for arbitration and perhaps strangle a shrinking budget. Other than Rodriguez, Berkman and the three outfielders, there's little to the 2009 Astros that appears settled.
The truth be told, the 2005 club was a veteran-laden team and the young players who were supposed to lead the club to the next era are all gone, save for Berkman and Oswalt. Lidge, Wheeler, Backe, Chris Burke, Adam Everett, Ensberg and Lane are all gone, victims of swift declines or dealt for quick fixes. That nucleus hasn't had their own group of farmhands to nurture into stars, save for Hunter Pence and Bud Norris.
It sounds bleak, and it is bleak. But that doesn't mean it has to stay that way. Next time, I'll talk about ways the Astros might start to recover from the ashes.