The Houston Astros entered the offseason needing to restructure their starting pitching.
In a NL Central division featuring the Chicago Cubs, Houston must also compete with Milwaukee and a refurnished St. Louis team. At this point, the Astros no longer resemble the 2005 World Series team. Instead, they have spiraled downward into a second-tier team, hoping to once again discover success. Houston’s front office lacks the aggression to pursue top-notch free agents.
General Manager Ed Wade's decision-making skills has depleted a promising minor league system and caused chemistry issues in the clubhouse. After accepting the GM position before the 2008 season, Wade immediately changed the make-up of the Astros.
Wade traded several talented, young players on two occasions just to get one player back in return. The Astros gave the Baltimore Orioles the majority of their starting pitching prospects for shortstop Miguel Tejada. Baltimore jumped at the opportunity of trading Tejada.
Once the Astros completed the trade, they received a star player who misrepresented himself about his age and faced steroid allegations. Tejada’s disappointing first season with the Astros symbolizes the front office’s inability to make the right decisions.
Also, more prospects were shipped to the Arizona Diamondbacks for closer Jose Valverde. Entering spring training last season, Wade had faith that inconsistent RHP Shaun Chacon would be the answer to the pitching rotation. When Chacon was dismissed from the team after punching Wade, the Astros finally made a solid trade in July, 2008 with the San Diego Padres for LHP Randy Wolf.
Ultimately, a team can go out and spend a substantial amount of money on offense, but it still comes down to pitching. The teams who have the best starting pitching and bullpen will always beat the best offensive teams.
Right now, the Astros desperately need starting pitching. By trading all of their minor league prospects a year ago, Houston has no chance of obtaining Jake Peavy in a trade from the Padres. Roy Oswalt does rank as one of the top starting pitchers in baseball and luckily the Astros have locked him down to a long-term contract.
After Oswalt, the starting rotation fails to intimidate opposing teams.
This offseason, Houston has done nothing to build the rotation. Needing to re-sign Wolf, the Astros broke off negotiations with the free-agent back in November. Wolf finished with a 6-2 record and a 3.57 ERA last season with the Astros.
Instead of bringing him back, Houston signed LHP Mike Hampton to a one-year, $2 million deal. At one time, Hampton, 36, was a premier starting pitcher, but now battles injuries and will never regain his former success. Despite a career 141-105 record, Hampton spent the entire 2006 and 2007 season with Atlanta on the DL. Unfortunately, Houston expects Hampton to be one of their best pitchers during the 2009 season.
Currently, the Astros list Oswalt, Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez, Hampton and Brian Moehler as their starting rotation. The organization has given Backe and Rodriguez multiple opportunities to prove themselves. Overall, their inconsistent pitching as the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 starting pitchers the past two seasons failed to make the Astros a contender.
Obviously, Houston could not afford to sign free-agent pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, both signing lucrative deals with the New York Yankees. However, plenty of quality free-agent pitchers remain on the market, including Jon Garland, Tom Glavine, Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder, Carl Pavano, Andy Pettitte, Ben Sheets, John Smoltz, and Wolf.
If the Astros want to become a contender once again, it starts by signing free-agent starting pitching. Houston needs to focus on signing at least two starters to fill the rotation. Backe and Rodriguez have officially worn out their welcome in Houston. Now, it's time to bring in guys who can help the team win.
Owner Drayton McLane needs to be persistent in pursuing starting pitching before the start of spring training. The Astros have six weeks to justify the disastrous offseason.
Out of the remaining starting pitchers on the market, Sheets would be the best fit in Houston. Sheets has familiarity with the NL Central and a strong relationship with Oswalt.
Also, the idea of bringing back Pettitte to Houston might be worth a discussion for the Astros. A Houston native and former Astro, Pettitte finds himself on the outside of the Yankees' organization after New York signed Sabathia and Burnett.
Both Pettitte and Sheets would be expensive, but the Astros are running out of options. Unless they pursue starting pitching, the team will be looking at a potential fourth-place finish in the NL Central for the 2009 season behind Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.