The Houston Astros Blueprint for How to Destroy a Franchise in 7 Years
Drayton McLane clearly wanted to sell the Houston Astros.
But, like any businessman, he was aware that investors aren’t interested in aging assets and high-priced players.
In addition, prospective buyers are looking for a lean operation, one that had fewer employees and streamlined shortcuts to obtain only the minimum of results. It’s called ‘’Return-on-Investment,’’ and while it is a shrewd business move, it completely and systematically destroyed a very competitive and fun franchise for the fans to enjoy. What McLane did is not unlike the methods previous owners have used when wanting to sell their teams. The result is very painful for the fans and severs the faith the city has in the team. For many, McLane’s Astros were a consistently good team that rose to the occasion in 2005, making it to their only World Series.
In this article, we are going to examine whether that magical 2005 season was truly a matter of a great team, or, perhaps, it was indeed smoke and mirrors, an illusion and a one-trick pony.
Could the 2005 Astros have been so overrated going into 2006 that the decisions management made unintentionally put the team on early life support?
Did the combination of McLane wanting to get out of baseball and the retirement of two of the Killer-Bees help to crumble the Houston Astros?
Was the poor free-agent signings and the chaotic roster moves to blame for the lack of team chemistry?
With all of these things to consider, we must beg the question as just how did the Astros minor league teams become so bad as well?
Could the Astros have done anything different to boost attendance in the past two seasons and if so, why didn’t they do it?
Building winning franchises is a science which requires precision, preparation and a little luck. It must come as an amazing thing to Astros fans, watching the team over the past five seasons. Other than the name on the front of the uniform and the ballpark they play in, fans who expected a familiar playoff contender instead saw a late-1970s expansion team.
From 1997 to 2005, the Astros began to establish themselves as a winning franchise by appearing in the postseason in six of those seasons. The legacy of the team, which was created in 1962, was finally being set in stone.
Sadly, in 2009 the team began to show serious erosion and a dismal future. The Astros lost 100 games in each of the last two years, becoming a doormat patched together with players too young or journeymen castoffs who were often too old.
It takes so much talent to build a winning team, but only a little effort to dismantle it.
Here is the Astros blueprint for how to tear a team apart and lose much of your fanbase in the process. If the team is smart, they would be wise to see the mistakes below and reverse them so that a once proud franchise can breathe new hope into the city and its loyal and passionate fans.
The Houston Astros had some incredible games in the postseason in 1980 and 1986. In fact, Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS against the Phillies was one of the greatest games of all time, as was that unbelievable 16-inning Game 6 versus the Mets. There is nothing quite like the breathtaking experience of hearing that Astrodome explode with 45,000 screaming fans in a tight ballgame.
As far as novelties go, the Astrodome in Houston never did wear off. Fans came to see the first, and for many years, the only domed stadium to watch a game. Most unique about the ballpark was the huge scoreboard, with exploding cannons and cowboys shooting their guns and a dazzling light display that would make any home run hit by the home team that much more exhilarating.
Unfortunately for the Astros, the Oilers shared the stadium too, and owner Bud Adams wanted luxury suites where the scoreboard was situated. In all, it would add another 15,000 seats to the stadium, but it took away its fascinating charm. It has become just another domed stadium, and the Oilers would move to Tennessee to become the Titans.
In 2005, the Astros played the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Championship in yet another heart-stopping series. On October 9th, the two teams met up at Minute Maid Park with the Astros ahead two games to one in a best of five.
The game went 18 innings with Roger Clemens coming into the game from the bullpen and giving the Astros a heroic performance. In the bottom of the 18th, Chris Burke, a rookie, smashed a home run to left that finished a most improbable series.
The Astros had won the game with an aging seven-time Cy Young Award winning pitcher and one of the youngest players on the roster. It summed up just how completely in-sync that Astros team of 2005 was with one another. The moment that ball hit the Crawford Boxes, the noise in the stadium was reminiscent to me. It brought me back to that Astrodome, and as a lifelong Astros fan, I had sorely missed hearing it over the years.
The NLCS was no less exciting. The Cardinals and Astros played tight baseball, but the team had a feeling of almost invincibility and destiny. Game 5 was one for the ages. Some say it is the day Brad Lidge forever changed as a pitcher. With the Astros ahead 4-2, Lidge shook off the fastball with the team just one strike away from making its first World Series. Instead, he hung a slider that Albert Pujols deposited into the left-field stands.
The shock level felt in Minute Maid was palpable.
Never before had I felt the air just abandon a place so quickly. As loud and energized as Minute Maid was a week earlier, it was eerily silent when Pujols crossed home plate, tapped his chest with two fingers, kissed them and looked up to the heavens in honor of his parents.
Astros fans couldn’t help but think of the many times we had come so close and had not gotten to the Series. But the next game, we came back and won the National League pennant and would head to the first ever World Series. I was off to Chicago to shoot Game 1.
Playing their first World Series since 1959, were the Chicago White Sox. The team couldn’t have been more alike from the Astros in make up. They had a combination of veterans having career seasons, (Jermaine Dye, Carl Everett) journeymen who became key role players (Juan Uribe) and solid, if not stellar, pitching. They had an aging Frank Thomas, whose career is comparable to that of Jeff Bagwell. Bobby Jenks was automatic in closing games for the White Sox, something that Lidge was proving not to be at a critical time for the team, and in several ways, that sliver of difference was just enough to give the White Sox the Series.
The games were played very closely, but, for me, the memory of Scott Podsednik coming to the plate with the game on the line and Lidge on the mound was compelling drama to say the least. Podsednik hadn’t hit a home run in the entire 2005 season.
I heard someone whisper "Bucky Dent."
In my mind, after giving up the home run to Pujols, Lidge seemed to be a different pitcher. He seemed unsure of himself.
Expecting at most a single, Lidge decided to go with a fastball away, and he missed the spot and came in and over the plate. Podsednik turned on the ball and hit a home run to win Game 2. I looked around for the voice I heard moments before and like a ghost of baseball’s past, it was gone. As I watched Podsednik almost sprint around the bases, what I was really seeing was Dent, who seemed to have been reincarnated for this game.
The drama continued in a riveting Game 3 in Houston that set all kinds of records. It was tied for the longest World Series game by time ever played. In total, the game went over five hours and ended in the 14th with the White Sox prevailing. Many other records were set in that game, including the most double plays (six by the Astros) and 43 players used. Things looked bleak for the team down three games to none.
A fan next to me wondered out-loud, “…just last year the Red Sox had done it, why not the Astros?” I looked at him and answered, "Bucky Dent."
Going into Game 4, it was apparent to me that the White Sox were out pitching our hitting. The Astros had to face a former farmhand of theirs in Game 4, Freddy Garcia. Garcia and Jenks shutout the Astros 1-0 to end the World Series. For many, it has been called the Most Exciting Four-Game Sweep ever.
The Astros seemed to be a team on the rise, with a load of talented rookies and a nice mix of veteran leadership. But the team never again came close to that 2005 season and within just three years, the team was languishing at the bottom. How did this happen and why? In this story we are going to look at how owner McLane and GM Tim Pupura and later Ed Wade systematically tore down what they had built up, and leave it as a lesson blueprint on how good teams can become bad franchises.
Reduce Your Scouting Resources: It always amazed me that the major league teams could spend $100,000 to mediocre players and not increase their resources with regards to the major and minor league scouting staff. The Astros trimmed their scouting budget in 2005, and it began to show in the 2006 season. The staff and the coaches failed to realize that many of the key players were having career seasons, but that doesn’t make them career players.
One look at the numbers and they begin to tell the story of the 2005 Astros.
For starters, Morgan Ensberg went crazy in 2005, pounding 36 home runs, 101 RBI and a .283 batting average. But Ensberg had never hit for a high average and was a full 50 points higher in 2005 than he had been his entire career, and to top that off, he didn’t walk much either. With guys in the lineup protecting him, he got better pitches to see, but when he was without that protection, he was a mere mortal and his average reflected this.
In 2006, he slipped to .235 and his power went down as well with just 23 home runs. In 2007, he hit only eight home runs while hitting .232.
What the scouts failed to realize is that Ensberg was always a below-average hitter with occasional power. Watching him swing the bat, you realize he has a big loop in his swing and a very wide stance. Pitchers began to bust him high and tight and pretty soon, Ensberg’s power numbers diminished and with that, his career.
Preston Wilson was another curious addition to the 2006 team. Although the Astros needed a veteran outfielder with some power, Wilson seemed an odd choice. His power numbers had declined in the previous three seasons, and he never hit above .282. Signed to a one-year $4-million deal with an additional $24 million as a team option, Wilson boosted payroll while barely providing numbers for the team. Wilson managed just nine home runs while hitting .263, showing that the financial dividends for him had not paid off. Moreover, he was prone to striking out a lot and managed to tie an all-time record by striking out five times in a single game.
In an abrupt about-face, the Astros released him on August 12th, leaving him available for division rival St. Louis to pick up in order to replace an ailing Jim Edmonds. Wilson decided to turn it around once with the Cardinals, and in the last month of the season, he nearly doubled his offensive production that he provided for the Astros!
These are just two of the questionable moves that Astros fans got to witness as the franchise began to crumble. Poor scouting, poor decision making at the GM spot, and not realizing that the 2005 team was a great coming together of average players who had spectacular seasons all were part of the lack of vision that began a terrible downfall.
In 2007, the Astros once again revamped their scouting staff, hiring scouts and focusing on various regions of the United States. This was, at least, a recognition that the depletion of the staff over the previous two seasons wasn’t such a good idea. But keep in mind, a scout has a very hard job. They can drive great distances between games, and even then there is no promise that the player they came out to see is the one that will actually play that night. “When you eat alone, you win every argument.” reasoned longtime Astros scout Rusty Pendergrass. It can be a hard and often thankless job, but rewarding if you find the diamond amongst the coal.
Scouts are the lifeblood of the franchise and without them, the team misses viable opportunities to connect with small towns along the way, missing potential stars.
James Farrar, the scout who saw something in Roy Oswalt that no one else did, just insisted that the Astros sign him at once. The management saw his whisper thin frame and barely six-feet tall and seemed hesitant, but Farrar persuaded the Astros, and in 1996 he became a member of the franchise. Five years later, he would be up in the majors for good. It is a valuable lesson for teams who look to cut the scouts when it comes time to make financial changes to the team.
Spend & Send: This is a term I came up with to describe what happens when a team is overzealous in its bid to sign expensive free agents. There are ramifications far beyond the hope that an aging slugger or a pitcher past his prime might catch fire in a bottle once more. Indeed, when this occurs, a talented player that might be developing on the major league roster has to step aside, and sometimes gets sent down to AAA, where someone there has to move to make room.
The 2005 Astros had a payroll of $76 million. In 2006, Bagwell retired, but the Astros still managed to grow the payroll up to $92 million.
Between the signing of Wilson and several players who won their arbitration cases, the teams’ payroll began to reflect less profitability to the team. Figuring correctly that fans would show up to see a World Series team play resulted in the Astros raising their ticket prices in 2006 as part of a measure to offset the growing payroll.
The attendance did go up, above league average from 2,762 million to 3,022 million in 2006. However, this was still below the teams’ expectations of attendance and the ticket prices were part of that reason.
But the real crushing blow was about to come.
As the 2007 Season began, the Astros poor scouting led to three disastrous moves. Having lost both Clemens and Andy Pettite, the team felt the need to retool its staff. They could have learned from their own history, for in 1989 the Astros let Nolan Ryan walk away and believed that he could be replaced with two middle-of-the-rotation pitchers in Rick Rhoden and Jim Clancy
Instead, the Astros let Clemens and Pettite walk away and decided to go with Jason Jennings and Woody Williams.
What did the Astros scouts see in Jennings? True, he had been Rookie of the Year. But let’s look at what that season really looked like in 2002. He went 16-8 with an ERA of 4.52 and allowed an average of 9.8 hits per game! It wasn’t that Jennings was without upside, how is it that for $5.5 million, the team couldn’t locate another pitcher that was available? Jamie Moyer, Ted Lilly and Jeff Weaver were available in that price range.
Williams was a Texas native who had solid but unspectacular seasons in the majors. In 15 seasons, he won 18 games once, and never again topped 12 wins in a year. Williams signed for $6 million and went a sizzling 8-15 with a 5.27 ERA. He also had a knack for giving up the long ball, allowing 35 home runs in 31 games!
Perhaps the most shocking however was the signing of 30-year-old Carlos Lee to a six-year $100-million contract. A defensive liability even when he was young, the robust Lee would not have the luxury of playing designated hitter. No other National League team was offering more than three years with an option at the time. The Astros, trying to improve an anemic offense, felt they couldn’t pass up on Lee and signed the ‘El Caballo’ to a huge contract as cumbersome as he would be on the diamond.
That said, Lee was indeed a productive hitter for the team hitting 32 home runs. But by 2009, he had the lowest range factor of any outfielder in the game. Several baseball writers considered him to be among the very worst everyday players in the game, mostly due to his defensive liabilities. The signing of Lee, Williams and Jennings caused a sharp rise in payroll that would strike the Astros hardest in 2009 when it shot over the $102 million mark for the first time.
Gutting the Farm System: As part of Spend & Send, the Astros had to move some of their talent. Since 2005, the Astros have traded away a great deal of young players in order for veteran position players with little upside or to simply make room for the ones they signed as free agents. They are as follows: Michael Bourne (Atl), Ben Zobrist (TB), Eric Bruntlett(Phi), Luke Scott (Bal), Willy Taveras (Col), Dan Wheeler (TB), Jason Lane (SD), Taylor Teagarden (Tex) and Humberto Quintero (KC) are some of the players who were dealt by the team.
In fact, there have been so many roster moves that in 2011, the Oklahoma City Redhawks (Astros AAA) had all of 57 different names on their roster in ONE season. There is just no effective way to measure a young players talent when you are seeing so little of them, and this underlies the problem that causes the cascade of all the others—and this failure imperils a teams scouting operation.
Failure to Understand Team Chemistry: The constant movement of players had psychological effects on the team as well, underlying security and creating an inability to build a cohesive chemistry on and off the field. Consider the odyssey of veteran Ben Francisco, who was acquired from Toronto on July 20th as part of a 10-player trade, which saw the Astros finally give up on J.A. Happ and Brandon Lyon. Francisco had barely moved his family to Houston when he was suddenly dealt away again in just five short weeks, this time to Tampa Bay, for a player to be named later.
These moves simply raised more questions than provided answers and undermined the direction and focus of the team.
Consider some of the veterans who were signed to Astros contracts between 2009 and 2012 and try to figure out any methodology to the direction of the team and building a nucleus of talent that can bond into a cohesive unit. Some of these players never got to even play in a regular-season game, yet were signed to contracts anyway, taking away valuable time from younger players while consuming payroll allocation for fewer, but perhaps more quality players. The list of retreads is long, but here are just a few of them: Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, Jack Cust, Zach Duke and Brett Myers. Of all those players, only Myers was arguably the best Return on Investment and worthy of what he was paid. The others scarcely contributed to the team because management didn’t identify them for who they were: Average ballplayers on good teams —five to 10 years ago.
This kind of head-scratching paradoxical thinking simply destroys the good will and positive direction a team can have as it takes the field.
Lack of Vision: In 2007, the Astros bid adieu to Craig Biggio, the heart and soul of the team for so many years. A sure to be first-ballot Hall of Famer, Biggio was more than a member of the 3,000 hit club. He showed a willingness to do whatever it took to win, including changing positions five different times to accommodate the rest of the team. He moved out from behind the plate to second base, then to left and ultimately center, before returning to second base to finish out his career.
But in two seasons, the Astros watched Bagwell and Biggio retire with only Lance Berkman as a true icon of the Astros brand. With free agency looming for Berkman, the team was quickly without a face, and these things are important in retaining continuity of the teams brand.
Secondly, while the payroll hovered around $90 million in 2010, $76 million in 2011 and finally down to $60 million in 2012, consider that almost a third of that was paid to players no longer with the franchise. (Lee, Oswalt, Berkman, Wandy Rodriguez.)
The lack of ability to project how long a player will hold his value is something that other teams took the initiative to learn, while the Astros continued down the same consistent path.
In the middle of this debacle is General Manager Wade, who was hired on September 20, 2007. Wade had success building a Phillies team that was backed by a strong marketing effort, and the fact that the team had a long and storied past. In Houston, he seemed divisive, creating a lack of security for the players through his endless wheeling and dealing.
Four days after being hired, he traded Jason Lane. Six days later, Biggio announced his retirement.
In just three short months, the Astros would deal a total of eight very talented young players for Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde. While both performed well for the team, their cost simply didn't support the deal in the long term. As for Valverde, he was supposed to be the closer of the team, but just before the 2008 season began, the Astros inexplicably traded for another closer, Shawn Chacon
This lack of direction must have puzzled the players as much as it puzzled the fans.
Again, a lack of research into Chacon hurt the team in an almost literal sense. Allegedly, he and GM Wade got into a verbal altercation about how they were planning to use him. Chacon was a closer and now he was being told he was to be a setup man out of the bullpen. Chacon was not buying into the sudden change of plans and one thing led to another, causing the 6'-tall pitcher to assault Wade. He was suspended from the team and never appeared again on a major league diamond.
A lack of direction at the top imperils team chemistry on the field, and nowhere did it show more than in the declining number of wins and the mounting losses that the team sustained. Furthermore, it was really evident at the turnstile as just two million fans came out to Minute Maid in 2011 and 2012.
Create Poor Marketing: One look at the Astros promotional calendar of 2007, and there is little to bring the fans out en masse to a game. The highest and most consistent promotion is $1 hot dog night, which only underscores the need to bring ticket prices into the affordable range. There were various theme nights, such as ‘Wild West’ night and ‘70s Night’ and of course the veritable Fireworks nights.
There were opportunities for fans to cash in various items for reduced tickets, but these were tickets in the nosebleed section of the park. The expensive seats down low remained empty.
Now as you read this, consider what that must look like to you watching the game on television. First of all, the stands look empty. When a play does happen, the fans are so far from the action that it seems visually almost slow to happen. The echo of the empty stadium creates a vacuum of sound, and the empty chairs make it look as if the Astros have an apathetic fanbase.
The Astros should have something in place to move the fans down to the box seats beyond the 4th or 5th inning because it makes no sense to watch a game on TV and be able to hear the kids smacking popcorn because it is so quiet during play. It is a completely logical suggestion that would generate fan involvement, make the fan at home want to come to the ballpark, and it would even inspire the players to actually be able to see the fans they are playing for.
By 2012, the Astros brain-trust HAD to come up with ideas to stimulate fan interest, given the fact that so few could even name five players on the team. The best purchase a fan could make at the stadium happened to be ‘Game-Used’ jerseys by the players. This was because of the carnival of players that were signed, released, sent down, brought up or dealt away made it impossible for fans to wear jerseys of the actual guys on the field! Plus, because the players were no longer Astros players, their jerseys were often half-priced. I know, because I bought a bunch of them!
But as far as promotions, the Astros best promotion was Flashback Fridays, where the team wore its retro uniforms and gave away bobble-heads. With ticket prices soaring up to $70 for box seat tickets on special game nights (such as interleague), the rest of the ballpark continued to see a rise in prices as well from the 2005 season. The price is prohibitive from helping to create the Astros Brand because young fans who are watching on TV see an empty ballpark and uninspired results on the diamond. For older fans, the retro theme nights are indeed a fun way to spend an evening soaking in the nostalgia.
However, consistently failing to let the team itself mature in a way the fanbase can get to know the players will continue to hurt the franchise.
The Astros made so many questionable and perhaps unnecessary moves from 2006 to 2012 that the fans simply couldn't follow the team anymore. In addition, we dealt away so many of our major leaguers that we were essentially fielding a AAA team to play against major leaguers. Once that happened, the cascade effect of poor scouting and the fact that AA players now had to play at a AAA level gave the impression that our farm system was gutted of much of its talent.
In reality, the farm system was playing at Minute Maid Park!
All of this however is indicative of the fact that we were hopelessly short of direction from the very top level of management. When you combine that with the trimming of resources vital to the organization and cut costs in your promotional events while raising ticket prices, the complete blueprint for how to destroy your franchise in five years is in place.
In May of 2011, McLane finally stripped the franchise so bare that it could sell to the highest bidder. Jim Crane became the new owner of the team, and one can hope he doesn't take the same approach his predecessor has taken.
Hopefully, he will take note of some of these things because it is just as easy to rebuild as long as the right vision is in place.
With the team moving to the American League next season, there is already a renewed interest in the club. Even now, in looking at the roster, I fail to see that the Astros thought ahead as of yet with regards to a designated hitter. Berkman might fit that role perfectly for the team. Beyond that, this team is not going to contend this year or probably even next season. But if they let the players develop, give the minor leaguers time to cultivate their talent and intelligence for the game, the team will improve.
When scouting players, it has to be more important than velocity of pitches or speed on the bases. The team failed to identify the team chemistry that they were building. Character is as important as talent, and until we truly learn about what makes a player drive to be the best and sustain that activity, we will continue to have the Wilson’s and Chacon’s on the Astros roster.
Furthermore, the team should build more structure within the organization that helps the players develop and maintain good character traits once they are suddenly given millions of dollars and a new lease on life. That kind of investment is one the Orioles made long ago and contributes to what Brooks Robinson said is the identity of family, or as he put it, ''the Oriole Way."
Building team chemistry is vital to building a positive fanbase. Moreover, it brings additional revenue streams from advertisers, the sale of merchandise and attendance. The Astros are an iconic team in Texas, symbolic of an era where the game was still a small-town atmosphere. Houston has become the fourth largest city in the United States with a culture as diverse as anywhere on the planet.
The Astros share a destiny that is parallel to the city. As Houston enjoys a brilliant renaissance, the team should as well.
There is a reason why Retro-Night at the Minute Maid was so much fun. We love it because it is a chance to walk down Memory Lane once more. It’s because those years reflect a feeling of closeness between the fans and the players. We knew Jose Cruz and his upright stance with a menacing bat wiggle. We laughed with the silly antics of Joe Neikro and Jesus Alou. We were in awe of 6’8’’ James Rodney Richard throwing a wicked 96 mph slider.
Like many fans on a Saturday in September in Houston, I was there when Nolan Ryan threw his 5th no-hitter and still have the souvenir Astros glass, the ticket and the program from that game. Astros fans marveled at a young Cesar Cedeno gliding smoothly through center field while drawing comparisons to the great Willie Mays. I was witness to the Mike Scott no-hitter in 1986 against the Giants that clinched the NL West. Who can forget the sight of Billy Hatcher’s home run straight down the left-field line to tie the game in the 14th against the Mets in Game 6 of the NLCS? And oh how we ached for Scott to have a chance at the Mets in a game and we were sad to see that glory year slip away.
How many kids did you see emulating Bagwell’s almost impossible batting stance?
Didn’t we miss the enthusiasm and forever young impression we all got from watching Craig Biggio cover his helmet in pine tar?
Many of us can recall right where we were when Tony Eusebio lined the ball to Walt Weiss, who then speared it and from his knees made the greatest play he ever made in getting the force out at home.
Do you see a trend here?
Perhaps it might be best to do something that the Astros ownership has neglected to do and actually look ahead 10 years into the future. How many of us 10 years from now are going to attend an alumni party and throwback retro day with the 2012 Astros?
My guess is that it would be an eerily sparse crowd at the ballpark on that day.
We would be wise to learn from history. Building a long-lasting franchise and a proud legacy takes several years, but tearing it down just takes a fortnight.
Robert Bluestein is a photographer for Major League Baseball and a Baseball historian. His collection of Baseball memorabilia includes World Series programs and tickets from the early 1900s and historical items throughout Baseball history. He currently resides in Austin Texas and plays in an amateur men’s hardball league throughout the year. You can reach him via email at email@example.com.
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