Building and maintaining a consistent winner in baseball is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports. In football, basketball, and hockey rosters can completely change over within the course of two or three years.
The economics of baseball don't allow such turnover to take place. Guaranteed contracts and no-trade clauses tie a team to player regardless of performance or injury. While reconfiguring the economics of the game is an entirely different discussion, the Houston Astros are one of the teams most affected by the current set up.
Despite being the fourth largest city in the country, Houston is considered a "small market" thanks to their current television contract. With the combination of a large population and a still beautiful 10-year old ballpark, there is no reason for Houston to be lumped in with teams like the Royals, Brewers, and Twins for television revenue.
The team had their highest payroll in it's history last season that topped out at just under $103 million, but most feel the Astros will have to be quite frugal this winter to cut back on overall payroll for 2010.
In recent years, they have given out long-term, big money contracts to Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee. While no one would argue their abilities on the field, one must question the organization for handing out these types of deals.
While the organization was on the verge of long-time stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio retiring from the game, they felt they needed to sign established players to replace the two legends and bring "star power" to the team.
There is nothing wrong with signing a player to a long-term deal, but handcuffing the organization by giving a player a no-trade clause is a terrible idea for a team like the Astros. Oswalt and Berkman have a full no trade clause while Lee has a partial no trade clause for the final two years of his deal.
For the long-term good of the franchise, the organization must approach all three players on the possibility of waving these clauses. Each player is a huge fan favorite, but at least two should be sent packing for the organization to retool itself.
Although there is a club option for 2011, Berkman is in the final year of his deal. He could have a huge impact on the pennant race next year if he waves his no-trade clause and allows the Astros to deal him. Even if he is only a two-month rental, he could still bring the team quality players or prospects back in return.
Oswalt has two years left on his current deal with a club option for 2012. Again, if he would be willing to waive the no trade clause, he would be seen as a very impressive trading chip. Despite having the worst season of his career last year, he's still one of the best, most consistent pitchers in the game. Like Berkman, he could help restock one of the worst farm systems in the game.
Carlos Lee is the youngest of the three big names, but he may be the hardest of the three to trade. He has three years and $57 million still left on the contract he signed in 2007. No one can argue the value of Lee's bat. In his 11-year career, he has only hit less than 24 home runs in a season once, his rookie year in 1999.
The trouble with Lee is his defense. Right now he is protected by a shallow left field and giant wall behind him. He has an average arm, at best, and would be best served as a designated hitter in the American League. Even with his bat, he wouldn't return the kind of haul to the Astros that Oswalt or Berkman would.
Unfortunately for fans of the team, it's likely to get much worse before it gets better. Until the economy of the game changes, owner Drayton McLane and his staff need to take the mindset of other small market teams: build up the farm system, trade off stars that won't sign long-term deals, and acquire cost effective free agents.
It's hard to watch fan favorites get traded away, especially after watching Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell spend their entire careers with the team. Fans must take to looking at the team with a more critical eye and understand that, in baseball, what is best for the team isn't always what is best for the heart.
To read more by Jesse Motiff, click here .