The Astros were able to avoid the National League Central cellar in 2009.
They won't be as lucky in 2010.
Face facts, Houston: if Grapefruit League play is any indication, the rudderless franchise is on a collision course to overtake the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates as the division's worst team. Make no mistake, the Bucs will likely extend their record of futility to 18 straight losing seasons, but there is enough optimism and talent in the Steel City to suggest they won't be living in the Central slums this summer.
Until the Astros are willing to look in the mirror and take a hard assessment of the direction of the team, pen this season as another lost campaign from a below-average team whose owner is hell-bent on believing he has a contender on his hands.
Therein lies the problem.
Owner (for now) Drayton McLane has spent the last four offseasons lavishing millions of dollars on players who make little sense in the big picture. Carlos Lee has lived up to expectations, but at age 34 and due more than $60 million over the next three seasons, is becoming an expensive liability.
A team going nowhere would be wise to pry itself from loyalty if there is a team willing to part with prospects (Boston would make a ton of sense) for a left fielder whose true value lies in being a designated hitter. The window of Lee's marketability is closing quicker than the shelf life of Jack Bauer; moving him may hurt in the short term, yet is a reality that could help push the rebuilding project along.
Same goes for Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman.
Both are Astros institutions and are the last vestiges of the remarkable 2005 NL title campaign. Both—when healthy—are among the best of their positions.
Both should be placed on the trade block. Oswalt and Berkman each have rights to veto trades, but is it really too far-fetched to imagine either of them saying no to a deal that could possibly provide them a better chance at another World Series instead of an endless summer of mediocrity front of a rapidly-falling fan base?
Fans will accept rebuilding so long as there is light at the end of the tunnel. Once the Astros began tearing apart their 1986 NL West title squad in 1990, the rebuilding windfall produced an opening at second base that future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio filled; the trade of first baseman Glenn Davis presented fellow future HOFer Jeff Bagwell with a starting job.
Minute Maid Park is 17 percent lighter in fans since 2005, and it's likely MMP will see a further drop this summer as the likes of Pedro Feliz and Brandon Lyon continue the revolving door of below league-average production that has been the club's "calling card" the last four years.
Once catcher Jason Castro makes his debut at some point, the wait for quality homegrown talent will fill like a trip to the DMV. There is some hope amongst the lower minor leagues, but years of neglecting the farm system began to take root last season. Things will get worse before it gets better.
Setting horizons higher than mediocrity (as Baseball Prospectus suggested) has led to a team with little hope for the present and holds little promise for the future. At this point, it's hard not to envision an Astros team that is closer to losing 95 games than it is winning 95.
The meek shall inherit the earth. In the case of the 2010 Astros, last place in the Central is theirs for the offing.
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