The Houston Astros are a bad ball club and will continue to be so long as owner Drayton McLane and general manager Ed Wade keep convincing themselves a 30-47 team is not too far from being a pennant contender.
It's time for the Astros to commit to doing the one thing McLane cannot bring himself to say:
A franchise lacking in quality big league talent, overloaded with aging, overpriced players, and a farm system bereft of immediate contributors needs help in a bad way.
That's where we come in.
Following is our 10-step approach to revive a team that made six playoff appearances and won a National League title between 1997-2005. Those days are gone, and in order to launch a new golden age of baseball in H-Town it's time for the Astros to go where Amy Winehouse won't.
Welcome to rehab....
The ghosts of John McGraw and Casey Stengel would have trouble leading the Astros to .500, let alone the 30-47 record they own entering Tuesday's game at Milwaukee.
A successful rehab starts with a stable foundation, and committing to Mills over the long haul is a sound first step. The first-year manager is still learning on the job, but has done enough with such a bare pantry that he deserves the chance to lead the Astros once the level of talent improves.
Part of the reason why the Astros are currently mired in Slagville is the team's foolish (to put it mildly since this is a family site) escapades in free agency over the last few seasons.
McLane would have been better off burning a pile on money during rush hour on I-45 instead of greenlighting such "WTF?" signings such as 2B Kaz Matsui, SP Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz, and 3B Pedro Feliz. While the signing of P Brett Myers has succeeded this season, the decision to bring back P Brian Moehler has offset that.
The Astros need to avoid the free agent market like people with good taste in music avoid Lady Gaga.
One or two players will not make them a playoff contender in the near future, so instead bringing in 20th century retreads like Hampton and Ortiz, the club should apply its resources toward improving its minor league system and investing in player development in Latin America and the Pacific Rim.
Remember, we're being brutally honest here, so no one should be offended when it's said the Astros have the worst core group of players in baseball.
Even as prolifically bad as the Pirates are, most GMs will take their core of OF Andrew McCutchen, 3B Pedro Alvarez, OF Garrett Jones, C Ryan Doumit, and OF Jose Tabata over Houston's.
As of now, the Astros can build around OFs Hunter Pence and Jason Bourn and C Jason Castro, with P Jordan Lyles around the corner.
Think the Pirates (or Nationals, Indians, or Orioles) would trade for that?
That's where trading SP Roy Oswalt, Brett Myers, and Matt Lindstrom along with 1B Lance Berkman and OF Carlos Lee (more on him in bit) come in. Trading what's not helping in the present means a brighter future; by doing so, the Astros will be able to grab at least two or three players that could be contributors to the next winner at Minute Maid Park.
Take a look at this 25-man roster. Is there anyone - save for C Jason Castro - that has "untouchable" written all over him?
(Very long pause)
Pence (.270-11-37) is a solid, all-around outfielder, but if a playoff contender in need of such rings up Wade with an enticing offer he'd be foolish not to ponder it.
Bourn's Gold Glove defense in center and blistering speed (23 steals) would also attract interest for someone with October aspirations. But Bourn's lack of power (.327 slugging, .660 OPS) and sudden disinterest in reaching base (.333 OBP) makes him less appealing than Pence.
Still, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or the team in need of a quality outfielder...
Why give a 5-11 lefty with a career 5.24 ERA a shot at the starting rotation?
Why the hell not?
We singled out Wright to suggest that thinking out of the box wouldn't hurt the Astros. At this point, an unexpected bolt of success from an unlikely source is the kind of thing the franchise needs.
OK, so Johnson's .828 fielding percentage isn't going to remind anyone of Ryan Zimmerman or David Wright. What else are the Astros going to do? Wheel out Pedro Feliz's all-around game?
Johnson's past the stage of being considered a prospect, but the 25-year-old can hit and should be a fixture in the starting lineup the remainder of the year. The Astros need to know if he's capable of giving them reliable presence at the hot corner in the foreseeable future or if he's simply a useful bat to have on the bench.
There are no other immediate solutions in the Astros minor league system, and while suggesting he can be a 25-home run hitter, the club would be more than content if he were able to give them two or three seasons of .280-20-85 while improving his defense.
The 19-year-old Lyles has a 6-5 record with a 2.60 ERA in 15 appearances (14 starts) for Class AA Corpus Christi and will likely earn a trip to Round Rock by season's end.
But by no means should Lyles pitch for the big club in 2010.
Notoriously slow in advancing its top prospects, the Astros would - for once - be wise in letting the teenager garner as much minor league time as possible. Of course, the arbitration clock would be delayed longer, but the 6-4 righty would be better served by honing his craft without the ridiculous expectations assigned to such a promising young arm.
Easily the club's top prospect, Lyles will make MLB landfall sometime next season. It would not be surprising to see him on the opening day roster.
Those who questioned Houston's decision to give Lee $100 million in the fall of 2006 are quietly snickering over the Astros' predicament of having an aging ballplayer with a bloated contract rapidly losing his biggest ticket: his bat.
The Astros can do one of two things, neither of which are comfortable. They can either watch Lee's bat further erode and be stuck with an old outfielder whose glove makes Manny Ramirez look like Barry Bonds in his prime, or they can bite the bullet by swallowing the bulk of Lee's contract in a deal that would net them a second-tier prospect or two.
No decision will be as painful as this one, but if the Astros are very serious about changing the franchise's course, it's a move that must be done.
There are teams (Tampa Bay, Chicago White Sox, and Boston come to mind) that would be interested in using Lee as a DH, but no one will even hit area code 713 on their phone without assurance that the Astros will take the bulk of Lee's remaining contract.
That team up I-45....hmmm, the one that defeated the Astros five out of six times en route to retaining the Silver Boot for the fourth straight year? Yeah, the Texas Rangers, you say?
It wouldn't hurt for the Astros to follow the template that has led the Rangers to the American League West penthouse and has set the ballclub in position for what should be good four to six-year run at meaningful games in late September.
The Rangers were the Astros in 2005: bloated with aging, overpaid players with a minor league system filled with discarded has-beens and middling prospects.
That changed once management committed to a plan that focused on rebuilding via the draft, investing in scouting and development, and avoiding franchise strangling free agent contracts (like not signing Carlos Lee after the 2006 season).
The result? A young, exciting club armed with prospects sprinkled with shrewd free agent moves and establishing a core to build around.
It's a plan that will get the Rangers into the postseason long before the Astros can even entertain that thought.
In order to have a brighter future, you have to let go of the past.
In Houston, that means trading P Roy Oswalt and 1B Lance Berkman.
Both are among the greatest players in franchise history, as each has made their mark in Houston both on and off the field. But with each expressing an interest to be traded, the Astros would be opening the door to a new era by trading both before the July 31 deadline.
Trading both homegrown All-Stars would be an emotionally difficult move for the Astros organization and would cause a level of negative reaction from the fanbase, but the net return will provide Houston with needed building blocks to move the club forward.
Like a relationship that has run its course, it's time for the Astros to let go of the 2004-05 seasons. Moving Berkman and Oswalt is the first step to starting anew.