The 2008 Houston Astros: The Little Engine That...Couldn't
The 2008 season has not been what Astros' owner Drayton McLane, Jr. had hoped it would be.
The 2007-08 offseason was a busy one for his team, starting with the hiring of ex-Phillies GM Ed Wade.
Wade was told by McLane to do absolutely everything possible to rebuild the Astros into a contending team as quickly as he could.
Wade was taking over for Tim Purpura, who was completely overmatched as a Major League GM, and turned the Astros into a laughingstock with a slew of seemingly brainless moves.
His mistakes include trading fan-favorite Willy Taveras and young pitching prospects Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh to Colorado in exchange for Jason Jennings, who suffered through an injury-plagued, being-a-terrible-player-plagued, season with the team in 2007.
With his first move, Wade dealt struggling closer Brad Lidge and utility infielder Eric Bruntlett to Philadelphia in exchange for young outfielder Michael Bourn, reliever Geoff Geary, and a minor-league infielder, Mike Costanzo.
At the time, the move seemed like a smart one. Lidge had struggled in his final two season with the Astros, and they addressed a longtime hole in center field by picking up Bourn, who was expected to be the center fielder for years to come.
However, things have not worked out thus far.
Lidge has had a phenomenal season with Philadelphia, recording 25 saves in 25 chances to this point, with a 2.20 ERA.
In contrast, Bourn has struggled mightily in his first full big-league season, hitting just .231 with a miserable .288 OBP so far. He was recently replaced as the full-time center fielder by the seemingly washed-up Darin Erstad.
In his second major move, Wade traded OF Luke Scott, SP Matt Albers, RP Dennis Sarfate, previously-acquired Mike Costanzo, and top prospect P Troy Patton to Baltimore in exchange for aging shortstop Miguel Tejada.
This trade has not been as lopsided as the first one so far, but Tejada has struggled since starting off the season on a tear at the plate. His limited range at shortstop, along with the bizarre phenomenon of having aged two years in just a few months in an Astros' uniform, makes this trade also look bad for Wade, Drayton, and the 'Stros.
In his third, and final, major deal of the off-season, Wade snagged closer Jose Valverde from the D'Backs for IF Chris Burke, RP Chad Qualls, and P Juan Gutierrez.
Valverde has been decent in his first year with the Astros, but not nearly as effective as he was in 2007 for Arizona, when he recorded 47 saves.
The reason Arizona was willing to give up Valverde was because they felt like he had a career year in '07, would never be that good again, and they could get a good bounty for him if they dealt him when they did.
This trade has probably actually worked out in the Astros' favor, not that it matters.
Gutierrez hasn't cracked the Major Leagues yet, Qualls started off well but has since faded, and Burke is flat-out terrible, as he always was for Houston.
The Astros, as of Jul. 30, sit in fourth place in the NL Central, 12.5 games behind the division-leading Cubs.
Outside of a 24-11 stretch near the beginning of the season, the Astros have reveled in mediocrity throughout the '08 season.
Any half-smart team would know what to do in this situation: explore the trade market as sellers, in an attempt to improve the team's farm system, and perhaps compete once again in 2-3 years, once the younger players have developed.
What do the Houston Astros do in this situation? It's simple, yet mind-boggling: they enter the trade market as buyers, much to the surprise of...just about everybody, except Drayton McLane and Ed Wade, apparently.
Tejada is 34 now. Carlos Lee is 31 with five years remaining on a massive contract. Lance Berkman is in the prime of his career, and Roy Oswalt is not getting any younger. The team seems to have plenty of talent, but is not built in such a way that a Major League Baseball team can sustain success for a long period of time.
With the way Oswalt has pitched this season (8-8, 4.67), the Astros have one of the worst starting rotations in baseball. Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Moehler, Brandon Backe, and Runelvys Hernandez doesn't scare anybody.
So what did they do? They tried to beef up the rotation by trading for Randy Wolf from San Diego. What did he do in his first start with Houston? 4.1 IP, 7 H, 4 ER against the Brewers. The Astros did win the game, despite Wolf not pitching well.
Today, the Astros acquired RHP LaTroy Hawkins from New York, in an apparent attempt to bolster the bullpen. What has Hawkins done this season? He has a 5.71 ERA.
You would think a team with the 30th ranked farm system (out of 30 teams) would try to replenish that and build a legitimate championship contender down the road.
The Astros made it to game seven of the NLCS in 2004 and the World Series in 2005 with a pitching rotation that consisted of Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens. The '05 team had a mediocre offense, but because nobody could score on them, the team was able to win games.
So how did McLane and Wade try to build the 2008 Astros? Of course! They put together a lineup of solid hitters with a terrible pitching rotation.
Does this make any sense at all? No, no it doesn't.
The 2007 Rockies could hit the hell out of the ball. Problem is, their pitching was not as good as Boston's, and they were eventually swept.
Teams like the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Florida Marlins are on the rise. Why? Because they've been diligent and patient, and have moved key players in order to stockpile prospects that can eventually come together at the highest level and produce a winning team.
I find it very hard to believe that Ed Wade sincerely believes the team that the Astros currently run out there is good enough to win games in 2008 and beyond. Perhaps he sustained more head injuries than he led on when he was mauled by Shawn Chacon last month, but I really don't think he is that naive.
The problem begins and ends with Drayton.
After the 2004 season, his relationship with then-GM Gerry Hunsicker was so tarnished that Hunsicker left for Tampa Bay.
Where are the Rays now?
Where are the Astros now?
He is pushing for Wade to make the team win right now. The only problem is, the Astros have no prospects to offer a team in exchange for a front-line starter or any player that would be able to help them win now.
It's all a huge circle effect, and the Houston Astros are right in the middle of it. Until Drayton McLane wises up and realizes how Major League Baseball teams actually win, the Astros will sit right where the are, at the bottom of the standings, for a long, long time.
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