Houston Astros fans should not feign felicity.
They should not dance in the streets surrounding Minute Maid Park, host vivacious celebrations, or cheer as if the August rain will soon turn to gold. They should feel disillusioned, upset, and hungry for change. If the 2005 World Series qualifies as the franchise's peak, last week was its ultimate valley.
The Astros fell into a state of such disrepair that management needed to trade two icons to give the team a chance to compete.
Let that previous sentence marinate. Since when do the words "icon," "trade," and "compete" belong together? Drayton McLane should know the answer now.
I will not try to convince fellow fans that the jettisoning of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, two players whose numbers will one day hang in the Juicebox rafters, should inspire hope and happiness. I must, however, back off a bit from the column I penned Thursday afternoon.
In my rush to publish something just after the announcement of the Oswalt transaction, I failed to put the circumstances that forced Ed Wade to deal his ace into proper perspective.
Some of my points are inarguable. What Wade and McLane executed is undeniable.
The Astros dealt Oswalt to the Philadelphia Phillies for 27-year-old, left-handed pitcher J.A. Happ and two teenage prospects, Jonathan Villar and Anthony Gose. Wade then flipped Gose, a speedy outfielder, for Toronto Blue Jays' prospect Brett Wallace, a potential starter at first or third base. McLane agreed to kick in $11 million of the money remaining on Oswalt's contract.
None of the players fetched Thursday will star in Houston as Oswalt did. Happ will not challenge the record for all-time wins, and any jersey retirement talk is premature and silly.
Wade and McLane paid the New York Yankees to take Lance Berkman. The two throwaway prospects landed in that deal are inconsequential. Berkman, a former All-Star with Hall of Fame-caliber career stats, was donated to a franchise with 27 championships.
I also stand by my contention that Philadelphia won the deal's first round in a rout. The Phillies are trying to win a pennant, and Oswalt, despite his nightmarish debut, can help them do that.
Did the Astros secure the best possible deals for Oswalt and Berkman? Will the players brought to Houston help the squad make the playoffs in the next three years?
In my crazy, idealistic world, I wanted Wade to turn his best players into prospects who would make the answer to both questions a resounding "yes." I wanted Wade to get back fair value. I wanted two trades to jumpstart the restocking of a depleted, embarrassing farm system.
Stupid me. A more realistic Astros fan helped me find earth.
I should have processed a few things Thursday afternoon. Teams often deal stars from a handicapped position. Oswalt's trade request afforded the Astros little leverage with which to net the best possible return.
The Tampa Bay Rays, the club with the finest farm system, did not need or want a veteran as expensive as Oswalt, even if McLane agreed to fork up $11 million. The other outfits with standout prospects could hang up on Wade for a similar reason.
That forced the Astros to send their best player to the team with the least to offer. The Phillies emptied their minor league stock by stocking up on key pieces like Roy Halladay to continue chasing World Series triumphs.
Happ, also, could exceed my expectations. I was struck by the number of Philly fans disgusted to see him go. He began his Astro tenure with a shutout performance. Most projections peg him as the third or fourth man in a playoff-caliber pitching rotation. Maybe he can become a second wheel.
The Berkman salary dump is more difficult to rationalize, but it can be done. Two veterans in their mid-30s, no matter their importance and association with Houston, were not going to aid the rebuilding process.
I also do not doubt Wade's claim that Oswalt had become a clubhouse distraction. He might seem like a nice guy, but even a gentleman can morph into a horse's ass if he's tired of losing and frustrated enough.
Astros fans should remember Berkman and Oswalt fondly and then come to grips with the same reality I accepted over the weekend. If McLane could not trade his way back to another World Series, why did I expect a pair of deadline deals to fix a franchise that took years to break?
The Astros fall was steady, painful, and elongated. Expect the rebuilding years to also be steady, painful, and elongated. Manager Brad Mills needs a lot more youth and talent on his roster before he can be fairly evaluated for his work. Wade needs a few more years to get his rebuilding plan in motion.
Then, we will know if McLane hired the right guys to tackle two of the toughest jobs in baseball. Where the Astros must go from here is clear. How they get there remains as much a question mark as Happ, Wallace, and Villar.
The Yankees and Rays provide polar opposite models for McLane and Wade. It is clear now that the Astros brass much choose the latter. McLane will spend money but not enough to enter Yankee territory. The Bronx Bombers now have Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Berkman, and Mark Teixeira, among others, in their hitting rotation? Ridiculous.
I cannot see McLane ever sanctioning a payroll that tops $150 million, which is what he would need to shell out to build that kind of a lineup.
The Rays' model takes much longer to mimic but costs a lot less and carries less risk if certain experiments fail. Tampa Bay used to be a laughingstock, but years of prudent drafting (and, yes, they signed their draft picks) and deals that yielded primo prospects lifted them into contention.
The Astros will not compete again as they did in 2005, given the unlikelihood of another pitching rotation that includes Oswalt, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte, so they must travel the alternate route. Repairing the shattered farm system will require time and patience.
If Wade can pay someone to take Carlos Lee's exorbitant deal off his hands next summer, the Astros will be in the thick of the rebuilding business.
Wade locked up Brett Meyers with a multi-year extension and now has Happ. Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Happ could become a terrific, reliable pitching rotation, provided the front office can unearth an ace and a fifth wheel.
Wallace is ready to step in to the lineup and can play first or third base. Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence are keepers. Ditto for Jason Castro and Tommy Manzella.
A funny thing happened after Wade sent Oswalt and Berkman packing. Call it good karma. The Astros won their fifth game in a row Sunday afternoon, blanking the Milwaukee Brewers. The streak will not continue, nor will the 'Stros suddenly become that feel good story that makes a shocking playoff appearance.
This club will still lose more than 100 games. A winning record remains years away.
Still, McLane should see this as confirmation from the baseball gods he did the right thing. The stubborn owner no longer needs to utter the dreaded "r" word. His actions last week did all of the talking.
The Astros are rebuilding and reloading. If trading Oswalt and Berkman was a rock bottom moment, the franchise's brain trust should know now it cannot fall any farther.
Sometime before the end of this decade, the Astros will be good again. All of the players on the roster will want to play in Houston and they will play hard. Then, fans will know last week was worth it.