Houston Astros: 7 Reasons Behind the Downfall of the Franchise

Bryan AlsworthContributor IAugust 26, 2011

Houston Astros: 7 Reasons Behind the Downfall of the Franchise

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    Six short years ago, the Houston Astros were a proud and talented franchise.  Though they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in their first World Series, simply capturing the National League pennant was more than enough to lift the spirits of their fans and bring optimism to a club that was once nothing more than the Atlanta Braves' favorite chew toy in October.

    Unfortunately, this was the last anyone heard of those Astros.  The pride still remains, but the talent is another story.

    They have yet to return to the postseason, and they've hit rock bottom this year, sporting a 43-88 record and appearing to be comfortably in control of the number-one pick in next year's draft.

    So how does a team go from the World Series to the outhouse in six years?

    The short answer is a mix of bad luck and bad decisions.  The following slideshow will illustrate what I feel are the seven biggest reasons for this franchise's spiral into oblivion.

7. Termination of Phil Garner

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    Phil Garner came aboard to manage the Astros midway through 2004, following an underwhelming 44-44 start.  The team responded well to the change, going 48-26 the rest of the way and finally exorcising their playoff demons by defeating the Braves before narrowly falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.

    Building on this success, the Astros regrouped and charged all the way to their first World Series in 2005, but were swept.  Big things were expected again in 2006, but the Astros fell short of the division title by 1½ games and missed the playoffs.

    Scrap-Iron wasn't the greatest tactical manager.  Instead, he was a positive clubhouse presence and he didn't needlessly micro-manage his players.  I feel he got the most out of what he had to work with. 

    Most baseball people will agree that he got a raw deal near the end of 2007, after the entire team had unraveled.  He was fired with 31 games to go, and his successors haven't done much to improve things.  Cecil Cooper briefly became the laughingstock of the baseball world when he essentially suggested that home runs were a bad thing, and Brad Mills has done little more than apply a fresh Band-Aid every time one falls off.

    This was the second time Garner had the misfortune of being caught between a rock and a hard place.  His managerial stint in Detroit was marred by a completely chaotic atmosphere in the clubhouse.  The departure and collapse of several of his key players all but spelled disaster for the 2007 campaign, and consequently the end of his tenure with the club.

6. Collapse of Morgan Ensberg

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    During his all-too-brief stint with the Astros, Morgan Ensberg developed into a rock-solid third baseman. 

    At his peak, he was a robust blend of power, discipline and defense.  He made a legitimate run at the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 2005, finishing fourth in voting after hitting 36 home runs, OPSing .945 and establishing himself as arguably one of the best gloves at the hot corner in the National League.

    In fact, it can be argued that he was just as much of a driving force behind the team's improbable World Series run as the more highly touted pitching trio of Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte.

    2006 saw Ensberg regress noticeably, as he lost nearly 50 points from his batting average–this was due entirely to a 50-point drop in BABIP.  He was still a valuable contributor, as he drew a ton of walks to bump his OBP up to.396, lost only a marginal amount of power, and remained very solid defensively.

    Then it all fell apart in 2007.

    Ensberg was expected to recover from his BABIP slump, which is generally presumed to be–and almost always is–bad luck.  Unfortunately, his BABIP barely flinched, while his OBP tumbled to .323 and his slugging percentage plummeted to .384.

    To make matters worse, his defense became borderline atrocious.  In just two years Ensberg had gone from a superstar-caliber player to one who was performing below replacement level. 

    The Astros designated Ensberg for assignment, and attempted to fill the gap with journeymen such as Ty Wigginton, Geoff Blum and Pedro Feliz.  Wigginton performed significantly better than expected in 2008, but none of these players were able to recapture the magic of Ensberg's 2005 campaign.

5. Reluctance to Replace Brad Ausmus

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    Once upon a time, Brad Ausmus was a good catcher.

    His batterymates all loved him and insisted that he helped bring out the best in them.  He was a defensive stud.  This helped make up for his lack of pop at the plate. 

    Ausmus had a brief but solid stint with the Astros in 1997-98.  Then he was traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he established himself as arguably the best defensive catcher in baseball.

    This prompted the Astros to bring him back at age 32, and he quickly started to lose his defensive magic.  By 2003 he was performing at borderline replacement level, yet the Astros stuck with him for five more years.

    Be it stubbornness from the front office due to his positive influence on the pitching staff or simply a lack of replacements to choose from, Ausmus toiled away in relative mediocrity until the Astros granted him free agency following the 2008 season.

    Ausmus had become something of a beloved figure to fans in the Houston area, which may have factored into their refusal to bench him or so much as glance at the market for upgrades.

    Ausmus was never a truly great player, and shouldn't have gotten the coddling that he received for eight years while he became increasingly irrelevant to the team's success.

4. The End of the Killer B's

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    Jeff Bagwell was a beloved figure in Houston, and a feared slugger from the moment he set foot in the majors.  He was also a prideful player. 

    So when nagging injuries began hampering his performance in 2004 and ultimately put him out of action for most of 2005, it was widely assumed that Bagwell would try to regain his health and return to the lineup in 2006.

    The Astros had other plans.

    They had an insurance policy amounting to roughly 90% of what Bagwell was owed in 2006. The terms were simple: Bagwell couldn't play, nor could he be released. 

    But Bagwell was a gamer, and he still showed up at spring training hoping to contribute in some way.  The Astros would have none of it; they forced him out by throwing him on the disabled list as soon as they could.

    By essentially forbidding one of the team's all-time greats from playing just to collect some insurance money, the front office sent a cold message that resonated with their fans, and through all of baseball.  I would not be shocked if players who were considering relocating to Houston had a sudden change of heart after witnessing this poor treatment of a Killer B for the sake of a bit of cash.

    Thankfully, Craig Biggio was allowed a more graceful end to his career.

    He was a star throughout the 1990s and, final season aside, remained a steady contributor throughout the 2000s.  His fearlessness and willingness to get on base by any means necessary (he holds the modern record for being hit by pitches, with 285) endeared him to Houston fans. Biggio's display following his 3000th hit, in which he invited Bagwell onto the field at Minute Maid Park (for the first time since his retirement), was a classy and touching moment.

    The Astros had other big home-grown talent such as Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, and they may have come close to replacing the on-field performance of Bagwell by shifting Berkman to first base, but this team just hasn't had the same feel since the Killer B's were grounded for good.

3. Collapse of Brad Lidge

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    I had the pleasure of being at Minute Maid Park when Brad Lidge closed out a 2-1 win over the Cardinals on a warm September evening in 2004.

    As with most closers, Lidge was a two-pitch wonder, packing a 96 mph fastball and one of the filthiest sliders I have ever seen.  Lidge used both pitches to perfection on this night, stranding two inherited runners to end the eighth inning before shutting down two Hall of Fame-caliber hitters in Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker in the ninth.

    Lidge continued his awesome ways until Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.

    At that point, the tale goes, Albert Pujols stepped to the plate with runners on first and second and the Astros nursing a 4-2 lead.  Pujols promptly sent a Lidge offering into orbit, and it has yet to return to Earth.  The Cardinals went on to win the game, and it's widely speculated that this home run psychologically broke Lidge down.

    While the Astros did prevail in the series and go on to face the White Sox, Lidge's struggles continued there.  Tasked with keeping Game 2 tied at 6-6, he surrendered a game-ending home run to–of all people–Scott Podsednik, to put the Astros in an 0-2 hole.  Lidge then failed to hold another tie in Game 4, which the White Sox won 1-0 to claim their first championship in 88 years.

    The disappointment carried over into 2006, where a combination of poor mechanics and (presumably) lingering psychological trauma caused Lidge to post a 5.28 ERA and blow six saves.

    He never regained his form and was removed from the closer role midway through 2007.  The Astros had two excellent setup men in Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls, and thus should have been deep enough to compensate for Lidge's struggles, but Wheeler and Qualls combined for nine blown saves in 25 chances. 

    Lidge was traded following the '07 season, and the Astros have been unable to find a reliable closer since his departure, with Jose Valverde being the closest they've gotten.  Ouch.

2. Departure of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte

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    The success of the 2004-2006 Astros relied heavily on the pitching trio of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt.

    In 2005 these three players accounted for 18.3 wins above replacement-level pitching, a significant stat on a staff that was worth 19.1 WAR total.  Clemens contributed three more wins above replacement in 2006 despite only starting 19 games.  The back of the rotation remained quite weak, consisting of guys like Tim Redding, Ezequiel Astacio and pre-awesome Wandy Rodriguez.  The whole idea was to just get to October so that the team could ride the Clemens-Oswalt-Pettitte Express until the wheels fell off.  It worked, but it was very much a short-term plan.

    Clemens and Pettitte left town following the '06 season, and to say the Astros have struggled to replace them would be a gross understatement.

    They took a gamble on Jason Jennings and Woody Williams in 2007 and received -0.6 WAR in return. 

    2008 saw the self-destruction of Brandon Backe and the addition of Shawn Chacon, who provided similarly mediocre results.

    2009 was even worse, as Felipe Paulino, Brian Moehler, Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton combined for 80 starts and -2.2 WAR.

    2010 was an improvement only because Brett Myers played his heart out in an effort to get a shiny new contract, as Paulino and a raw Bud Norris ate up 41 starts and produced -1.4 WAR.

    2011 has been nothing short of disastrous; the staff as a whole has produced -2.7 WAR, and Rodriguez and Norris are the only starters who have produced a positive WAR.  Myers, predictably, has regressed after getting his new deal, and J.A. Happ was arguably the worst starter in the majors prior to his demotion.

    If you want to win, you have to either pitch well or hit well, and the Astros simply didn't have the offense to recover from the loss of Clemens and Pettitte.  With the decline of Craig Biggio, the collapse of Morgan Ensberg and the defense-first play of Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus, there were just too many holes in the lineup to compensate for such a huge decline in pitching quality.

1. Poor Front Office Decisions

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    It's a well-known fact that Ed Wade is among the worst general managers in baseball.  But the ship was sinking even before he poked all those holes in it.

    Former general manager Tim Purpura, in his infinite wisdom, felt that Jason Jennings and Woody Williams would sufficiently fill the void left by Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.  Result?

    Jennings posted a 6.45 ERA, "highlighted" by a spectacular top-of-the-first meltdown in which he gave up 11 runs to the anemic San Diego Padres, and Williams retired after putting up a 5.27 ERA.  Thanks for coming out, guys.

    Purpura also shamelessly threw $100 million at an aging, overweight Carlos Lee in an attempt to upgrade the Astros' left field situation.  From 2007 to 2010, Lee earned $62 million and produced 2.1 WAR.  To say this investment has not paid off would not even be scratching the surface.

    The team was definitely left in a sorry state, thanks in large part to the above transactions, but the deals that this club has been involved in since Wade's arrival are just unforgivable.

    Wade will forever be burned in effigy in Houston for putting together an extremely lopsided deal with his former team, the Philadelphia Phillies.

    Roy Oswalt, the Astros' staff ace and co-face of the franchise along with Lance Berkman, was the subject of heavy trade rumors in 2010.  And, sure enough, as the trade deadline approached, Oswalt was sent to the Phillies.  Oswalt, as always, was having a solid season: 3.42 ERA, 2.3 WAR, same peripherals as always, no indication of a decline. 

    So obviously the Astros were selling high and were going to get some value, right?

    Oops. Wade managed to get J.A. Happ, who has been so awful that he was sent down to the minors by a team that was 37-76 at the time, and a pair of low-ceiling minor-leaguers. Advantage: Phillies.

    Wade was also responsible for buying high on Brandon Lyon after a luck-fueled 2009 campaign.  Lyon's 2.86 ERA was a not-so-clever disguise that hid his freakishly low .226 BABIP and freakishly high 80.8% strand rate.  Other red flags surrounded Lyon in abundance as well.  He had never produced an xFIP below 4.04. 

    In fact, his 2009 campaign only clocked in at 4.19.  His walk rate had nearly doubled from 2008 to 2009, and he was never a strikeout pitcher to begin with.  None of these things bothered Wade, who promptly signed Lyon to a 3-year, $15 million deal.

    Lyon responded by producing 2 wins in 2010, although a razor-thin (and extremely lucky) 2.1% HR/FB rate played a huge role in that.  Lyon's 2011 regression has been painful to watch, as injuries and bad luck have caused him to make only 15 appearances and rack up -1.7 WAR.  But really, Ed, what did you expect?

    More recently, Wade traded Jeff Keppinger to the San Francisco Giants for a pair of minor-league pitchers, one of whom is 26 years old and has no business pitching above Double-A. 

    I realize Keppinger didn't have a ton of value to begin with due to his age, lack of pop and average defense, but the Astros got fleeced in this deal.  Wade also traded Michael Bourn to the Atlanta Braves at the deadline.  Bourn had tremendous value to a club like Atlanta, yet Wade was unable to get them to give up anything significant and the Astros just received a random assortment of players from their surplus grab bag.

    This is to say nothing of the contract that Wandy Rodriguez signed prior to the 2011 season.  Three years and $34 million is fine for a pitcher of Rodriguez's caliber, but it goes deeper than that.  There's a $13 million club option for 2014, and it becomes a player option if Rodriguez happens to be traded.

    Rodriguez will be 35 years old in 2014, and no team is going to want to handcuff themselves to a 35-year-old pitcher for $13 million. This all but assures that, no matter how high his trade value gets, Rodriguez will remain an Astro.  This is bad news for a team that plans to cut payroll drastically in the immediate future.

    Finally, it's worth noting that Wade thought nothing of trading another prominent and beloved player, Lance Berkman, to the New York Yankees for a pair of minor-leaguers. 

    He also traded Hunter Pence to the Phillies, which, like many of his transactions, rubbed the fan base the wrong way as Pence was thought to be a centerpiece around which the team could rebuild.  He got a decent haul of prospects out of the deal, which takes some of the sting out, but I'd just like to make a quick note: Rebuilding does not always mean having a fire sale on your best players.  Trading away every single face of the franchise leaves it with no identity, and could very well hurt more than help.

    I won't deny that Wade has been painted into a corner on a few occasions, but when the ball's been entirely in his court, he's set the Astros further back instead of helping them rebuild effectively.

    Purpura also had a hand in this foolishness, and as a result the 2012 Astros will owe $36.5 million to three grossly underperforming players (Lee, Lyon and Brett Myers).  That team could very well lose 120 games and erase the 2003 Detroit Tigers from the record books.