Chris Johnson is not making this list.
Next year the Astros will celebrate their 50th anniversary of National League play. Those of you adept at math (1962-2011) know that last season was actually their 50th season. In honor of that season and with their impending move to the American League in 2013, it is a good time to look back and pick out an all-time 25 man roster.
There are two ground rules for this squad. First, the player must have spent at least five years in Houston. Secondly, he will be picked for accomplishments in Houston. So, players like Kenny Lofton and Bobby Abreu are nice players, but neither qualify. That also means studs like Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte also will not qualify.
Ausmus was universally loved by the pitchers he worked with.
I was never much of a Brad Ausmus fan. For most of his career, Ausmus was a punch less hitter that also could not get on base. His .646 OPS and 68 OPS+ in Houston are abysmal, but in his prime he was a a legitimate Gold Glove fielder and pitchers swore by him. His game tying home run in the 2005 NLDS was the shining moment of his Astros career.
Alan Ashby was the catcher the Astros could never replace. The irony was that he had a .698 OPS and a 98 OPS+ in his decade plus in Houston. Ausmus probably should have been replaced a lot sooner and wasn't. The Astros should have been satisfied with Ashby and never could find a replacement.
Bagwell will go down as the best player in Astros history.
With all due deference to Glenn Davis, Bob Watson and Lee May, this one isn't even close. The Hall of Fame Index has Bagwell as one of the top five first basemen of the modern era. His name should have been called last year in Cooperstown, but a lot of his value is hidden. He was an excellent base runner and a good fielder before his shoulder broke down. Yet, it was his ability to hit for power and draw walks that made him so dynamic.
Morgan narrowly edges out Craig Biggio.
Most fans would pick Craig Biggio, but Biggio will appear later. Morgan was a better overall performer and is no worst than the fourth best second basemen in history. While he produced better for the Reds than anyone, his numbers look very good in Houston after you adjust for the effects of the Astrodome. The Morgan trade was arguably the worst trade in baseball history. It is just one black mark on a franchise with a lot of black marks.
Ken Camniti was an all-star third baseman who's career and life ended way too early. He never lived up to his potential in Houston, but won an MVP in San Diego. Unfortunately, he admitted to using steroids with the Padres. He seemingly beat alcoholism in Houston, but lost battles to cocaine and crack. He returned to Houston after his stint in San Diego, but fell prey to injuries and drug addiction. Camniti was a rare combination of power and quickness. If he had played a decade later he would have made it to web gems every night.
Dickie Thon was supposed to be a star. In 1983, he hit 20 home runs and proved to be a Gold Glove quality shortstop. The Astros were the pre-season pick to win the World Series in 1984. Then, the worst happened. Thon was beaned in the head and lost for the season. Worse yet was that he would never be the same. He had a decent season with the Phillies in 1987, but otherwise was never the same player again.
By modern standards, Reynolds was nothing special. He hit .256 and was solid defensively, but his .636 career OPS would be horrible by today's standards. Even then, his 80 OPS+ is substandard, but let's face it, the Astros haven't had a whole lot of luck at shortstop.
Most Astros fans of an earlier generation would pick Doug Rader as their starting third baseman. He won five consecutive Gold Gloves in the 1970s and averaged 20 home runs a season in a time where very few could in that park. Like Camniti, he was a gamer that frequently sacrificed his body for the good of the team. Unlike Cammy, he did it naturally and was one of those guys you wanted on your side in a fight.
Look at Jose Cruz's numbers and you wonder what the big deal is. Funny thing is, the Hall of Fame Index actually has him as a Hall of Famer. How is this possible? If you were to put Cruz in a neutral ballpark he likely would have averaged .320 and 20 home runs a season during his prime. While that doesn't seem like much today, during the 1970s and 1980s, that is pretty significant. As it stood, he was a two time all-star and got MVP votes in five different seasons.
This is another difficult choice between Wynn and Cesar Cedeno. Cedeno was more dynamic offensively, but Wynn had more raw power and did it longer. He is another player who probably should be in the Hall of Fame. The Astrodome robbed him of numerous home runs. To his credit, he read those comments in my book and told me, "I was thankful for the opportunity to play in the Astrodome and it was a great place to play." Funny, but he spent a great deal of time in another pitcher's park in Chavez Ravine.
Lance Berkman will forever be compared to Jeff Bagwell. No one can live up to that, but Berkman came pretty close. Bagwell was a superior defender and baserunner, but Berkman was arguably a better overall hitter. Berkman played some right field in Houston and did it again in St. Louis this season.
When you have to choose between Jimmy Wynn and Cesar Cedeno, someone has to end up on the bench. Cedeno had five seasons that were as good as any player in the history of the game. Then, injury issues and other problems derailed a career that seemed destined for Cooperstown. Somehow, that story seems to be the story of the Houston Astros franchise.
I know I know, how can Craig Biggio be on the bench. Much like Pete Rose in Cincinnati, Biggio is easily the second best player in Astros history. However, he played four different positions in Houston and was not the best player in franchise history at any of them. He probably would be the DH, or he would be the guy that plays all four spots and gets 500 at bats that way. You find some way to get him into the lineup though.
Every team needs a staff ace and Richard would be it for the Astros. Mike Scott had a better 1986 season and Roy Oswalt had a better career ERA+, but Richard was just coming into his own when he suffered that heartbreaking stroke in 1980. Every organization has their what if moments and Houston has more than a few. There is Dickie Thon, Don Wilson would be another. However, Richard's story is the most tragic. Not only would the Astros have arguably won the World Series that season with a healthy Richard, but he could have easily been a Hall of Fame pitcher. He mixed in a high 90s fastball with a low 90s slider. Like Randy Johnson after him, he was just wild enough to get your attention. All-star right handed often came up with a 24 hour flu when it was his turn to pitch.
Nolan Ryan's record was not sparkling, but he won his only two ERA titles in Houston and sported a 3.13 ERA in nine seasons in Houston. Nolan Ryan shouldn't be a staff ace for any team, but as a second or third starter he is about as good as it gets.
Roy Oswalt has the best winning percentage in Astros history. He has the best ERA+ of any pitcher in Astros history. So, why isn't he is the ace? As they often said about Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, it was like going to the dentist and getting drilled with pain killer and getting drilled without. Too many people are worried about how it looks. Oswalt got the job done better than any pitcher in Astros history.
In a real rotation, Niekro would fit perfectly in between Richard and Ryan. The knuckler was clutch in 1980 and 1981 when the Astros needed to get to the playoffs. Like Ryan, his career numbers don't look as good when ballpark effects and the era are taken out, but he definitely belongs in this group.
Larry Dierker came up when he was 17 years old. There is a funny picture of Dierker blowing out the candles of his 18th birthday cake in the clubhouse. He retired at 30 and had his last good season at 27. So, wax poetic about how the old-timers didn't worry about pitch counts all you want. There is more than enough evidence to demonstrate that it actually works.
Believe it or not, Billy Wagner was born right handed. He learned how to throw left handed in college and the rest is history. Whether he is a Hall of Famer or not depends on your opinion of whether relief pitchers should be in the Hall of Fame or not. 400 saves is nothing to sneeze at and Wagner was dominant throughout every season.
Everyone knows about the home run that hasn't landed yet. They also know about Brad Lidge's struggles the next season. Yet, before Billy Wagner was dealt, Wagner, Lidge and Octavio Dotel formed the most dominant threesome in baseball. In a setup role, Lidge doesn't have to feel the pressure and just relax. His stuff is easily dominant enough.
Much like many of the other players we have talked about, Sambito's career was derailed by injuries. Between 1976 and 1981 you could argue that Sambito was the best lefty reliever in baseball. He suffered a major arm injury in 1982 and missed all of the 1983 season as well. He was solid in 1984, but that was his last hurrah. He held on for three more seasons, but they were all horrific. Sambito is now a successful agent and has a few Astros that are or were clients.
How you remember Dave Smith depends on your personal perspective. If you are a big picture person you think of Smith as the first closer the Astros had for more than a few years. If you tend to be more negative you remember him as the goat in 1986, A player's career should be about more than one game and Smith was a very good reliever for more than a decade.
Don Wilson was never a reliever, but this is my team and I'll put in who I want. The circumstances surrounding Wilson's death (at the tender age of 29) are still shrouded in mystery. Some say it was a suicide and others an accident. Either way, it snatched a talented young pitcher from the Astros at a time when they were just building a good young rotation. If he had lived to 1980, Houston may have had the best rotation in history.
In between 1978 and 1981, Ruhle was invaluable as a swingman in between the bullpen and rotation. In 1980, he went 12-4 with a 2.37 ERA in 22 starts. Most of those starts came after the all-star break when J.R. Richard was out. Like many, his career fizzled in the mid 1980s, but for a period of about five years he was nails.
Forsch fits more of the mold of the traditional swingman. He had a 3.47 ERA as a starter and a 3.02 ERA as a reliever. As these playoffs have shown, you need a deep bullpen and guys capable of pitching multiple innings. This Astros team may not score as many runs as many of the modern teams, but they have more than enough pitching.