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Astros Road Back to Relevancy May Include Trading Oswalt and Berkman

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IOctober 9, 2009

The Houston Astros season ended with a fitting thud Oct. 4 in a 4-0 loss to the New York Mets.

Drayton McLane should not rush to select his franchise’s newest manager—and this decade, he has gone through skippers as Donald Trump has his Apprentice candidates.

He needs to face the following. He must believe it and embrace it.


His roster stinks, and the quality of the person managing it now means nothing. 

To borrow from my last rant, penned after McLane and General Manager Ed Wade put Cecil Cooper out of his misery, Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Connie Mack could not win with this bunch.

As baseball’s playoffs rage, McLane should remember how fun it was when the ‘Stros season ended in late October instead of the first week of the month. The season really ended in July, when a team one game out of first place in the NL Central folded and lost its guts.

What ensued—frequent blowout losses to disastrous and despicably-run clubs like the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates—was gut wrenching.

Lance Berkman’s strained calf became an excuse as the Hurricane Ike-forced move to Milwaukee had in 2008.

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Inexcusable.

The Astros stubborn owner has two options to consider between now and Kissimmee.

If he’s determined to tack on pieces to what he considers a World Series contender, Ben Sheets might be a nice addition, provided he can recover from a season surrendered to a torn flexor tendon and the ensuing elbow surgery.

The squad needs at least two more starters in the rotation, a quality catcher and someone, anyone better than Kaz Matsui at second base. The roster needs upgrades at many positions, meaning a serious increase in payroll.

I’m talking New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox territory, here.

Is Mclane willing to fork up a minimum of $150 million in payroll for an all-in run to baseball’s championship series?

The bet here is no, and that’s why he must acknowledge option two, painful as it may be.

The St. Louis Cardinals steamrolled into the playoffs with 91 wins, many of them thanks to the acquisition of slugger Matt Holliday. The Los Angeles Dodgers won 95 games. The Colorado Rockies secured a wild card berth with 92 wins.

If Wade keeps the roster as is, can the Astros expect to jump from 74 victories to any of those totals?

I can understand McLane’s reluctance to blow his team’s core to pieces, since several of its key players were part of the franchise’s lone foray into late October.

The 2004 and 2005 playoff pushes and runs to the NLCS and series, previously fantasies 43 years in the making, reinvigorated the fanbase and the atmosphere at the Juicebox.

That first pitch from Roy Oswalt at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 25, a slider to the left of home plate, was a dream realized.

Cameras flashed, the national anthem sounded better than it ever had, and the crowd stood for every pitch of a five hour, 41 minute, 14-inning contest.

With Roger Clemons and Andy Pettitte long gone and Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio retired, the present looks and sounds a lot different.

Bottom five in runs scored. Second to last in the weak Central Division. Among the leaders in stranded base runners. Close to last in pulling out tight games. If there was a readily available statistic, last in clutch hitting.

The stadium rarely buzzes, and the only yelling heard is from the folks telling the few die-hards to sit down or Chicago fans if the Cubs are in town.

This is what McLane has allowed to materialize—a $107 million ship that feels more like a capsized Carnival cruise liner than the Queen Mary.

A team on the cusp of a series berth should compare to the Plaza Hotel, even if not as immaculate. Champions sport flaws, sure, but this is a Holiday Inn with backed up toilets, a Motel 6 that forgot to leave the light on.

I love Berkman and Roy Oswalt in home white and road red, but a lousy product calls for evasive maneuvers.

It may be time for Wade to trade the Houston icons, so he can load up on prospects and give the first baseman and right-handed ace the title shots they have earned.

At 33 and 32, respectively, Oswalt and Berkman have a few years left of high-level production.

Each should fetch at least two prime-time prospects and a high draft pick.

They would instantaneously transform a wild card team into a contender. The more this uninspired Astros squad fizzles, the emptier Minute Maid gets each season, the more they will gripe

Neither former All-Star played with any gusto or spark in an 88-loss campaign, but a change of scenery could light the proverbial fire.

This isn’t giving up; It’s being realistic. How many clubs chock full of veterans on the wrong side of 30 with a last-place farm system ever reach playoff respectability?

Wade’s mission in Houston is to unearth the next Tim Linecum or Felix Hernandez or Cole Hamels and sign more Hunter Pences and Michael Bournes.

I cannot believe I’m going to quote a Miley Cyrus song in a sports column, but, Mr. McLane, it’s the climb. He best start up that mountain now instead of delaying the inevitable.

Winning consistently in the majors begins with a restocked Round Rock Express, Corpus Christi Hooks, Lexington Legends, and the rest of the minor league affiliates.

A batting order that features Miguel Tejada, Matsui, Berkman, and Carlos Lee—all nearing the end of their primes or in their twilights—cannot win now.

A pitching rotation reduced to an unhappy and shaky Oswalt, Brian Moehler, a streaky Wandy Rodriguez, Felipe Paulino, a fried and doom-armed Mike Hampton and Chris “you’re called Sampsonite because you just got bagged” Sampson is good for batting practice, not Ws.

What if the Astros snagged David Price or Travis Snider, two of the top 50 minor league prospects listed on mlb.com?

Gathering a lot of players with upside of that quality, eschewing win-now mode for player and farm system development, would point the team in the right direction.

It will be tough to find a taker for the remaining years and money on Carlos Lee’s $100 million deal, but if Wade can find an interested team with something to offer, he should jump on it.

Wade has said he would like to re-sign free agents LaTroy Hawkins, Jose Valverde and Miguel Tejada. With $54 million already tied up in four players and McLane’s commitment to slashing payroll, retaining all three is a dicey proposition.

Yorman Bazardo could improve, but his 7.8 ERA in four starts and 32 innings suggests he would better serve the club as a backup option.

Bud Norris deserves a starting spot, but someone with his inexperience, figures as a fifth starter on a squad with a .500 record.

Bourn, Pence and Rodriguez are due hefty raises in arbitration.

In short, there’s what the front office would like to do, and there’s reality.

Whatever Wade can do to shed years from the league’s oldest roster, he should do without pause. That includes trading his beloved stars, even if Houstonians, this writer and both players will be sick about it for months.

McLane has a reputation as an owner who wants to field crowd-pleasing teams.

He’ll have to lose a few thousand more fans before he can win the city over again. It’s called rebuilding, and the Astros need to do it now.

Guaranteeing Wade two years of job security is a start. Finding the right skipper to manage and develop a new-look squad is important, too.

McLane’s outlook and attitude, though, will prove as critical as anything.

Febreze has yet to manufacture a spray can for baseball teams that stink.

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