Houston Astros: Fixing The Disaster With A Simple Plan

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IFebruary 24, 2010

PHOENIX - JUNE 14:  Lance Berkman #17 of the Houston Astros waits on deck during the major league baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks  at Chase Field on June 14, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.   The Astros defeated the Diamondbacks 8-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Disaster?

How about total, complete, utter failure?

That's the kind of season that could be in store for the 2010 Houston Astros. As a fan of two of the NL Central's most forlorn franchises, I can't help but think of one thing.

Neal Huntington's rebuilding strategy would work wonders in Houston.

I'm not saying Ed Wade should trade off Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt, and his other big-name players. Ok, well maybe I am saying just that.

The Astros cannot win a World Series the way they are built now. As it is, they can't even hope for consecutive winning seasons anymore.

Here's a look under the hood.

Construction Problems

Where to start? Let's head down to the farm and take a look.

The Astros have three good prospects right now in Jason Castro (ranked 41st overall by Baseball America), Jordan Lyles (91st), and Jiovanni Mier (73rd).

The problem? That's it for the farm system. The rest of the Astros' minor league rosters are made up of a bunch of retreads, marginal prospects, and players who either are changing positions (Brian Bogusevic) or have no position.

Even worse is that of those three "good" prospects, only one (Castro) figures to have an impact on the major league team anytime soon.

Okay, so some teams build through free agency and some build through the draft and the farm system. It's fair to say that in their glory, the Astros were built of free agent pickups and not top prospects.

That brings up another problem, however.

For a team with a lousy farm system and a $100 million payroll, this team has a glut of major league talent. This offseason was a joke. The problem is that it wasn't funny at all.

Pedro Feliz (great glove, lousy bat), Brett Myers (questionable character, even more questionable pitching stuff), Matt Lindstrom (throws very hittable heat), and Brandon Lyon (allergic to strikeouts) comprise the major additions the Astros have made this winter.

So the team paid out a ton of money to a bunch of also-rans who wouldn't or couldn't cut it on other teams. Wonderful.

Oh and let's not forget how much we're paying Carlos Lee to be solid, yet quite unspectacular.

It all adds up to a very clear lack of understanding when it comes to how to build a team.

Fragile Pieces

The Astros are an injury (or less) from being a very awful and hilariously (or not) bad sixth place finish.

Lance Berkman runs the offense. If you remove him, the team's most consistent hitter, you have no way of replacing him (remember what I said about the farm system being a wasteland).

Take Roy Oswalt away (which is possible considering his balky back) and suddenly the rotation is lead by enigmatic but promising Wandy Rodriguez and Myers. That alone should turn your stomach a little bit.

Lyon and Lindstrom aren't great, but they are steady enough to tread water. If one or both get hurt, the bullpen will collapse faster than a house of cards in a gale.

Even the underachieving Carlos Lee. If he goes down for any length, Berkman will be all alone in a desolate batting order with Hunter Pence as the only other productive middle of the order bat.

They aren't good healthy. If the Astros have even a hint of the injury bug that infected the Mets last year, its over.

Front Office Fracas

The front office is scary.

Ed Wade, who just got an extension because he's done a great job of maintaining mediocrity and further ruining the decrepit farm system, should never have been handed the keys to a major league club again.

Drayton McLane, the teams likable owner, is either insane or a masochist. He firmly maintains the team must win now, but does everything in his power to make it impossible.

Now he might be selling. But he might not be. Nothing is certain in Houston these days.

Oh, Doctor...How Do We Fix It?

A few changes could make this a very good ballclub. It just might be a few years.

First of all, let me say that hiring Brad Mills was the right choice and I love the staff he's assembled in Houston. I think he is a rising star and I hope they can keep him around for when the team is ready to win...whenever that happens to be.

But Mills doesn't have much of a club. He will be in charge of one of the important early tasks: fixing the clubhouse chemistry that Cecil Cooper somehow destroyed. That won't be enough, but at least they can go down smiling.

I'm a huge believer in chemistry, but you have to have talented players to make it pay off.

So here's what happens next.

Assuming that Wade stays as GM, which is all but assured, someone needs to grab him and  McLane and tell them to stop destroying the Astros.

Sufficiently frightened, a plan can be put in place.

I warn you, this will be painful. But not (and I speak from firsthand knowledge as a Pirates fan) as painful as losing for the next two decades, which is roughly where they are headed now.

Trades

Okay, I know. You don't want to hear this. The team should shop at least one of its key pieces.

Carlos Lee, thanks to his contract relative to his performance, is untradeable. No one is going to take on that kind of money for what he brings offensively (around .300 with marginal power) and what he lacks defensively (everything).

Lance Berkman is the face of the franchise and the last of the "Killer B's" (sorry Michael Bourn). He's also productive every year and, while last year he was a bit off, looks poised to continue his productivity for awhile.

That leaves one man.

Roy Oswalt. He's going to be a tough trade (full no-trade clause and not much desire to go anywhere), but if they are going to get anything for him, now is the time. His contract is reasonable and, if healthy, he should be a great ace-type pitcher that a contending team (ahem...the Dodgers) doesn't have.

The trick really isn't who is traded. The trick is what you get back.

Salary relief is nice, but it doesn't put winning players on the field.

This is where the Pirates have gotten it right. They've rebuilt the farm system by trading established veterans for gads of raw talent, some of which might actually rise to the top and win.

The problem is that Neal Huntington had a lot of veterans he could shop. Wade has three (and a particularly painful trade history to boot).

If you want to trade for maximum return, you deal Berkman. For salary relief, you dump Lee. For a realistic swap, you deal Oswalt.

Also, by mid-season, you deal from your veterans for as much as you can get. If Brandon Lyon, for example, somehow shows he's a good closer, shop him for as many prospects as you can nab.

If you do that, you can start to field a marginally competitive farm system that you can start restocking by smarter drafts.

Drafting

Imagine that, a segue.

To say the Astros draft poorly is like saying the George Steinbrenner is rich. It's too general and doesn't cover the particulars nearly well enough.

The Astros draft players, offer them slot value deals, and then cry when most of the better ones laugh and walk away. If they don't do that, they simply draft bad players.

Instead of spending $100 million on the big league club, why not cut that number by a fourth (down to $75 million or even $80 million) and spend the extra $20-25 million on the draft and on the farm.

Jason Castro was a good draft choice, but he might be the only top round choice the Astros have hit on in forever.

They have to buck the trend and spend some money on the draft. That way you create depth and you get major league caliber prospects instead of no-bat (Tommy Manzella) or no-glove players.

Free Agents

Memo number one to Ed Wade: stop handing out three year deals to middle relievers you are trying to pass off as closers and setup guys.

It doesn't work and the fans don't like it either.

When I first saw the amount of money the Astros spent on Brandon Lyon (after saying they didn't have money to spend on improving the club), I was shocked.

Lyon is a respectable and steady vet. He's a clubhouse asset and a guy you like.

He also is a terrible candidate for a three year contract when you consider he hasn't had three spectacular seasons in the majors. And he's not as young as he used to be either.

Come on, Ed. Make some deals that make sense.

Then I had to keep turning this thought over in my mind:

"You paid Lyon all that money, but you let Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, and Latroy Hawkins walk?"

It doesn't make any sense. Lyon and Lindstrom won't replace Valverde and Hawkins. Losing Tejada was likely, but his production will not be replaced by Feliz or by Manzella (combined).

That being said I'm glad he didn't go out and get Ben Sheets. He got $10 million in totally unjustified money from the A's. Can you imagine what Wade would have paid him?

What would have made at least some sense was keeping Hawkins or Valverde (Hawkins was more likely) and using some of the Lyon contract to get a bat for somewhere on the diamond.

For what the Astros paid out, there were better players available. That's been the case the last several offseasons (the last good free agent pickup was probably Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte in 2004).

The Astros would be better off using money on the farm system and creating some semblance of depth and handing out one year deals to desperate major league players in February and March.

In short, to fix the Astros, the most simple and likely most effective plan is to stop, turn 180 degrees from the current direction of the franchise, and start walking again.

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