A Long, Cold Winter

added 11/25/2000 by Ray Kerby

What a difference a year makes. One winter, your team is a three-time division champion coming off of the two most successful seasons in franchise history, and then suddenly it has become a floundering team in need of a big-name free agent to merely get back to .500. What happened?

Obviously, the slide started last season with the trading away of Mike Hampton and Carl Everett. Although the supposed “truth” behind the Hampton trade has been fuel for ugly rumor-mongering, the official word was that Hampton wanted to test the free-agent market. The Everett-for-Everett trade turned out to be a major miscalculation by Hunsicker when he was able to deal the “untradeable” Derek Bell immediately after unloading Everett. Regardless of the motive, Octavio Dotel, Roger Cedeno and Adam Everett have not turned out to be the “can’t miss” prospects that they were touted as after the trades. In retrospect, those two trades may represent the worst one-week drain of talent from the organization since the Joe Morgan and John Mayberry trades waaaay back in 1971.

Looking at last winter’s free agent market, many fans (including myself) understood Drayton McLane’s desire to keep the payroll manageable and under $60 million. After years of supposedly losing money, it didn’t seem unfair for him to capitalize on the revenue gains from Enron Field after providing Houston with three consecutive division titles. But that was then, and this is now. McLane’s desire to keep the payroll under $60 million yet again could be a disastrous move for the club. Last year, the payroll was 20th in the league last season, and will likely drop further next season. If the team is to be competitive, the economic reality of Major League Baseball compels McLane to belly up to the bar and spring for an $80 million payroll. The Cardinals clearly understand the current realities of the game and their big-name signings have paid off big-time. But having the highest payroll in the NL Central is not preventing them from trying to add Hampton to their rotation.

The future of Jeff Bagwell will prove to be the litmus test for the direction that the organization is heading. If McLane is content to simply renew Bagwell’s contract and begin next season with the same group of key players, there are going to be a lot of unhappy fans in Houston. Since Shane Reynolds and Jose Lima are returning as big question marks in the rotation, we are going to increasingly rely on unproven, young pitchers to carry the team. The “reloading” process that everyone talked about last year is only one Bagwell trade from being an all-out “rebuilding” process. As it is, we have yet to recoup the losses of Hampton and Everett, and the Cardinals seem intent on catching the Yankees, not merely winning the division.

The bottom line is that Hunsicker’s hands are going to continue to be tied by McLane and, even if they weren’t, he has yet to undo the damage from last Winter’s mistakes. He has a lot of work to do if he wants to be known as “the Hun” again. The disappointing signing of Jose Vizcaino, expected to be the latest in a long line of batless wonders to play SS in Houston, accomplishes nothing except to find a hole to drop into $1.5 million of McLane’s profits from last season.

Barring an unexpected opening of purse strings by the wallet, it looks to be a long, cold winter for Astro fans.