A Hazy Shade of Winter

added 12/13/2000 by John Lauck

Baseball’s winter meetings used to give fans not only something to talk about over the long, cold, gray months from December to March, but also a sense of hope that their team could either defend its championship from the previous year or blossom into a contender. Not so any more. As money continues to flow like water in New York, Denver, Los Angeles, Boston and now Arlington, the economics of the game are not only deepening the divide between the haves and the have-nots of baseball but also deepening the divide between the haves in the sport. Even profitable teams like the Astros are so strained by the financial dynamics of the contemporary game that they have left most of their fans in a deep state of confusion the last three off-seasons--and I don’t mean the kind of confusion we might feel when trying to remember who sang "Hazy Shade of Winter," either.

Never was my point more perfectly illustrated than in the just-completed six player trade between Houston and Detroit. We were told for two years running that Mitch Meluskey was the catcher of the future for the Astros. Leaving aside for the moment rumors of a rift between Brad Ausmus and Larry Dierker and the accompanying rumor that it was to clear salary space for a Roger Clemens signing that never happened which led to Ausmus’s dismissal to Detroit, the fact that Meluskey was waiting in the wings made moving Ausmus possible in the first place. The Astros instantly got younger and offensively more powerful in a key position and saved money in the process. Despite the fact that Meluskey missed most of 1999 with shoulder trouble, he was nevertheless a seemingly important figure in the Astros’ attempt to blend young, talented players with a core of veterans. Richard Hidalgo was already in place; so was Scott Elarton. Lance Berkman could be seen on the horizon. The plan of the organization seemed clear. Now, two years later, all of that apparent planning has been thrown into doubt. It would take a genius--I am not one--to discern what the Astros have been doing the last couple of winters, but even though the overall plan remains hazy, there are, I think, enough clear details to make some educated guesses about what’s going on with this club.

My bedrock assumption is that Drayton McLane simply will not budge from his avowed intention to handle a payroll of no more than, say, $65 million. He could, I believe, handle a payroll of $70-75 million if he wanted to, but he does not want to. A payroll in that range would cut too deeply into the revenue streams of a small ballpark, a small television and radio contract, and so on. McLane’s insistence on a tight payroll not only means that he has been and will be outbid for the likes of Darryl Kile, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Carl Everett, and Mike Hampton, it also limits Gerry Hunsicker to dealing with only certain teams or certain players on larger clubs. We may not like the umpteen trades with the Tigers, but the Hun’s more restricted in that regard than most folks realize.

Money, however, is not the only factor that explains the Astros’ three-year pattern of letting good players get away. There were clubhouse dynamics involved with the departures of Brad Ausmus and Mike Hampton, and there almost have to be clubhouse dynamics at work in the departure of Mitch Meluskey. Meluskey and Lima were at odds almost all of last season, as we know, and it is possible that some of the Astros’ veterans neither forgot nor forgave Meluskey for his batting cage fight with Matt Mieske last year. Add to the clubhouse feuding the recent rumors that Cedeno and the club were unhappy with each other and that Holt did not want to be put in the bullpen next year--perhaps the best place for him--and the trade becomes nearly inevitable.

I’ll touch on what I think may be some long-term effects of the last few years of club management in a moment, but first, what about the effect of the latest deal on the team for 2001? If we assume that Holt, Cedeno, and Nelson Cruz continue to be the underperforming athletes that compel teams to trade them in the first place, and if we assume that Ausmus will improve the Astros defensively only somewhat more than he will hurt them offensively, then the swap comes down to Brocail for Meluskey and, in that regard, the Tigers are the clear winners, even if Meluskey’s numbers drop in Detroit’s cavernous ballpark, as they surely will. Brocail pitched only 50.2 innings in 2000 before elbow problems shut him down, innings nearly evenly split between home and road. I was unsettled to learn that his home ERA was 4.32; his road ERA 3.86. Even if Hunsicker has satisfied himself that Brocail is physically all right, my great concern is that, bad elbow and all, the Astros may have surrendered the best hitting catcher they’ll ever have for another Doug Henry. I fully expect Brocail to have the same kind of Enron experience that traumatized the entire pitching staff for half the year last year.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all will be well with Brocail and the career minor-leaguer Nelson Cruz. In dropping Holt and Cedeno on the Tigers, the Astros cleared their roster of two guys who simply didn’t get the job done, and assured a starting job in left field for Lance Berkman. The Astros’ potential opening day batting order of Biggio, Vizcaino, Bagwell, Hidalgo, Alou, Berkman, Truby, and Ausmus is still pretty dadgum imposing, even if you factor in that Biggio will not be the same again, and that Ausmus will never be mistaken for Meluskey. Keep in mind, though, that in addition to his defensive skills, Ausmus can still run well, and the smaller dimensions of Enron will make him a greater threat there than he ever was at the Dome.

What I worry about is the Astros’ depth. If Tony Eusebio’s knees hold up and if he really has solved that hitting problem with his hands as he appeared to last year, Houston will get fair production out of its catchers, at least at home. Julio Lugo will provide adequate protection at shortstop and very good protection at second base. Whether Chris Truby can adjust to pitchers who now know not to throw him the low pitch is debatable, but I think he’ll do fine. Bill Spiers, though--God love him--will probably be injured at some point, necessitating the callup of Morgan Ensberg or whoever happens to be playing third at New Orleans. Daryle Ward may be acceptable as Bagwell’s backup at first, but he is unacceptable in the outfield. Unlike Spiers, Ward has not adjusted well to the role of a bench player, tough as that is, and I do not expect him to adjust to it next year, either. He will continue to slug a fair number of homers, but don’t look for a rise in his batting average. Glen Barker will provide something for the Astros Cedeno did not--common sense on the basepaths. That alone will earn him a spot on the club.

Some fans are already comparing the front-line talent on this team to that on the 1999 club. There are big differences, though, between the two clubs. Different ball parks, for one thing, and huge question marks beside both the starting rotation and the bullpen. Jose Lima will not be able to adjust to Enron, ever. Shane Reynolds’s back may never let him be again the steady pitcher he once was. If Octavio Dotel is granted his wish and moves back into the rotation, his stamina will be called into question until he proves he can go seven innings consistently. Scott Elarton and Wade Miller I regard as the only dependable starting pitchers Houston has at the moment. Having only 40% of your starting rotation locked in before the year starts does not inspire confidence.

The bullpen could be very interesting if Billy Wagner really is throwing as hard as the team says he is, if Brocail is sound, and if Dotel understands how valuable he can be as a set-up man. Jay Powell coming back to 1998 form would also help, but I don’t look for that to happen; he will once again walk every first batter he faces. There is no doubt in my mind that even if the starting staff pitches with less fear this year, they’ll still have to face a lot of 11-8 games, but if the bullpen turns out to be as solid as it could be, then the Astros may win many more games than some fans presently think, perhaps enough to climb back into contention. If the bullpen craters again, though, it will be another horrid year.

The fact that nobody knows--nobody can even predict--what the Astros will be like in 2001 based on their Enron Field performance last year and injuries to key players is part of what is so unsettling about the club, what makes it so hard to see an overall direction. The other part, however, has to do with ownership. Two things are clear to me and have been for awhile: for good or ill, the present club is beginning to let extraneous matters dominate their decision-making about players, as the clubs of the 1960s did to their everlasting regret; and Drayton McLane has no taste for the high-stakes game of baseball ownership, his public words to the contrary. At best, his business sense may tell him that either a lockout or a strike is coming next year and he is simply trying to hold the line until a new deal can be struck amongst owners and players. At worst, he is laying the groundwork for the sale of the franchise in a future that may be nearer than we think.

Either way, it’s understandable that fans are so confused, and in such a case, it’s really no comfort to know that Simon and Garfunkel and the Bangles both sang “Hazy Shade of Winter, or to prefer one version of the song over the other. Whether you prefer the spareness of the Sixties’ version, back when baseball was far more a game than a business, or prefer behind the lyrics a driving eighties’ beat more fitting to a baseball culture bent out of shape over millions of dollars, the point of the song is the same: winter inherently creates a bleak landscape, one through which it is difficult to move, or even to see the road ahead.