Time To Win

added 12/18/2000 by Todd Brody

In my last column, I said that the Astros should trade for David Wells and should give up young prospects in return. One of the prospects that I suggested trading was Wilfredo Rodriguez. On Friday, there was a rumor (probably unfounded, but who knows) that the Astros were considering trading Roy Oswalt as part of a deal for David Wells. Oswalt, in case you are living under a rock, is probably the top pitching prospect on the team.

Well, the reaction was pretty harsh. Trade Rodriguez??? Trade Oswalt??? Are you crazy??? You can't mortgage the future for a fat, 38 year-old pitcher.

I don't want to argue the merits of David Wells. Wells is the best available starting pitcher and his statistics over the past several years speak for themselves. What I am going to talk about here is the foolish idea that the Astros should not be trading young pitching prospects for a top-flight pitcher.

First, as a preliminary matter, regardless of what you or I think, Astros' management clearly believes that the team is going to compete this season. They just traded away a young catcher, a young center fielder and a fairly young pitcher for Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail, and Nelson Cruz, a 28 yr. old rookie. This is not the sign of a team that is going through a rebuilding stage. And they picked up free agents Jose Vizcaino and Mike Jackson. All of the players the Astros have obtained (so far) in this off-season are veteran role players -- the type of players who enable a good team to compete for a championship. None are stars. The team, however, appears to be one top starting pitcher short of being able to compete. And when you are that close, you don't trade away one of your core players (Alou, for example) to get that pitcher; you trade away prospects.

Prospects are just that -- prospects. For every pitching prospect that succeeds in (or even makes) the majors, there are a dozen that fail. I went and looked at Baseball America's top-ten list of Astros' prospects for the last several years. (I am going to refer to this list a lot in this column and, unless I state otherwise, refering to this magazine's list of prospects.) Take a look at these names: Kevin Gallaher, Alvin Morman, Domingo Jean, Oscar Henriquez, Rich Huisman. I don't recall any of these pitchers playing a significant role on the Astros (or on any other team for that matter). But Henriquez was the Astros' fifth rated prospect in 1997. Chris Holt was sixth on that list. And we all know how well Holt faired for the Astros. But you know who is the best example of the foibles of prospects -- you guessed it, Wilfredo Rodriguez. The guy was golden in 1999. He was the highest rated prospect for the Astros in 2000. Not only was he a top rated prospect in the Astros system, but also among all prospects. I think that it would be generous to say that Rodriguez was inconsistent last season. The Sporting News now says that Rodriguez isn't even the team's best left-handed pitching prospect. Sure, Rodriguez may turn it around. But maybe he won't. He's a prospect.

A pitcher like Wells is a proven commodity. You know that he is going to pitch well. You know that he doesn't walk anyone. You know that he is a fierce competitor. You know that he has been "money" in key games. You can count on Wells to form the backbone of the rotation next year. I'll take Wells over a prospect any day of the year.

Here's another point for you to ponder. Sometimes I wonder if any of the "can't mortgage the future" proponents have taken a look at the Astros roster. Tony McKnight is 23. Wade Miller and Scott Elarton are 24. Dotel, by comparison an old man, is 25. All of these pitchers were top rated prospects at one point. Miller was the #3 rated prospect in the organization in 2000. McKnight was 5th on that list. Dotel was the #2 prospect on the Met's list in 1999. And Elarton was the #2 prospect for the Astros in 1998. I am not an "insider." I can't vouch for what Astros' management thinks about these players. But it seems to me that the Astros anticipate that all of these players (with the possible exception of Dotel) will make significant contributions to the team over the next several years. Miller and McKnight, for example, pitched very well for the team last year, despite coming into a difficult situation -- pitching in Enron for a team with no bullpen. This is a team that is already loaded with young pitching prospects. How many more prospects do you want to have on the team?

And equally important, you could trade a top pitching prospect right now without mortgaging any future because the Astros have many good pitching prospects in the lower minors (Brad Lidge, Carlos Hernandez, Mike Nannini, Greg Miller, Kyle Kessel, and Tim Redding, #1 draft pick Robert Stiehl, to name a few). I would assume that some of these players are going to be with the team in two to three years. As the four prospects currently on the roster get older and become veterans, and players like Reynolds and Wells (if the Astros do trade for him) retire or move on, these young players will be making their way onto the team and into the rotation.

I certainly understand the "don't mortgage the future" argument in the context of teams with older pitching staffs like the Mets (Leiter, Appier, Reed, Traschel). But this is simply not the case with the Astros. And if you are of this mindset, don't tell me that you can't trade a Wilfredo because you count on prospects like Miller and McKnight to succeed in the majors based on their limited success last season. If you can't count on them, why can you count on Wilfredo and the like? I appreciate the "don't mortgage the future" argument. But let's not let it become a knee-jerk reaction every time the team considers trading a prospect -- have some perspective, please.

The "can't mortgage the future" proponents harp on the Randy Johnson/Freddy Garcia, John Halama trade. They say that the Astros would not have been in the position they were in last year (and currently) if they had those two starting pitchers back. First of all, I would make the Johnson trade again in a heartbeat -- Johnson is arguably the best starting pitcher in the National League right now and Johnson was nothing short of awesome for the Astros. The Astros not winning the world series in 1998 resulted from an absolute failure to hit in the playoffs and had nothing to do with Randy Johnson. The only factor that would give me pause about making such a trade again was the fact that Johnson was not signed past 1998. Wells, of course, has an option year in his contract for 2002 and wants to sign a contract for a third year with whoever trades for him.

So what is my plan? What would I do? How about this bold statement: I would trade any pitcher in the Astros minor league system as part of a deal for Wells. Oh, I would like to hold on to Roy Oswalt. He appears to be a very special pitcher -- he may even make the squad coming out of Spring Training. And if you insist on Oswalt you are going to get a lot less in addition to Oswalt (there is a sliding scale). But I'd trade him for Wells. And outside of Elarton and Wagner, there shouldn't even be any untouchables on the major-league roster. In my not so humble opinion, every other pitcher in the system is replaceable.

On a final note, I think that it is inconsistent to argue on the one hand that the Astros should not trade Bagwell and Alou for prospects while arguing on the other hand that the Astros should not trade pitching prospects for a pitcher who can push the team over the top. In today's baseball environment you can be competitive or you can rebuild in the hope that you will be competitive in a few seasons. If you do either half-assed, you are simply guaranteeing mediocrity, which is an affront to the fans.