Done

added 2/6/2002 by Todd Brody

Many of you know how much I like to sit around the hot stove here in the cold northeast and think about the free agents the Astros could pick up. I also spend far too much of my free time (and work time, truth be told) contemplating blockbuster trades that the Astros could make. I even try making those trades fair for both teams. But I think that I am just going to have to shut it all done for a while because the Astros are done. And when I say done, I'm not just saying that the Astros aren't going to make any deals from now until the start of the season. I'm not even talking about the trading deadline. I'm saying that for the next two seasons and, perhaps, even further, you shouldn't count on the Astros making any significant moves outside of the organization.

Why do I say this? Well, let's talk about pitching. I believe that some point during last season, Drayton McLane decided that he would never spend money on a veteran starting pitcher again. I don't know when he made this decision. Maybe it was after Roy Oswalt starting looking like the second coming of Cy Young. Maybe it was after Wade Miller proved that he was a legitimate 1 or 2 pitcher or after Carlos Hernandez was brought up and immediately started paying dividends in the starting rotation. Or maybe it was after Pedro Astacio, the most recent veteran pitcher brought on board got injured after a mere four starts. But somewhere down the line, McLane had an epiphany. He compared the results of his young pitchers with those of the proven veteran pitchers that he had bought in previous years and said "never again." And while I think that McLane is cheap, this really has little to do with money.

McLane has never had luck bringing veteran pitchers to the Astros. Look at the history. He purchased the Astros on November 9, 1992 and since that time, the Astros have obtained (either through free agency or trade) the following "proven," veteran, starting pitchers: Doug Drabek, Greg Swindell, Pete Schourek, Randy Johnson, Kent Bottenfield, Dwight Gooden and Pedro Astacio. What do these players have in common? Some of these pitchers were brought in to be fourth or fifth starters (so expectations were never high for them) but, ultimately, all turned out to be disappointments to McLane. McLane wanted to make a splash as the new owner of the team and signed local heroes Drabek and Swindell to long-term contracts (worth in total over $36 million). Neither lived up to expectations. Swindell was 30-34 during his tenure in Houston with a 4.48 ERA. And Drabek, despite an all-star appearance in 1994, never approached his Cy Young performance in Pittsburgh and even lost 18 games in 1993 (albeit with a 3.79 ERA). Randy Johnson pitched lights out in the regular season, but was unable to win a game in the playoffs. And while there were few who wouldn't make the Johnson deal if offered again, it ultimately cost the Astros Freddy Garcia, who has turned out to be one of the best young pitchers in the American League. How much would the Astros love to have Garcia in their rotation right now? (That's a rhetorical question - you don't have to answer.) And what can be said about Astacio? He was brought it to solidify a young pitching staff and shortly after suffered a season-ending injury - the first of his career!

Outside of Johnson, the only successful starting pitchers in Houston during Drayton's tenure as owner have been Astros draft picks (Shane Reynolds, Darryl Kile, Scott Elarton, Wade Miller, and Oswalt) or were traded to the Astros when they were prospects (Mike Hampton). It is not surprising, therefore, that McLane would want to give up paying a premium to bring "proven" talent to Houston, particularly when he believes that he has an unlimited number of horses down in New Orleans, Round Rock, and Lexington. And let's face it. The Astros do have a lot of young quality pitchers at various levels of the minor league system. It was not for nothing that the Astros farm system was rated one of the best in baseball last year.

Now let's talk about hitting. The reason why the Astros aren't going to make any significant moves is because they are pretty well set at every position. The outfield for the future appears to be {Darryl Ward}, Richard Hidalgo, and Lance Berkman. Richard and Lance have long-term contracts. And if Darryl Ward isn't the long-term solution in left, then the Astros likely will give Jason Lane, MVP of the Texas League, a try before the pay to bring in a high-priced veteran. Jeff Bagwell just signed a long term contract. Craig Biggio has two more years left on his contract. And Brad Ausmus has two more years left on his contract (including a mutual option for 2003). Theoretically, the Astros will need a second baseman and a catcher in two years, but with prospects like John Buck, Chris Burke, and Keith Ginter developing in the system, I just don't see the Astros going out and getting a veteran to fill those two potential holes. And assuming that Julio Lugo is still in the system when Biggio retires, he is a stopgap option at second if neither Burke nor Ginter are ready for the major leagues.

Which leads us to third base and shortstop. The Astros have two young players competing for each of these positions. At shortstop the Astros have the aforementioned Lugo, who is a decent hitter (a good hitter when he tries to be disciplined) and an average fielder and Adam Everett an exceptional fielder with a weak stick. Unless both of them absolutely tank, I believe that the Astros are set at this position for the next two years. First, the Astros paid a lot to get Everett. Second, Jimy Williams likes Everett (at least according to Peter Gammons) and liked him when he was with the Red Sox. And, perhaps, most important, I don't see the Astros being able to pick up a shortstop who is significantly better than one of these two either through free agency or through trade. Sure, the Indians were hinting that Omar Vizquel was available at the right price, but do the Astros really need to committ that much money to another weak hitting shortstop at the end of his career when Everett may be just as valuable. No I see the Astros using the Lugo/Everett combination for the next two years. And why do I keep saying two years? Because {Tommy Whiteman} is likely going to be at Round Rock this season. Yes, Tommy Whiteman, who hit 18 HRs last year for Lexington in only 389 at bats at Lexington and who had a .566 slugging percentage. And Whiteman is purportedly a great fielder as well. The Astros may have the next great shortstop in their system right now. Why go outside the system to find another player. If Everett and Lugo can't do the job, I would not be surprised to see Whiteman at shortstop for the Astros in 2004.

Like shortstop, the Astros have two young players, Morgan Ensberg and Chris Truby, competing for the starting job at third base. If there is a position on the team where the Astros might be looking to improve, this would be it. Ensberg has great minor league stats, but at 26, he is an older rookie. And Chris Truby . . . well, I've seen Chris Truby play, and I have no real interest in him starting for the team. But again, I find it unlikely that the Astros will look outside of the organization for a replacement, mostly because third base is one of the weakest positions in baseball right now. There simply are not a lot of good third baseman who might even be available and who the Astros can afford. I think that they will give Ensberg two years unless he absolutely flops.

Yes, it is possible that a deal will fall into the Astros lap and the Astros will make a trade because the opportunity is too good. Yes, it is possible that injuries to key personnel will require the Astros to go out and make a trade. And yes, it is possible that the Astros might land another Vinny Castilla type player. But how many teams are dumb enough to simply release a player like Tampa Bay did with Vinny? It is more likely that the Astros will make small deals over the next few seasons to fill their bullpen (but not the top two positions in the bullpen, which are very solid) and their bench. These are your Houston Astros, for good and bad. Get used to them.

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