Off-Season Grades

added 2/7/2005 by Scott Barzilla

(Columnist note: I again would like to thank everyone who has contacted me in response to my columns. Contrary to popular belief, I do not smoke crack, but who knows what Cigar International is putting in their cigars. Feel free to keep those responses coming.)

Judging by recent events and the advancement of the calendar it looks like the Astros are done. Sure, someone like Tim Redding or Brandon Duckworth could be dealt in a minor deal before the beginning of Spring Training. That being the case, I would like to grade all of our major moves (and non-moves) this off-season and assign blame if the case warrants.

1. The decision to allow Gerry Hunsicker to resign and hire Tim Purpura.

I don’t care what anyone says. This was the most significant change in the off-season because it changes the entire tenor of the organization. Of course, we don’t know all of the details, but according to the best available sources, Hunsicker wanted more control and an extension on his contract. McLane gave him neither. Now, you can look at that as a resignation or a firing, but the result is the same. Hunsicker was pushed out. It is hard not to call Hunsicker the best GM in Astros history. That may not be saying much, but one finish outside of first or second since 1992 is remarkable.

This brings us to Purpura. To be perfectly fair, Purpura was a hot commodity among assistant general managers and it was only a matter of time before someone hired him. However, it is clear that at the very least, his performance has been found wanting. Now, we can attribute that to Drayton exerting more control or being new to the job. Either way, it has been a very disappointing off-season. For me, the problems go beyond this season. Key players have been angered and missteps have been plenty. I sincerely hope this is first year jitters because it could a long bumpy ride if it isn’t. Grade: D

2. Bringing back Craig Biggio

I honestly cannot fault this too much. At the time it looked like we would have a shortage of outfielders. As it stands, Jason Lane may not have an everyday position when all is said and done. The main problem is that indications are that the Astros are reluctant to move Biggio to the bench. This inflexibility will hurt them if it comes time to play younger players.

One thing is for certain, this is one of the big bones of contention for Gerry Hunsicker and we can begin to see why. However, you’re really stuck between a rock and hard place. The salary is not cost prohibitive and he is easily as least the second best player in Astros history. Ushering a player like that out the door is not popular with much of the fan base. Grade: C

3. Non-tendering Jeff Kent

This could have been the move of the off-season. There are two problems with bringing Kent back. First, like most of the roster, he is aging and becoming more and more of a liability defensively. Kent demanded two years, which means he would have been Biggio’s current age at the end of the contract. Secondly, Chris Burke is knocking at the door. A two year contract with Kent would have ended his stay with the Astros. The Astros have passed over too many prospects to block another one. Grade: A

4. Re-signing Jose Vizcaino and Orlando Palmeiro

Bringing Vizcaino back into the fold is understandable, but it isn’t the most efficient way to conduct business. Vizcaino hit for a good average when he took Everett’s spot, but he has no power, little patience, and his range is diminishing. The Cardinals signed Mark Grudzielanek for less than Viz signed for here. He used to play shortstop in Montreal and would have been a great insurance policy for Burke. Yes, he would struggle some defensively, but at this point in their perspective careers he has a better bat and comparable range. Yes, we didn’t know when these two players signed who would be non-tendered, but there is always someone. Signing them was something that didn’t need to be done at all and could have been put off until much later in the very least. Giving Palmeiro a raise is tantamount to flushing money down the toilet. Even worse, he gets in the way. The club could have used that money plus the money they would have saved by signing someone like Grudzielanek to get a real fourth outfielder. Then, we wouldn’t have to worry about Palmeiro being the opening day right fielder. Grade: F

5. Hiring Ricky Bennett as the assistant general manager

There isn’t much I can say about this because I’ve never heard of Ricky Bennett. Yet, that’s a statement in of itself. There are two things that bother me about this choice. First, the Astros continue to deny the need for a sabermetrician. About a third of the teams have them and they are almost universally more successful than they were before they had one. Of course, that’s a personal beef. I happen to be a Moneyball guy, so you have to forgive my rantings.

The bigger issue is the fact that Bennett clearly meets a quota that the organization was trying. Listen, I’m as progressive as the next guy or gal, but pandering shouldn’t be a consideration. Let Richard Justice, Jose de Jesus Ortiz, and John P. Lopez bellyache all they want. You should hire the best man or woman first and foremost. The Astros have passed up opportunities to hire qualified minority applicants before (Tony Pena comes to mind) and they should be admonished. There is a big difference in scouring the earth for qualified applicants of all genders, ethnicities, and races and simply hiring the first minority you can find.

I’ve written about this subject before and I don’t want to insult Ricky Bennett. The problem is that this deal was transparent from the get go. Bennett isn’t going to get the respect he deserves because of the nature of his hiring. He may have been qualified now or later, but we’ll never know because an exhaustive hiring process wasn’t readily apparent. Grade: D

6. Waiting on Carlos Beltran and Scott Boras

For most Astros fans, this will be the biggest decision of the offseason. One of the things I hate the most is when people play “Monday Morning Quarterback.” Yes, it’s easy to dissect a situation after the results are in. In this case, I think most people in Houston knew we were getting played from the get go. Unfortunately, people within the Astros organization were in the minority.

Yes, Drayton deserves credit for expanding his wallet, but it wasn’t the money that killed us here: it was the time. To make matters worse, the Astros chose to conduct no business during the waiting period. The inability to multi-task is ultimately what killed the Astros. Yes, we cannot blame Purpura for the club waiting on Beltran, but he could have made some minor transactions in the interim to make the period after January 8th less unbearable.

Was Beltran worth the trouble? That really depends on who you ask. He has been the most exciting player to come through Houston since at least Cesar Cedeno. So, he would have been a huge draw, but most knowledgeable stat guys will tell you that you are better off spreading that money around to as many different places as possible. We could have made a play for Steve Finley or Kenny Lofton in the interim. Oh well. Grade: F

7. Turk Wendell, Phil Norton, Dave Burba, and John Franco oh my.

Yes, that list represents the bulk of our off-season pitching haul (Russ Springer was also invited back). I’m reminded of what Cleveland Indian GM Charlie Donavan said in “Major League”. One of the executives said, “I haven’t heard of most of these guys and the ones I have heard of are way past their prime.” Donavan said, “most of these guys never had a prime.”

That might be a slight exaggeration in this case, but most of these guys are way past their prime. You have to either have MLB Extra Innings (and watch religiously) or be autistic to know anything about Phil Norton. Turk Wendell hasn’t been good since the early 2000s. Dave Burba was a nice addition, but at 38 he probably cannot start and has never shown that he can do anything but be a long reliever in the pen. That leaves John Franco. Franco is arguably the best lefty reliever in baseball history, but he hasn’t been relevant in at least three seasons. He is coming in to get lefties out and should be proficient there. I simply hate guys that can only pitch a partial inning. It is a waste of a roster spot in my opinion.

This wouldn’t be bad except this year was an unusual market for relievers. Several relievers that would normally get between two and four million dollars a season signed for a million or less. Chris Hammond, Antonio Osuna, Jim Mecir, Terry Adams, and Steve Reed have all been effective RECENTLY. They all signed for 1.1 million or less. Yet, we didn’t even hear a rumor about any of them in Houston. I guess Wendell’s injury riddled 2003 season and 7.00+ ERA in 2004 are just way too appetizing. Grade: D-

8. Roger Clemens for $18 million

This is very much a mixed bag. Clemens will be the highest paid pitcher in baseball history when he is in no position to have the best season in baseball history. On the other hand, the Astros desperately needed him to draw in fans and there really wasn’t anyone left to take that money anyway. If anyone won’t phone it home it is Roger Clemens. Still, he will be 42 during the 2005 season and 99% of 42 year olds cannot dominate every fifth day. Roger has made a career out of being in the one percent. Hopefully he can do it again. Grade: B

9. The decision not to acquire a centerfielder

There were three options available to us: Mike Cameron, Randy Winn, and Jose Cruz Jr. Chieto is now a Diamondback after the D-Backs traded Casey Fossum to get him. Fossum may have been the worst starting pitcher in the NL last season, but the D-Rays wanted him and were willing to pay part of Chieto’s salary to boot. Ah, but Purpura intimated to the press that Chuck LeMar wanted too much for Cruz. Hmmmmm, what was Purpura looking for. I don’t think the D-Rays were going to give you Cruz for a dozen stale donuts. The most appropriate comparison with Fossum is probably Tim Redding. Both Redding and Fossum have a lot of physical talent, but neither has put it together. I’m almost certain most of you would accept a Tim Redding for Jose Cruz and cash deal right now. Apparently, that was too rich for Purpura’s blood.

We’ve been told that Bill Bavasi and Omar Minaya want too much for their centerfielders, but after seeing LeMar’s “outrageous” demands we have to reconsider how we read these particular situations. Both Cruz and Winn would have been one-year stopgaps that would have allowed Willy Taveras to play a full season in AAA. Mike Cameron would have required a two-year commitment, but he also brings much more to the table than either Cruz or Winn. I suppose we can hold out hope for Cameron and Winn, but I won’t. Purpura is gun-shy. Grade: D

10. The decision not to trade for Alfonso Soriano

Wow, this was the most significant rumor of the off-season after January 8th. Supposedly, the Rangers wanted Brandon Backe and Chris Burke. If that is true then holding back is understandable. However, it should be noted that Backe has only nine big league starts. The expectations that he will be a very good starter are far premature, but it is Burke that hurts here. Burke might be better than Soriano when everything is considered right now.

Of course, we cannot sweep through the rumor mill without acknowledging the possibility that someone is fibbing about the proposal. This new regime has already shown a propensity to stretch the truth to cover for their inactivity. Who knows what the real proposal was. Grade: B

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”