added 7/22/2007 by Scott Barzilla
If we believe the public comments, Tim Purpura is sitting at his desk muttering to himself. He is repeating the following mantra everyday: "this wasn't supposed to happen. this wasn't supposed to happen. this wasn't supposed to happen." Guess what Tim. It happened. Now, you need to figure out what to do to make sure it doesn't happen in 2008.
The first mistake this club continues to make is in assuming the turnaround is right around the corner. After all, 99 percent of baseball executives would have phoned it in each of the past three years. They would have been wrong in two out of three years. However, if we ignore the fact that the club finished a game and a half back in 2006, we clearly see a team that is under .500 in its last 300 games. If this doesn't indicate a problem then I don't know what does.
The problem is two-fold. First, Drayton McLane doesn't want a rebuilding project. This is understandable because he has been drawing close to three million fans a season for the past several seasons. He doesn't want to see attendance sag while a bunch of kids figure out how to be big leaguers. Secondly, the kids simply aren't there. Out of the position players at AA and AAA, only J.R. Towles ranks as a prospect worth watching. There are a few good young pitchers, but there aren't enough to rebuild most of a pitching staff.
So, the Astros are left with a roster that clearly isn't cutting it. They don't have the kids to go young. This leaves trades and free agency as the only way to accomplish their goals. Free agency looks like a good road. The club could spend as much as 40 million dollars in free agency next off-season. In this day and age, that might get you four good players. Whitey Herzog once said that his last place Kansas City Royals were two players away from the pennant: Babe Ruth and Cy Young. Herzog was clearly kidding and every good baseball man will tell you that it takes more than two great players (or four good ones) to win. The Astros are closer to being the worst team in baseball than the best. They have more than four holes on this team.
This is where the trade front comes in. Ironically, every good commodity on the Astros seems to have L at the beginning of their last name. Jason Jennings was a prime trade candidate before rumors of arm troubles resurfaced. This leaves Brad Lidge, Mike Lamb, and Mark Loretta as the primary targets. Lamb and Loretta are free agents and considering the club's history of not offering arbitration, it would seem that dealing them is the thing to do. What you get is crucial.
Purpura seems hell bent on getting immediate help. You don't approach the deadline that way. If you are selling then you fleece contending clubs of their best minor league talent. This is how the Astros have gotten to the point where they have on their farm system. They've been fleeced occasionally. The Red Sox apparently want both Mark Loretta and Brad Lidge. Bringing back Jacoby Ellsbury might seem like a win for the Red Sox, but it would really be a win for the Astros.
Check out the free agent prices on centerfielders this off-season. Ellsbury would bring the same kind of speed and defense Taveras brought with some power to go with it. The Red Sox don't want to deal Ellsbury now, but what will happen when the 31st comes? Will they sacrifice Ellsbury to keep the Yankees from getting Lidge? If the Astros play this game right they could wind up with two or three Grade A prospects in exchange for three players.
Losing Lidge is a tough proposition. The guy has come back this year to the Lidge of old. However, it does not make sense to pay full closer prices in today's market anymore. If you look around at teams paying eight to ten million a season for their closer, most of them wind up disappointed. As crazy as it sounds, a bonafide centerfielder (especially one young and cheap) is worth more than a closer. Look in the Astros chain and you can find two or three pitchers with closer type stuff. You won't find any centerfielders like Ellsbury.
Supposedly, the Angels and Padres are interested in Lamb. You could bring in more young pitching in a deal for Lamb. The Angels also have a couple of good young shortstops blocked by Orlando Cabrera. One of them could provide the club with a better offensive answer at short. With Lamb, the Astros have the opportunity of simply accepting the best offer.
If the Astros got two future pieces out of those three players, they might have enough to make another run in 2008. In particular, a better offensive shortstop and legitimate centerfielder would make free agency a lot cheaper. The Astros could focus on the mound, third base, and catcher as free agency targets. Take heart Astros fans, 2008 could be a lot better once the front office admits that 2007 is over.