added 4/13/2009 by Scott Barzilla
The Astros completed the first of what will be 25 weeks this season. If you divide the season into six game weeks then it would be 27 weeks. Obviously, there is a lot of baseball left to be played. Now, before I begin looking at the holes in the first week, we should begin by looking at what went right. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, but I normally go negative pretty early and we could be Nationals fans.
If someone told you that Michael Bourn, Geoff Blum, and Hunter Pence would all be hitting above .300 in the first week you probably would think you'd be looking at 4-2 record. After all, third base and centerfield were the two biggest question marks coming into the season and prognosticators said Pence would need to step up for anything good to happen to the Astros.
Plus, while the overall numbers might say otherwise, the bullpen has lived up to its advanced billing. Yes, Doug Brocail went down with a sore shoulder early on, but Jeff Fulchino looked good in Spring Training. Bullpen ERAs are really deceiving early in a season. You really should look at successful outings versus unsuccessful outings. Wesley Wright blew up on Saturday, but the Astros weren't going to win that game anyway.
Okay, I know it's hard to look at 1-5 and see many positives, but there have been a lot of veteran Astros that haven't played well. Outside of a good game or two, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Ivan Rodriguez, and Miguel Tejada haven't exactly set the world on fire. One of the reasons you have veterans is that you know what you are going to get from those guys. Something tells me we are going to start getting it. Roy Oswalt has looked average and then bad but, let's face it, he isn't a fast starter and he hasn't faced the Reds yet.
It's hard to hold the positive stance for long because the handwriting is on the wall. Some can't read it yet, but the good folks at the Chronicle sure can. Richard Justice recently threw out his half-hearted defense for Drayton McLane by saying we have a 103 million dollar payroll. That is good for eighth in the big leagues. For those that count, that means we are spending enough money to go to the playoffs. Theoretically.
I will take some time to explain to you why this is deceiving. Peter Angelos used to be among the top end spenders as well. He also used to veto trades that his general managers thought were in the best interest of the club. Usually, they involved trading veterans away to get good young prospects. Finally, Mike Flanagan and staff got Angelos to relent two years ago. Baltimore is in year two of what will probably be a four-year rebuilding plan. The fruit is already beginning to ripen.
When you look at baseball history in general, and Astros history specifically, you see the same story time and again. Teams build what some might call dynasties, but eventually those dynasties die out and need to rebuild another one. The first Astros dynasty began in the late 1970s and continued through 1990. By dynasty standards it was unsuccessful, but fans of the 1980, 1981, and 1986 teams might beg to differ. It ran its course when guys like Alan Ashby, Glenn Davis, Bill Doran, Jose Cruz, and Terry Puhl went on their way.
The dynasty that began in 1991 contains more potential future Hall of Famers than most might realize. In addition to Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, you had Curt Schilling, Luis Gonzalez, and Steve Finley. Ken Caminiti was also a part of that group and might have joined them without a drug problem that eventually took his life. Ultimately, Finley and Gonzalez will likely fall short of Cooperstown but, at their best, they were all-star level performers. The whole point of having young players is that even though some will be traded or not pan out, there will alway be a few that stick.
When you look at the current Astros, you don't see many of those young kids. Biggio and Bagwell have gone their way but there was no one to replace them. Berkman and Oswalt are neither young nor old. They are peak performers that likely will not perform at their peak for that much longer. Instead of surrounding them with young kids once Biggio rode off into the sunset, McLane and his management team replaced them with mediocre veterans that will keep the team competitive in the literal sense, but not competitive for what really matters to most fans.
In baseball, there have been three paths to the top. You can build a young team with young talent and watch them mature. It's a long-shot because the young players must develop into stars before they become too expensive. Sometimes that doesn't happen. (The Astros certainly haven't gone that route.) Or you can bring in a good general manager and give him a healthy budget to merge young talent with veteran leadership. (The Astros did that in the late 1990s and early 2000s with a good deal of success. There is no more young talent to merge now.) Or you can do it the Yankees and Red Sox way and buy your way up.
This is where the defense of McLane is so insidious. Saying he is eighth in spending implies that he is doing number three. He is not doing number three. So, would 103 million be enough for the second method? It would be if ownership would spend on that end of the equation. They have not. So basically, he is spending just enough to make some people think enough is being spent.
In the abstract, they are right. 103 million should be enough. It should be enough if you didn't have to plug in middle class veterans into spots that young players could occupy. Unfortunately, those young players aren't there because ownership hasn't spent money on scouting and signing bonuses. Fans don't show up to watch scouts and players that ply their trade in Lancaster.
They do show up to watch guys like Colby Rasmus and Geovany Soto. Look around at the teams that surprised in the first week and I'll bet they have a young player that surprised everyone. Sure, that player may come back to earth in week two, but untapped potential usually makes the difference between third place and first place. When your roster is full of guys on the wrong side of thirty, you aren't going to sneak up on anybody.