Politics, contracts and veteran bust hobble 'Stros

added 6/23/2009 by Michael Point

This article originally was posted as a blog that Michael Point writes for the Round Rock Leader. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Twenty-nine of the 30 major league franchises have had a rookie make his big league debut this season. You can probably guess which the 30th franchise is, but I'll help a little bit if you need it. The 30th franchise is the one with the oldest roster in the big leagues. It's the one that is in last place in the NL Central. It is, of course, the parent club of your very own Round Rock Express.

Conventional wisdom, such as it is, would suggest an aged team at the bottom of the standings would be one where player personnel moves were frequent. These moves would naturally incorporate the frequent infusion of young talent from the organization's minor league system. That solution is the tried and proven method of dealing with such a situation. There are, in fact, hardly any other viable options available to a franchise in that position.

But, as Express fans have undoubtedly noticed, the Houston Astros are not following the traditional prescription for redressing the problem. Part of the reason why has to do with the Express itself, a team with no batter hitting .300, or even .290 for that matter and none with more than seven home runs through the season's first 67 games.

The real problem, however, is out of the hands of Express players. It's a creation of the Astros front office and it's become a Frankenstein-like monster that is terrorizing the franchise's future much in the manner that the movie creature panicked the townspeople of its time.

The Astros remain trapped in a roster gridlock of perfect storm proportions. The team's lineup consists almost exclusively of veteran players with big contracts, a not necessarily bad situation if the productivity of the players matches their considerable compensation. But when the team is in last place in the middle of June you don't have to dig too deep into individual stats to know that's not the case in Houston.

If Yordany Ramirez or Brian Bogusevic suddenly become obvious big leaguers ready for a starting job with the Astros the best they can hope for is a bench role. Carlos Lee isn't leaving left field and you wouldn't either if you had a $100 million guaranteed contract that didn't even require you to run out groundballs.

Hustlin' Hunter Pence is the future face of the franchise and is likewise entrenched in right field until Nolan Ryan and the Rangers steal him away in free agency and allow him to play in his hometown Arlington.

Houston high school hero Michael Bourn, who was originally drafted by the Astros in 2000 but didn't sign, is in center field for the foreseeable future. As the product of a major deal by a new general manager he is protected both by organizational politics and by his belated, but impressive, production.

From catcher to shortstop the Astros similarly have locked-in veteran regulars such as Pudge, Puma, Kaz and Miggy, who are likewise entrenched in their positions. Third base is the only semi-opening available but even there an assortment of veterans, eventually including Aaron Boone, seem to be the organization's preference.

The pitching staff, however, is another matter and that's why the first Astros farmhand to make his big league debut this season will undoubtedly do so on the mound. That's hardly comforting news for Bogusevic, Ramirez, Tommy Manzella, Chris Johnson and the other aspiring Express regulars.

Bud Norris, coming off his best start in Triple-A, is a conspicuous candidate for a torn and tattered Astros starting rotation. The Houston front office seems split on whether his big league role should be in the bullpen or as a starter but recent evidence rather emphatically demonstrates he deserves the opportunity to compete for a slot in the rotation.

Johnson, beginning to hit his stride after missing half the season with injuries, has long been expected to make the jump to the big leagues. The Astros roster gridlock is breakable at third base but Johnson, the top-rated power bat in the Astros system, was tied with pitcher Yorman Bazardo in home runs until Thursday night. And Bazardo, a veteran with a good chance of returning to the big leagues, trails Johnson three to two in bases on balls, despite having a hundred less at-bats.

The bottom line, as unfortunate as it may be, is that no Express position player is making a very convincing case for promotion right now. That's moderately depressing for fans of both the Express and the Astros, the latter of whom are constantly informed by Houston media that help is on the way from the minors. But the truly distressing part of the situation for fans and players is that the Astros, as currently configured, couldn't really incorporate such fresh, young talent even if it was ready.