added 7/25/2009 by Bob Hulsey
The beancounters at Astros, Inc. told us this was likely to happen. It just wasn't adding up that the Astros were increasing payroll even as revenues in a staggering economy, battered further by hurricane winds, were dropping off dramatically.
Still, when Houston needed some players last March, they went out and got them. Ivan Rodriguez signed for the bargain basement price of $1.5 million. They parted with prospect Drew Sutton to acquire veteran Jeff Keppinger. Only a fool would argue the Astros didn't make wise moves back then that improved the team.
Even last spring, the Astros warned they were spending the budget wiggle room they try to save for the July trading deadline. So let's not be whiners when the Astros sit on their hands while deals for Holliday, Halladay and Lee are discussed. They've already spent their budget, and then some.
Not to mention the Astros are trying to rebuild their farm system after years of neglect and it would seem counterproductive to turn around and gut the farm to get a guy who will explode the payroll still further.
The Astros have five players that make up the biggest chunk of their payroll - Lance Berkman ($14.5 million), Roy Oswalt ($14 million), Carlos Lee ($18.5 mil), Miguel Tejada ($14.8 million) and Jose Valverde ($8 million). There aren't many scenarios where dealing away those players are going to improve your pennant chances. And almost any "difference-maker" who is on the market is going to cost at least that much in return so there's almost no way to deal without spending more money.
The recent upsurge in attendance is surely a welcome sight in Astroland but it would be foolish to assume those crowds will stay large, particularly if the team falls out of contention. Only in Washington (the Senators, not the Nationals), do they spend money they simply don't have.
Owner Drayton McLane has always tried to balance between being a businessman and being a fan. It's harder than it looks. The fan certainly wants to upgrade the team when a division title seems within reach so late in the season. The businessman, on the other hand, knows it's not a successful business approach. He's been burned a few times before by making today-for-tomorrow deals and seen it happen to others. Any upgrade is one that needs to be economically justifiable, not just on-the-field justifiable.
So while Astro fans can fantasize about having one more solid starting pitcher or perhaps a third baseman with some sock, don't expect either to come here.
General Manager Ed Wade may have already pulled off a gem with the waiver claim of Chris Coste from the World Champion Phillies. Mostly a backup catcher by trade, Coste was pressed into service at first base with the injuries to Lance Berkman and Darin Erstad. In his last two games, Coste has doubled in the ninth to plate the tying run and doubled in the fifth to drive in the eventual winning run. You could spend a lot more money and not get that type of results.
But just because Wade is claiming nothing can be done, doesn't mean he's not burning up the phones like his fellow GMs. And he does have some pieces to work with. As soon as Chris Sampson and Doug Brocail come off the disabled list, the Astros' bullpen will be awash in productive arms. Two of them will need to be sent back to Round Rock but they could just as easily be the type of bait that can land a productive bench player, particularly one that could challenge Erstad and his underachieving benchmate Jason Michaels for pinch-hitting roles.
Could another team be looking at Jeff Fulchino (3.61 ERA in 29 games) or Alberto Arias (1.34 ERA in 30 games)? Or could Wade roll the dice on a trade involving 42-year-old Houstonian Brocail or set-up man LaTroy Hawkins (2.36 ERA in 43 games)? The latter two have higher salaries which would expand the payroll options for receiving talent in return. Sampson (3.02 ERA in 41 games) could be another option. So while dealing Valverde is likely off the table, there's room to dangle another reliever without killing Houston's chance for the postseason.
As for minor league trade bait, I've read that top prospects like catcher Jason Castro and pitchers Jordan Lyles and Ross Seaton are simply off the table. Don't ask for them unless you want to hear the phone line go dead. If, however, Wade is able to lure a player here like he did Hawkins and Randy Wolf last July for expendable prospects, he may be willing to dip into the minor league till.
As much abuse as they take, you have to congratulate Wade and Manager Cecil Cooper for taking a team few predicted to be in the race at this point and lead them to exactly that. Several key pieces have fallen into place and you can sense the excitement level building around Houston - something that was not a given even when the month began.
And while Wade claims he's not making any deals, he lied about reports the Astros were negotiating with Rodriguez last March until the deal was nearly done. I'm okay with that. A good GM has to sometimes be a good liar to get the results he wants. We saw what happened when somebody blabbed about trading for Jon Garland a couple of winters ago before the swap was final. Sometimes, denying interest is part of the chess match that you have to engage in until the deal is official.
So, like the duck in the pond, don't let the calmness above the water convince you Wade isn't paddling hard beneath it. I wouldn't expect anything major this week but I wouldn't completely rule it out either.