The Good, Bad and Ugly Of The Astros Winter

added 1/25/2010 by Randy Aman

(Editor's note: In the first of a two-part series, Rusty Aman examines the comings and goings of the Astros' off-season and explores where it fits into the bigger picture. Part II will be posted here next week.)

The Good

Offering RP Jose Valverde arbitration -
A no-brainer decision. Though it ultimately took some time for Valverde to find a new home, the risk that Valverde would have accepted arbitration at this point in his career was minimal. Even had Valverde accepted arbitration, General Manager Ed Wade would certainly have had trade opportunities for the reliever had retaining him become financially untenable.

As mentioned in more depth below, his signing with the Tigers is a potential boon for the resurrection of the Astros' farm system, alhough this assumes that the Astros will be willing to spend in the draft. The Astros' historical unwillingness to do so is quite disappointing for a team willing to fork over $6 million a year for Woody Williams or inexplicably re-sign Jason Michaels. Chris Burke�s $2.125 million is still the highest bonus given in franchise history and the Astros spent just $3.5 million on their entire 2009 draft.

The Bad

Not Offering RP LaTroy Hawkins arbitration -
Not at all the no-brainer the Valverde decision was, but still offering Hawkins would have been the correct decision. Hawkins was much more likely to accept arbitration than Valverde and you can see what the Astros were thinking. if both Valverde and Hawkins accepted arbitration, they would have about $12 million tied up in two relievers.

However, that thinking was clearly flawed. First, as explained above, there was virtually no chance that Valverde would accept arbitration (and he could have been traded even if he had). Secondly, even if Hawkins had accepted arbitration and received probably around $4 million, the Astros would have had a steady set-up man or possible stop-gap closer on only a one year commitment. Or, like Valverde, Wade could have tested the trade market to move Hawkins.

To that end, some team might have bit at the opportunity to land a quality reliever with such a short commitment. The return might not have been significant (if teams knew the Astros had not wanted Hawkins to accept and were desperate to move him), but anything would have been better than nothing (particularly for such a thin farm system).

Even if he had been a compensation FA, a team like Boston which had already lost its first and second round picks could have had significant interest as the cost to them would only be a third round pick for them (and the Astros would have of course received a sandwich pick). Despite already losing its first two picks, losing a third rounder for Boston is not nearly as bad as it sounds since they received the Braves' first round pick for Billy Wagner, the Mets' second round pick for Jason Bay and two sandwich picks. Viewed in this light, that third round pick is almost an after-thought.

Re-signing OF Jason Michaels -
I cannot conceive one reason why the Astros would have been motivated to bring back Michaels. He has done nothing to justify a roster spot above a rookie or Rule V draft pick. His batting average for the last two seasons: .224 and .237 while striking out one out of every four at bats. He does not offer anything in terms of pinch running potential and is not an exceptional defender.

Signing RP Brandon Lyon for 3 years, $15 million -
I like Brandon Lyon, but the price was wrong and the move was wrong for reasons that will be detailed at length below. Lyon, now 30, has never managed to put together back-to-back strong seasons. Though he boasts a respectable 3.31 ERA over the last three seasons, he has never been dominant and has a 4.20 career ERA.

(I have opinions on the Lindstrom deal as well as Miguel Tejada's free agency, but I do not really take issue with either situation so as to merit going into at any length).

The Ugly

Failure to Accept the Dire State of the Organization and Formulate a Plan Accordingly -

2005: 89-73; +84 Run Differential
2006: 82-80; +16 Run Differential
2007: 73-89; -90 Run Differential
2008: 86-75; -31 Run Differential
2009: 74-88; -127 Run Differential

2007-2009 Average: 78-84; -83 Run Differential
The Houston Astros were not a good baseball team in 2009. The Astros were not a good baseball team in 2007. Given their performance in those years and the negative run differential, it appears that they were not even that good of a baseball team in 2008, despite winning 86 games. (Baseball Prospectus concurs with that assessment, calling the Astros' 2008 performance one of the greater statistical anomalies in recent history).

The current team is centered around three high-priced veterans leaving their primes. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn are definitely solid pieces just entering their primes but, beyond them, the team has serious questions at 2B, SS, 3B, and (until Jason Castro arrives) catcher. The pitching staff also has more questions than answers.

Compounding these issues is the fact that the Astros currently have little to no payroll flexibility and essentially no cheap young players (besides Bud Norris and perhaps some young bullpen arms like Sammy Gervacio) that appear capable of making a meaningful difference. To say the Astros future is cloudy - if not gloomy - would be an understatement.

Additionally, as the folks over at Baseball America will tell you, the Astros' farm system has very little talent both in terms of quality and quantity (Baseball Prospectus describes it as a "paucity of talent"). While Castro, along with the emergence of Ross Seaton, Jordan Lyles and promising draft picks Jiovanni Mier and Tanner Bushue have created reason for hope, the Astros' farm system remains one of the weakest in all of baseball.

After peaking in the early part of the last decade, the system experienced a rapid decline exacerbated by failed draft picks, a willingness to give up draft picks to acquire free agents, trades for veterans, and an unwillingness to spend money in the draft.

This last cause came to a head with the Astros' 2007 draft, which Baseball Prospectus described as an "outright disaster". The Astros had already lost their first and second round picks to free agent compensation and then failed to come to terms with their third, fourth, and fifth round picks.

Teams can have bad drafts as players wash out - that is an inevitable outcome in the amateur draft and one reason why I will not spend time detailing the Astros' draft struggles in recent years (Derek Grigsby, Brian Bogusevic, Max Sapp, etc.) despite the fact that even here some criticism may be due.

However, for an organization in the state of the Astros (old ML roster, weak farm system), a draft like the Astros had in 2007 can literally set the entire franchise back. Furthering the problem has been the lack of impact Latin American prospects that once flowed through the system (Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo, etc.). The Astros activity on the big stage international scene where even smaller market teams like Oakland, Minnesota, and Cincinnati have been active, even giving out seven-figure bonuses, has been nearly non-existent.

In summing up the state of the organization, Baseball Prospectus notes, "it is difficult to tell what goal the team is moving toward." The lack of organizational vision is what should be most troubling to Astros fans. Management is unwilling to accept what is the consensus view of the organization among baseball observers. Rather than own up to the truth, Astros management seems destined to delay and prolong the inevitable pain as the Astros will continue in a constant state of mediocrity or worse for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus has said that it has "begun to probe into the weird operating methods of owner Drayton McLane, a man at cross-purposes with himself".

So what is the appropriate course of action? The dreaded 'R' word - rebuild. The Astros, quite simply, lack the payroll flexibility and internal talent to put a competitive team around their best players while they remain in their prime. By the time the Astros could get the infusion of young talent necessary to become a playoff team again, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee will have already played their best baseball.

Continuing on this path is not fair to the players or the fans. A failure to change course may unnecessarily prolong the eventual costs the team will have to pay for past personnel mistakes in exchange for a handful of mediocre seasons with no clear upside.

Change is painful and this will be no different. It certainly would not be easy to watch the players we have come to know and love depart for other destinations, but if the goal is to once again root for a championship-caliber team, then the change is necessary. This change, of course, will be the focus of Part II of this piece.

Randy is a student at the University of Texas School of Law. We welcome guest columns by fans. If you'd like to submit one, e-mail bob@astrosdaily.com.