Where Do We Go From Here?

added 2/1/2010 by Randy Aman

(Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part series on the state of the Astros and how to proceed in the future. To read Part I, click here.)

The trouble with finding a bright future for the Astros is that their most valuable assets are aging and must be traded sooner rather than later. Moreover, in the unlikely event management should realize this, they would be unlikely to capture full value for those assets for two reasons. (Before proceeding I am fully aware of the no-trade clauses in the contracts of all three players - Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Roy Oswalt - and that the Astros ability to move them is accordingly limited to each's acquiescence).

Due to their salaries, in order to maximize the return in terms of talent, Drayton McLane would have to be willing to assume part of the remaining money owed to the particular player. For instance, if the Astros were willing to trade Berkman along with $4.5 million, they could likely receive quite a return. The acquiring team would be committed to Berkman for only two seasons at an extremely reasonable total of $25 million. Despite the fact that the move would save $24.5 million over the next two years I am convinced that McLane would never go for such an arrangement (I would even say this would be more unlikely than the team realizing the propriety of trading him in the first place).

Secondly, I am not confident that Ed Wade is the person I would want in charge of this monumental task. To say that the people at Baseball Prospectus are not Ed Wade fans would be an understatement and they are not alone. Baseball America was equally vocal in its criticism of the hire. However, since this point is much more ambiguous than the first, I will spend no further time on it.

I will take a moment to note that all of this discussion about trading Berkman, Lee or Oswalt was much more appropriate in November; the time when management should have recognized it as the necessary course. However, as we sit here in February, most teams have filled their needs at first base with players not nearly as valuable as Berkman would have been. Interestingly, this offseason featured a plethora of teams looking for help at the position (Atlanta, Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, possibly more).

One more caveat to the discussion: I understand and take full note of the fact that Lee is nearly untradeable due to his contract and possibly also because he is quite content with where he is. For some reason, I see the chance to go to a contender being a much more significant concern for Oswalt and Berkman. My rough calculation is that to make Lee desirable to other teams, the Astros would have to fork over about $16.5 million over three seasons (bringing his contract to three years $39 million).

To round out the concept of including cash in these deals, if the Astros included $5 million in an Oswalt trade, the acquiring team would get Oswalt for three years at $14 million per year. That would be a relative steal considering the going rate for starting pitching - just consider the deals given out to Randy Wolf (3 yrs, $30 million), Oliver Perez (3 yrs, $36 million), Ryan Dempster (4 yrs, $52 million), and Derek Lowe (4 yrs, $60 million). Against this backdrop, such an Oswalt deal should fetch quite a return.

Once again, however, there is almost no chance McLane would agree to trade these players, much less pay millions of dollars to do so despite the fact that it may be in the club’s best long-term interest and that the savings would more than outweigh these initial cash outlays.

In contrast to Oswalt, Berkman, and Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn are young enough that they should still be in their primes when the Astros are ready to be serious contenders again. For this reason, Wade should aggressively pursue long-term extensions for both players.

There is certainly an amount of risk when you are giving out multi-year guaranteed contracts, but that is inevitably a part of running any pro baseball team. The upside is locking in valuable players at reasonable salaries. Obvious examples of these types of deals include Grady Sizemore (6 yrs, $24 million), Ryan Braun (8 yrs, $45 million), Evan Longoria (6 yrs, $17.5 million with team options for three more years totaling $22.5 million).

Think about these contracts. The Rays have one of the brightest young stars in the game (already an All-Star) under contract for nine years if they exercise the options at an average salary of $5.3 million. Likewise, the Brewers will have Braun (another young superstar) under contract for 8 years at an average salary of $5.6 million. By way of comparison, the Brewers are paying Jeff Suppan $42 million for four years! Why would these players ever agree to such deals? Because they secure the player’s financial future. If anything should happen to Evan Longoria, he and his family are assured of having no less than $17.5 million.

Based on these examples, fair contracts might be something like:
Pence: 5 years, $21 million with a $6 million team option for a sixth year and a one million buy-out.
Bourn: 5 years $19 million with a $5 million team option for a sixth year and a one million buy-out.

Pence and Bourn can sleep at night knowing their family’s financial futures are more than assured and the Astros can sleep at night knowing they have two very solid pieces of their team under long-term control at an incredibly reasonable average combined salary of only $8 million a year.

The trickiest of all of the key Astros to decide what to do with is Wandy Rodriguez. Wandy has somewhat surprisingly emerged into a very solid number two starter. Additionally, for the time being, Wandy is relatively inexpensive for a pitcher who performed how he did in 2009. However, despite his recent emergence, Wandy is already 31 years old and rapidly approaching free agency. These two very important factors suggest it would be wise for the Astros to at least explore trade options as soon as this summer. If he gets off to a start similar to how he pitched last season, he could bring a strong return in a deal.

As you read this and think about how bare the cabinet is becoming, you must constantly remind yourself to ask "what is the goal?" Is the goal to merely put a "competitive" team on the field - one without realistic championship or even playoff aspirations? My answer is no.

The goal, in my mind, is to be a champion. Getting back to that point may very well be painful and it will not happen in just one year. In all reality, if the Astros followed my course of action, 2010 would be a very painful year and 2011 would not be much better.

However, by 2012, there could be legitimate excitement; the type of excitement that comes from the anticipation of not just what this season could be but what the future can be. That would be at least a four or five-year window of sustained playoff contention, if not more. Sure revenues would fall in 2010 and 2011 but, if the Astros managed to move Oswalt and Berkman (assuming they were unable to move Lee), they would save more than $50 million over the next two years.

Even with cheap replacements (let's say $20 million over the two years for short-term veterans like Chien Ming Wang and Russell Branyan) and an increase in player development spending (let's say an extra $8 million total over the two years), revenues would have to decrease by more than $11 million per year in order for Drayton McLane to be any worse off financially than he otherwise would have been.

Also, it is not exactly clear how much revenues would fall, the economy aside. The Astros managed to draw over three million in attendance in 2007 despite fielding a 73-win team. Attending a baseball game in Houston is so popular that it is unclear how bad the team would have to be before attendance took a dip of the magnitude that would cause an $11 million decrease in revenue (again, effects of the economy aside).

2010 draft:

As noted above, despite consecutive promising drafts, the Astros system remains among the worst in baseball. Well, the Astros will have the 8th, 19th, 32nd, and 56th picks in the 2010 amateur draft. Now will the Astros capitalize on this tremendous opportunity or will Drayton demand Bobby Heck (Astros scouting director) stick to slot bonuses and go the signability route? Drayton, the ball is in your court.

This draft could be a monumental day for the franchise in one way or another. Should McLane give the go-ahead to draft according to talent (within limits - I understand that a player may ask for a bonus so unreasonable that no team would meet those demands and, in that circumstance, the Astros are fully excused from passing on that player), the system could be transformed almost overnight.

Quick Concluding Note:

There is no guarantee that my plan would be successful. Decisions must be made and some prospects acquired via trade or the draft won't pan out. However, even if it did not succeed and turn the Astros into World Series contenders, that does not at all mean that it still was not the proper course of action. It is a plan that I feel most baseball observers would approve of and gives the Astros a much better chance to really compete much faster than the current course, whatever that might be.

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.