Thesaurus Wanted

added 5/9/2010 by Bob Hulsey

There are only so many ways to describe a bad baseball team and there's still five months of the season left. I may need all the known terms plus some new made-up ones to get to October if the Astros continue their losing ways.

Believe it or not, the Astros are not setting franchise marks for ineptitude but they are getting close. The longest losing streak in club history is 11 games, set in 1995. The 1969 Astros started their season 4-20 but rallied to finish 81-81. Entering Sunday's game, the Astros' team batting average was .226, worst in the majors. The 1963 Colt .45s went an entire year batting .220. The 2010 Astros, however, are on a pace for a 49-113 campaign. The franchise has never lost more than 97 games in a season.

I still believe the team won't be this terrible all season. At some point, Carlos Lee will come out of semi-retirement, Hunter Pence will learn how to lay off sliders out of the zone and Lance Berkman will get his stroke back. If the pitching keeps on their current pace, squeezing out 70 wins might still happen.

You know its bad when the three stars with no-trade clauses are now murmuring about trades or retirement. Losing like this is not fun for them any more than it is for us to watch them. I feel worst for Roy Oswalt who is actually having a good spring but is 2-4 because of terrible run support.

The issue now is whether the Astros will actually try to move Oswalt and Berkman before the July trade deadline and lose some of the few gate attractions the team has left. The .175-hitting Berkman of today is unlikely to get many takers and, even if one existed, there wouldn't be much received in return.

Lee is simply untradeable for any cost. We're stuck with him through 2012.

Like the 1960 expansion teams, the current Astros are a mix of worn-out veterans with little left in the tank and kids who either have hit their ceiling or could use more seasoning. The few players in their prime can't carry this group.

The 60's Astros at least had young talent like Joe Morgan, Jim Wynn, Larry Dierker and Rusty Staub you could watch blossom into stars. Other than Michael Bourn and Matt Lindstrom, there's nobody I enjoy watching on the current club. Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino are frustrating to watch because they have the talent but they can't yet overcome mistakes.

Now that the Astros have thrown catcher J.R. Towles into the trashcan, you'll see Jason Castro brought up even if he isn't ready because the Astros will need something to keep fans from leaving in droves. If you'd watched any recent games, you'll notice large swaths of empty seats at Minute Maid that didn't use to be there. For publicity expediency more than sound baseball judgement, the former number one choice will get a quick ticket to Houston.

The problem is that the Astros don't have budding talent waiting in the wings to replace most of their tired veterans. Returning to playoff contention is going to take a minimum of 3-5 years development and hoping the right buttons get pressed. Astros fans are going to need the patience of their 60's counterparts to weather the downturn. As teams get smarter about free agency, expect less big names to show up that could give the Astros a major shot in the arm. There will be no quick fixes.

Will Drayton McLane still be the owner when we come out of this? I doubt it. I appreciate all that McLane has done for the team and the city since he bought the ballclub in 1992 but it's time to move on and let the team get a new infusion of both money and ideas. If the owner plans to dicker with draft choices instead of signing them, the rebuilding process is going to take still longer.

Hopefully, Oswalt continues his near-masterful pitching and Berkman returns to a .270-.280-batting power hitter by July and we can get some good prospects for them without having to eat too much of their contracts. I think both players want another shot at the brass ring and it is just not going to happen in Houston.

Both have no-trade clauses which narrow the trade possibilities substantially. Thinking creatively, perhaps both players could be packaged in one deal. The Rangers would be a suitor if it were not for their money woes. We could get a nice haul of young players, including Justin Smoak to replace Berkman, and just Go Marlin for awhile. We'd probably have to pay a large chunk of Oswalt's and Berkman's remaining contracts but it could be a financial boon to the struggling Rangers while the Astros would get a shot of needed young talent.

The other suitor I have in mind is the Dodgers. They might take more of the contracts and give us Houstonian James Loney along with a couple of solid prospects. The Dodgers have two good shortstops in the pipeline and one (Dee Gordon or Ivan DeJesus, Jr.) ought to be available if Ed Wade presses for it. The Dodgers also have a financial problem because of the pending divorce of their team owner but they are largely a group built to win now.

The benefit of dealing both together is that they'll have an instant teammate for their new destination and may object less to a trade with that in mind. Plus, no team will make a move like that unless they are trying to win this year so a suitor will have to be in a pennant race. Finally, by getting both players, the new club can be a little less worried that either will fall victim to injury. It improves the odds that one or the other will be playing great in September when they are expected to put a team over the top.

It's a longshot, but it shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. The Astros are not in a position to be picky. They've dawdled long enough trying to strain the last ounce out of their veterans. It's time to see the problem for what it is and do the rebuilding that has to happen.

The fan in me will be sorry to watch either Berkman or Oswalt leave but I think both of them now realize that there's no future for them in staying if they want to play again on a playoff team. The decision will ultimately rest with them but the poor start has sped up the timetable where a decision will be needed.