Is 2010 Re-run Of 1991?

added 6/23/2010 by Pat Hajovsky

With the long-awaited call-up of Jason Castro to the majors (along with Jason Bourgeois and Chris Johnson), the Astros seem to have finally begun their youth movement - meaning they have given up the ghost of contending now for one of contending in the future. (So instead of posturing posers, they're now in posed posture?)

Certainly, one could argue that Castro himself is only one player, and that young players like Michael Bourn, Bud Norris and Tommy Manzella show that the Astros were committed to a youth movement before now. But there is no doubt that the call-up of Castro presents a signature event for the franchise, touted as he has been as one of the next generation of mainstays. The question is, will his be a noted call-up along the lines of Lance Berkman in 1999, J.R. Richard in 1971 or Craig Biggio in 1988, or will he more closely resemble the regrettable Robbie Wine, Mitch Meluskey or Phil Nevin?

Whatever the case, soon to follow will be Brian Bogusevic (age 26), Jordan Lyles (19), Chia-Jen Lo (24) and, dare I say it, starting AA All Star Koby Clemens (23). As well, with the influx of recent draft picks, more promising "yutes" are on the way. So, even if Castro is not the second coming of Joe Mauer, nobody (especially the front office) can say the Astros are not now in a transition period.

A quick look at the record book shows a remarkable resemblance to what they faced in the 1990-91 period. Coming off a disappointing (but eminently predictable) 75-87 finish in 1990, the Astros were left wondering what to do with aging and declining veterans such as Glenn Davis, Bill Doran, Glenn Wilson, Danny Darwin, Larry Andersen, Dave Smith and Ken Oberkfell. That 75-win team in 1990 was old and slow - veteran talent for sure, yet with skills that made you say, "Remember when he could make that play?"

Heading into 1991, John McMullen, the Astros' aging owner who was looking to sell the team, slashed payroll and ordered GM Bill Wood to promote the talented and cheaper kids. Joining Craig Biggio and Ken Caminiti as the "veterans" of that group, were Jeff Bagwell (age 23), Luis Gonzalez (23), Andujar Cedeno (21), Darryl Kile (22) and the massive Jeff Juden (20). Then, in a deal that should be remembered for being as remarkable as the Andersen-for-Bagwell swap and one that arguably was even more important to setting the stage for the 1990's, Davis was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Curt Schilling (24), Pete Harnisch (24) and Steve Finley (26).

The results in 1991? Nine less wins than in 1990. But anyone who saw that team was nine times more excited because the team played hard, played well (at times) and was bursting at the seams with promise.

There were certainly disappointments in that group. Schilling did not mature into the great veteran pitcher he ended up being until after he was traded to the Phillies for Jason Grimsley. Juden's million-dollar talent never overcame his 10-cent head. Cedeno couldn't live up to his promise at shortstop (despite a very good 1993 season). And it must painfully be recalled that Kenny Lofton was dealt to Cleveland in 1991 for the unremarkable Ed Taubensee. Rebuilding is, after all, a messy process. But consider the advances:

  • The commitment to youth and a new approach resulted in "new" second baseman Biggio and "new" first baseman Bagwell. Don't forget, Bagwell's initial role was to replace Caminiti (age 28) at third base following two decent but underwhelming seasons. A great spring by Cammy, however, forced the team to move Bagwell to first base, something that would not have happened had Bagwell been a veteran and if the Davis trade hadn't taken place. Similarly, the bad taste of 1990 was just as instrumental in Biggio's switch from catcher to second base. That right side of the infield would produce the core of the Astros' success that we are aching to replace today.

  • While the 1991 team was overmatched all season, that did not last. The 1992 team saw a return to .500 baseball with an 81-81 record. The 1993 team improved to 85 wins and the 1994 team was arguably the best Astros squad in franchise history to that point - finishing 66-49 in the strike-shortened season.

    With the focus on the lack of run-scoring ability on the 2010 Astros (currently on pace to score 551 runs, a low not seen since 1968), the 1994 team was on pace to score 848 runs, which would have been the best in franchise history to that point, only to be topped by the 1998 and 2000 teams which represented an almost 300-run improvement from 1990 (notably, Bagwell earned a well-deserved MVP award in 1994.)

    As I mentioned at the top of this column, nobody can yet say that the promotion of Castro is set to produce a Hall-of-Fame career, or even that this is the beginning of a youth movement, or especially that the Astros are on the cusp of a decade comparable to the success of the 1990's. But with McLane perhaps putting the team in a sale posture, similar to what McMullen did in the early 1990’s, and with the team playing slow and boring baseball not unlike the 1990 squad, and with the farm system now being restocked to supply major league-ready talent into the future, it is certainly not wildly optimistic to say Castro represents a potential tipping point.

    To personalize the matter, I attended the Friday, June 11th game against the Texas Rangers, a 9-3 loss. Never have I seen a more demoralized and energy-less bunch. The team looked and felt old, as if they couldn't wait for the season to end. For the first time since probably 1990, I left the ballpark wondering if I even wanted to come back this year. With the promotion of Jason Castro, however, I have renewed interest. It feels like a change has come to the franchise. Long-delayed perhaps, but if honesty about this team's capabilities has infected the front office in a way that is similar to the 1990-91 period, I'm now looking forward to my next trip to the ballpark.

    So good job, Astros. Keep it up.