Next Two Weeks Critical For Future

added 7/12/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Now that the 2010 Astros have reached the All-Star Break, it is time to take stock. There are some signs that the Astros are bad and some signs they're not as bad as many think.

The direction of the next few years may be traceable to the next two weeks leading up to the trade deadline on July 31st. What General Manager Ed Wade is able to accomplish and what Owner Drayton McLane is willing to give up could decide if the Astros can think about being contenders again in 2013 or if it might need to wait until possibly 2016.

First, some numbers:

The Astros enter the break 14th out of 16 National League teams in wins, 15th in runs scored, 15th in batting average, last in slugging percentage and last in OPS. We no longer have to seriously consider them in terms of historically bad offensive teams as we did in the spring, but they still aren't very good offensively, regardless of what metric you choose to measure them with.

The removal of hitting coach Sean Berry was long overdue but I'm not sure if new coach Jeff Bagwell will provide any improvement. The Astros remain an offense too weak, too slow and too inept.

The pitching isn't as bad as the hitting but it also leaves much to be desired. They are 13th in earned run average, 13th in runs allowed and 13th in WHIP despite being the fifth best in home runs allowed. In a nutshell, they're the worst National League pitching staff not based in Pittsburgh, Arizona or Milwaukee. Even the Rockies are better.

The starting pitching hasn't been all that bad but they haven't been consistent. Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino have all had good stretches where they looked ready to get on a winning streak. Roy Oswalt and Brett Myers have thrown well enough that they'd be perceived as winning pitchers if they had a better lineup supporting them.

Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom have removed many of the questions some had about them when the season began. They haven't been "lights out" like we have sometimes been accustomed to but they have been worth the investment. The middle relief, however, has been spotty at best.

Before this assessment appears as a total bashfest, it should be noted that the Astros have been a .500 team since June 1st despite getting swept in series by the Yankees, Rays and Rangers. They're 19-14 in their own division and a tolerable 33-40 for the season among National League opponents. The Pythagorean totals show Brad Mills is five games better than the run differential suggests he should be.

Save for a few players, though, the Astros are in need of a total overhaul and there doesn't appear to be much help coming from the farm now that Jason Castro and Chris Johnson are back with the parent club.

That means the Astros need to liquidate some of their top assets and rebuild for the future. It's a message some have been saying since 2006 and it's a message the Astros have only started to come to grips with in the last year or so. The Bagwell-Biggio Era was great, but it's over. Attendance continues to sag with each year the club ignores cultivating new talent.

Wade must start by asking himself who he can imagine leading the club in 2013 and beyond. Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman won't be there. Carlos Lee shouldn't be either. Myers and Rodriguez aren't likely to be around either.

So Wade should make the best deal he can for any of them. Berkman and Lee will be difficult to move, particularly with their hefty salaries, lack of production and no-trade clauses but Wade should find out if there's any interest and make some effort to deal them.

Oswalt is a different story. He's pitched well and should command some attention. He'll be the best way to bring some real talent back in return but only if McLane agrees to eat part of his contract. While the promotion of Castro was symbolically the first step in a new generation of Astros, the players we get back in an Oswalt deal will also be a symbolic beginning of a new era for the Astros.

Myers and Rodriguez have value and can bring some useful talent in return. And if there are any takers for Pedro Feliz, Geoff Blum, Brian Moehler and Jason Michaels, don’t hesitate to let them go. After the dust settles, we can see what is left to build around.

Unloading two or more of Oswalt, Lee and Berkman will also clear a lot of payroll space to bring in some younger free agents, again with an eye for 2013 not 2011. Houstonian Carl Crawford would be an intriguing name but I’m not stumping for any particular player here.

It seems to me that the Astros have practically nothing at second base or shortstop in their system so an upgrade at either would be one priority.

Like a lot of Astros fans, seeing Berkman and/or Oswalt leave will be tough emotionally. They've both been great players of high character and fan favorites for a decade. Both now realize that they'll help the organization more as trade bait than as star players and welcome the thought of getting back to the playoffs before their careers end, even if it means wearing a different uniform.

But, just like watching your kids get married or go off to college, you must fight off the urge to be selfish and do what you know is right for all concerned. Maybe if everything goes right with rebuilding, we can welcome them back as bit players in a last farewell before they go on with the rest of their lives.

Just as Jeff Bagwell now must feel odd returning to the same field he once dominated but returning as merely a hitting coach, Oswalt and Berkman must someday confront those feelings too. Whether they want another chance at a pennant first is up to them but they won't find it staying in Houston.

Don't panic, fans. The Astros have been here before - in 1975 and in 1991. Each time, a move to liquidate veterans and start over paid off five years later. It can happen again, beginning this year. Whether it happens will be a test of both skill and will.