It's A Happ-y New Era

added 8/1/2010 by Bob Hulsey

Say, did you hear the one about the baseball owner who paid $15 million dollars so his two best players could play for somebody else?

There's no punchline to this, only a combination of remorse and acceptance. We all knew this day would be coming and many Astros fans, including myself, and self-appointed internet experts have clamored for this for a few years. Well, you asked for it and now you have it. Satisfied?

Roy Oswalt is still in a red uniform, but it is Phillie red, not Astros red. Lance Berkman is still in pinstripes but they are Yankee pinstripes, not Astros pinstripes. Welcome to the new world order.

Oswalt and Berkman have spent a decade playing for the Astros and providing fans with many enjoyable moments while taking the team to heights they'd never experienced before, although the rainbow-clad Astros of the 1980s sure got close.

What's more, the pair were model teammates and citizens. You never once read where they were pulled over for driving drunk or got into a fight outside a strip club or were caught with prostitutes or even juiced. They're both devoted family men who cared about the imprint they left on others in the community. I know I speak for many who will still cheer for them both, even on their new teams.

But the moves had to be made and even the players understood this. While they're excited to be back playing meaningful baseball, both talked as if they wished they could be playing meaningful baseball and still be Astros.

While the Biggio-Bagwell era in Houston has been over for three years, the trading of Berkman and Oswalt symbolically ends that period of Astros baseball and begins a new one where stars will be named Castro or Lyles or Wallace. It's really too early to know which ones will captivate us the way past ones have.

Though the emotional regret of trading these two icons is palpable, Texans are generally good at sucking it up and pressing ahead without excessive sentimentality. Life lessons such as Hurricane Ike teach us nothing is permanent. We all have to move on.

The internet wags have been calling for the Astros to be "blown up" since before Cecil Cooper became manager. It was the standard template to call Drayton McLane either greedy, cheap or delusional and to call Ed Wade a moron. Now that the Astros have actually done what the wags demanded, they are still hurling epithets at McLane and Wade, proving yet again that it is the template that must be obeyed, regardless of the facts.

The Astros needed to get younger and bring in new talent. Oswalt and Berkman were two of the three expensive contracts on the payroll (Carlos Lee, as noted previously, is virtually untradeable) who could net prospects. Both were past 30 years of age and had shown some decline in recent years from their past greatness but still had value to teams looking for one more piece to get them back to the playoffs. Neither was likely to produce at the level of their salaries (each above $14 million) and both players had no-trade clauses that allowed them to dictate what teams were acceptable trade destinations.

Rather than dissect each deal, it is better to see it in its entirety. The Astros dealt an aging, expensive pitcher (Oswalt) and an aging, expensive first baseman (Berkman) and received a good young lefthander (J.A. Happ), a good young first base prospect (Brett Wallace), a young reliever with some brief big league experience (Mark Melancon) and two Dominican middle infielders with development potential (Jonathan Villar and Jimmy Paredes). To make this happen, the Astros also sent a combined $15 million dollars to pay part of the estimated $30 million left on the contracts of Oswalt and Berkman.

Could Wade have done better? Maybe. Did the Astros send away too much money? Maybe. Only the Astros front office knows what other options were on the table but, in this economy, there are few takers for big salaries out there. The Phillies and Yankees happen to be two of a handful. Even with the large wad of cash sent, the deal still represents payroll relief which can be used for future free agent moves. It may also come in handy in luring unsigned draft prospects Delino Deshields Jr. and Jacoby Jones, who could also give the farm system a shot in the arm.

As one writer put it, this is the era of "prospects are gold" where GMs can no longer pry top prospects away from other teams as easily as it used to happen. Good prospects are the way to build a good team cheaply and, even though many prospects never pan out, the ones that do often come back to haunt GMs that traded them away. In other words, there were several reasons why Oswalt and Berkman could not bring top offers from other clubs.

It's been explained here and elsewhere how badly the Houston farm system had been depleted by poor drafts and a lack of signed talent while we were all distracted by the World Series run. This week's trades are part of a larger attempt to restock the farm system that has included signing international talent (Chia-Jen Lo and Ariel Ovando among them), upgrading their Dominican academy and signing some players "above slot" against the wishes of Commissioner Bud Selig.

The Astros are likely to get worse before they get better. If you can't stand losing, come back in 2013 or become frontrunning Yankee fans. These kids will need time to develop, just as all young players do. They'll make mistakes and they'll strike out a lot, but they'll get better over time.

Don't expect Happ to be Oswalt (although he gave a darned good impression on Friday with six innings of two-hit ball) and don't expect Wallace to be Berkman. Those are hard acts to follow and these guys don't need that pressure. Let them grow into their own skin and they'll be fine.

Tough as it is, we fans will need to let go of our recent heroes and embrace the new group of young Astros. Be supportive of them as you were of Bagwell, Biggio, Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton, et al. back in the early 1990s when they were finding their way.

The next big name headed out may be McLane himself. Some say the sell-off is a precursor to selling the Astros, just as dealing Glenn Davis and company foretold the sale by Dr. John McMullen. I don't know about that. But judging from the way McLane was willing to give up some money to send away Berkman and Oswalt, McLane may also have to come down from his reported $650 million asking price if he wants to sell the team. In this economy, there are fewer buyers for that as well.

As sad as it is to say goodbye to two great players, don't weep for long. The Astros still have the nucleus of a good starting rotation and if some of the young players like Castro and Wallace catch on quickly, the club may find itself back in the playoff hunt sooner than we think.