Is This 1991 Redux?

added 3/24/2011 by Bob Hulsey

A poster on the Astros Baseball Talk discussion forum recently called the 2011 Astros lineup "embarrassing". He then rattled off every lineup Houston has showcased since 1992 as proof of his point. Granted, the Astros definitely lack for star power compared to all those lineups but the flaw in his argument was the year he used to begin his comparison.

The clock has been turned back 20 years to 1991 in many ways. The comparison is not complete, but it is the main coping mechanism Astros fans will need to get through this season.

It's difficult to tell people today that there was a time when a roster of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Curt Schilling, Pete Harnisch and Darryl Kile seemed as "embarrassing" back then as the 2011 cast might appear today. The claim seems even more ludicrous when you realize a young Kenny Lofton was a September call-up.

But they were largely "nobodies" back then. Many fans cursed the lack of star power of the 1991 Astros. I don't think even the Houston front office realized what sort of talent they had under their roof until many of them had been sent away.

Like today's club, the 1991 front office felt it could give time for their young charges to develop by putting the burden on a veteran starting rotation. The club had Mike Scott, Jim Deshaies, Jim Clancy and Mark Portugal to provide some respectability. But Scott's career was finished after two starts and Clancy was relegated to the bullpen, opening the door for Kile and Harnisch to win starting jobs. Schilling, meanwhile, was being groomed as a closer.

In 2011, veterans Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Nelson Figueroa will be asked to lend stability to a young team trying to find their legs. The hope is for Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson to solidify their roles as young future stars. Catcher Jason Castro was supposed to join them before a knee injury early in camp scuttled his season.

Just as in 1991, the 2011 team is a mix of young (and cheap) players with some below-market veterans. The reason is because the owner is trying to sell the team and the organization is one in transition.

The middle infield today is Clint Barmes and Bill Hall. Back in 1991, they were Rafael Ramirez and Casey Candaele.

There's no equivalent to Carlos Lee in our flashback (unless you consider Glenn Davis, who was traded to Baltimore that January for Finley, Harnisch and Schilling), but one could argue some similarity between Finley and Gonzalez with Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence. Like the inexperienced Wallace, 1991 had the inexperienced Bagwell. Like the youthful, flailing Johnson at third, the 1991 group had the youthful, flailing Caminiti at third.

The three major differences in the comparison are that the 1991 Astros had a lot more talent than most believe the 2011 Astros have, even if the 1991 management didn't realize what they had to work with. The 1991 Astros also didn't have the withering presence of internet scribes and self-appointed minor league scouts panning their every move so players were allowed to develop without a prejudged reputation preceding them. We know so much about these young players now that there are fewer surprises. The third difference is age. Most of the key newcomers then were younger than the players of today.

Back in 1991, the new wave of pitching talent was supposed to include Ryan Bowen, Brian Williams, Jeff Juden and Rob Mallicoat. You can be forgiven if you don't recall any of them but that's why we're here (just click on any of the names from 1991 for their Astros Daily player page). Back then, fans waited impatiently for the development of slugger Eric Anthony.

Today, we wait for the day that Jordan Lyles joins the rotation and look in hope to next year when Castro will be over his knee surgery.

The 1991 team finished last in the old National League West with a 65-97 record. Some of the SABR crowd predicts the same for the 2011 squad. I think they'll be much better than that even if they come up short of the .500 mark. It all could turn out much different than anyone anticipates.

After new ownership came along, the Astros added some high-priced free agents (Doug Drabek, Greg Swindell) and became contenders within a few years. History may repeat itself after 2011 with a wave of free agent signings coming to make the Astros division contenders by 2014.

Some won't wait to criticize the "embarrassment" the Astros will put on the field this year but the seeds sown were important in building the quality clubs that came later. Likewise, the purpose of the 2011 Astros is to build themselves back into a contender in a few years.

Personally, I find nothing embarrassing about that. It's simply part of the life cycle of a baseball franchise.

Now, if I could only roll back a few other things in life to 1991, I'd be happier.