Built To Lose

added 12/16/2011 by Bob Hulsey

Even without the pending league switch, I can't recall a time when Astros fans have had so little to look forward to. It's as if this season has already been surrendered before the first pitch has been thrown.

Yes, we've had losing teams before and last-place teams before but never with so little hope as with the current squad. The expansion teams of the 1960s were bad and were expected to be bad but that was offset first by the excitement of getting major league baseball for the first time and then moving into the futuristic Astrodome which often became the larger attraction than the product on the field that first decade.

In 1975, the team hit bottom and started over under new leadership. But the Astros still had stars like Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson plus upcoming talent like J.R. Richard.

In 1991, Houston hit bottom again but there were young stars like Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Ken Caminiti to embrace.

First the Astros bid farewell to the last two stars of their World Series run, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. Then they dealt away their two remaining stars, outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, who combined to represent the Astros at the last three All-Star Games.

Other than Carlos Lee, there's nobody on the present club who has taken part in the Midseason Classic. Lee is being shopped now, as well as pitchers Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez - the last three players in the organization making any significant money. Before long, the highest-paid Astro may be damaged closer Brandon Lyon who could be sent packing as soon as he can prove he can still pitch.

It's one thing to be rebuilding and it's another to do what the Astros have done which is to discard practically anyone with major league talent and literally start over from the ground floor. It's like watching a venerable old building detonated with explosives before a new structure goes up in its place. I suppose someone could argue the total destruction of the Astros parent club is a good thing, in the same way that Mrs. O'Leary's cow did a good thing for Chicago, but was it necessary to decimate the team to this extent?

The 1975-76 Astros still had veteran box office attraction Larry Dierker as well as the aforementioned young stars. The 1991-92 Astros still had Mark Portugal and added veterans Doug Jones and Pete Incaviglia in their quest to stay competitive.

The 2012 Astros might very well pass through an airport or a hotel lobby without anyone recognizing a one of them. They may have an image problem much larger than that - a team built to fail, one designed to compete in only the most general of terms.

Perhaps I am selling the talents of Jordan Lyles, Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez short (and I regret using Altuve in the same sentence as the word "short" though I doubt it's the last time), but I don't see any of them rising to the level of being a Biggio, Bagwell or Richard someday. Their ceilings would appear to be well below that.

No matter how new General Manager Jeff Luhnow massages his spreadsheets, the batting metrics add up to "suck" and the pitching formulas add up to "ouch". It will look even worse if Wandy, Myers and Lee get passports back to the major leagues in Jim Crane's pursuit of the bottom line.

You see, the 1975 Astros may have traded away a lot of veterans but it wasn't like the cupboards were bare or the organization didn't want to win. The 1991 Astros may have done the same but it was evident that there was a young nucleus about to blast off. Both bounced back to respectability the following season.

I get a different vibe about the present version. 4-for-1 trades may restock the farm but they rarely produce superstars, the ones who draw fans back to the ballpark or whose posters hang up on young boy's walls. It looks like Crane and Luhnow will depend on top draft choices to produce those and most will take years to surface.

It would have been nice to still have a Pence or Bourn left to give fans something to hope in. Had the old regime tried to liquidate in a different order, I think that could have been possible. It's not like either player was long in the tooth and either could have provided a link to the days when Houston baseball fans could cheer with optimism. Pence and Bourn were Texas lads who fit in with the locals seamlessly and didn't come across like mercenaries or elitists. They were both excellent in PR tasks among the community and in projecting a positive image for the club.

All that remains now are a bunch of baby-faced kids, a smattering of AAAA guys and a few large salaries just hoping for a change of scenery. There's not much left to get attached to or excited about.

Besides the psychological damage this long-coming drought will do to the remaining young players, the Houston fans are the greatest victims. They will need to someday overcome a culture of losing that will hang over Minute Maid Park in the coming years which can be as hard to be rid of as the smell of Downtown Houston in August.

The other day, notorious player agent Scott Boras said Houston deserves a perpetual contender with a budget befitting a major market. He was speaking, clearly, as someone with his own self-interest. He wants to be able to sell his overpriced clients in the nation's fourth-largest city but the man has a point. Do the baseball fans of Houston deserve to witness this coming disaster of a season as if they were the citizens of, say, Salt Lake City or New Orleans?

Perhaps they do. After all, they didn't put up much protest as this decline was all going down. Perhaps after decades of watching cellar-dwelling Oilers, Texans and Rockets teams, they just came to accept suckiness as a condition of being a Houston sports fan. Like the infernal summer heat, there's just nothing that can be done about it.

That doesn't seem like the way a city the size and culture of Houston ought to feel. You'd think fans would demand better. But they haven't which might explain why this has wound up where it has.