You Have Four Players

added 11/26/2012 by Bob Hulsey

"I guess the question I'm asked the most often is: 'When you were sitting in that capsule listening to the count-down, how did you feel?' Well, the answer to that one is easy. I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts - all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract."

- Col. John Glenn, first American in orbit, upon announcing his retirement in 1997.

Sometimes watching the new-look Astros is like watching the Chinese government trying to launch rockets to the moon before the Clintons sold them America's missile technology. There are bright minds with the will to achieve but they are so woefully behind the curve in expertise that they can't do anything but fall way short of their goal.

With the massive housecleaning they have done in the past 12 months, the Astros are long on guys who have never done it before and seemed to be hired because they will work for cheap or for the opportunity to have a resume builder.

Let's review, shall we?

Jim Crane makes a ridiculously high pitch to Drayton McLane to buy the Astros, a team Forbes magazine valued the year before in the low $500 millions but Crane and his group of investors offered $680 million in an effort to outbid, well, nobody. Nobody else was touching that price.

It had the smell of a pre-arranged deal by Commissioner Bud Selig after Selig passed over Crane's higher bid in 2008 (with Mavericks owner and gadfly Mark Cuban as a major partner) to buy the Texas Rangers, handing them instead to Nolan Ryan.

After Crane balked at the league switch Selig demanded of the Astros, Richard Justice, Maury Brown and the inside baseball media had no trouble trashing Crane's reputation with allegations of racism, sexism, even possible child abuse, to give them cover if Crane ultimately had to be rejected.

Crane relented but only after getting a $65 million rebate, proving in the process that American League franchises not in Boston or the Bronx are simply not worth what National League franchises are.

Since then, the Astros have systematically dumped any player earning over $2 million to rebuild the farm system. They've added "decision scientists" and rebuilt the minor league camp in the Dominican Republic but, otherwise, have chosen a facelift to remove 51 years of age rather than spend to put a better product on the field.

Why fans in the fourth-largest city in the country are being treated like Marlins fans can only be explained in two logical avenues:

1) The debt used to finance the sale price was so huge that only by going bare bones at the big league level can they whittle it down to a manageable size before investing again in the parent club. If this is the reason, expect bad times ahead for at least the next five years.

2) Crane and General Manager Jeff Luhnow truly believe that kids who are barely competitive at the big league level can magically evolve into the second coming of the Miracle Mets of 1969 or, to choose a more modern model, the Tampa Bay Rays of 2008. At least this is what they hope remaining fans will believe.

Occasionally, I play this little game in my spare time. I look at the rosters and ask myself "if the Rangers and Astros were merged, how many Astros would make the 25-man squad?"

Currently, I count four - Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Jason Castro and Wilton Lopez. Some others with some future would still be in AAA waiting for guys like Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus to go elsewhere instead of wasting time on the bench.

So that's four major leaguers the Astros have and 21 imposters. While you get to watch an endless parade of Scott Moores, Steve Pearces, Tyler Greenes and Chuckie Ficks waltz through town, Luhnow either can't or won't spend for a player that would represent a serious upgrade to his ballclub. He dances around the idea with double-talk but the only "name" players that have arrived since he came to town are washed up pitchers Livan Hernandez and Francisco Cordero who were both released as quickly as possible.

Call me old fashioned but I thought the idea of being a major league franchise was to win championships (cue Herman Edwards). The concept was to get the best players you could and support them to win as many games as possible.

The expansion Colt .45s had Turk Farrell and Nellie Fox. The 1975 Astros still had Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson after their fire sale. The 1991 Astros had Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. The parent club has never been as devoid of talent as the current one. It is, despite all the talk, built to fail but fail as cheaply as possible. I don't sense any urgency from this club to win games anytime soon. Instead, they want us to focus on 4-5 years from now when it is hoped all these prospects on the farm will begin to deliver.

Yes, I applauded their trades to unload bad contracts. A few guys they received may eventually be good. But I've never before watched a front office so completely nuke their parent club in their quest for minor league talent.

Keep in mind that the players acquired in all these deals by Luhnow and Ed Wade were not for the best minor league players. It was for the ones deemed expendable so the odds are already against them ever becoming star players (while acknowledging that occasionally a Bagwell slips through). All but a few will be lucky to ever be better than role players.

Where the stars may come from is by being baseball's worst team and getting the first pick in the June draft every year. That's a risky strategy which could land you the next Alex Rodriguez or the next Matt Bush. For every success story like the Rays, there's a franchise like the Pirates or Royals who can't make it work before those stars head for free agency elsewhere.

By being so barren at the big league level, the Astros may find it even harder to attract anyone in free agency who could actually make the team better. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of suck - bad because the players are bad but can't get any good players because good players generally don't want to play for bad teams, particularly ones who show no interest in spending to be good.

All that leads to worse attendance (just switching leagues will guarantee poorer attendance once the novelty wears off), poorer ad rates for their cable channel and less merchandise sales. At some point, the Astros will need to bite the bullet and spend above value to get a star player to come to Houston. The question is when, not whether.

I know some of you have already figured this out and are content to whistle past the graveyard believing the decision scientists with the fancy sheepskins know what they are doing. It's possible they do and, despite my harsh comments, I hope they succeed.

But any decision scientist knows that energy begets entropy far more often than the reverse and when you build an entire organization based on the lowest bidder, it's more likely to end up like the Challenger or the Columbia than the Mercury missions.

Somebody has to have the experience to understand what they are doing. I don't know who on the Astros has this experience but I know who will take the fall if they get the answers wrong.