Astros Will Need Prolonged Patience

added 1/28/2013 by Bob Hulsey

Judging from the sampling of fans on our discussion forum, they are expecting the Astros to be a winning ballclub (not necessarily a playoff contender) by 2015, which seems to me an unrealistic expectation.

The Astros have been through three prior times where the club bottomed out - 1962, which was their inaugural expansion season, 1975 and 1991 but, each time, there was a veteran nucleus that provided both a talent and experience boost that the current club simply lacks.

In all three cases, though, a bumper crop of young talent came up. Some swam and some sank but a few players were also discarded that, in retrospect, should have been developed longer.

You might be surprised to know that the Astros once fielded a team with one future Hall-of-Famer, a future Cy Young Award winner, eight others who became All-Stars, also a guy who was a Gold Glove winner with steady power and a guy who later led the National League in saves.

That 1968 club finished last in the 10-team National League and prompted a housecleaning by the front office. All but one of those players cited above was age 28 or younger so Houston did not get to witness the best years of Joe Morgan, Mike Cuellar, Rusty Staub, Nate Colbert, John Mayberry and Dave Giusti. Better patience may have produced a better story for the early 1970s.

The 1991 Astros were stocked with a lot of future greats. Three of them - Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling - will probably wind up in the Hall of Fame. Add to that a future MVP (Ken Caminiti) and three outfielders who would have long, outstanding careers (Steve Finley, Kenny Lofton and Luis Gonzalez) plus a future 20-game winner (Darryl Kile).

The Astros were smart enough to hold onto Bagwell and Biggio (and switch Biggio to a less demanding position than catcher) but they gave up on Schilling and Lofton way too soon while also sending away Caminiti, Finley and Gonzalez before their top years. Kile chose to leave in free agency.

If you really want to get wistful for a moment, imagine what could have developed if the Astros had used the top pick in the 1992 draft to take Derek Jeter instead of Phil Nevin and completed the proposed deal that winter to send pitcher Mark Portugal to the White Sox for a struggling young slugger named Sammy Sosa.

Wouldn't you have loved to go through the 1990s with a lineup like:

CF - Lofton
SS - Jeter
1B - Bagwell
LF - Sosa
3B - Caminiti
2B - Biggio
RF - Finley
C - who cares?

Put that lineup together with Schilling, Kile, Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds in your rotation and that's a formidable squad.

(Then toss in the first wave of Venezuelan talent we had coming up such as Freddy Garcia, Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen and Richard Hidalgo. There might have been a Braves-like dynasty in the works).

The problem, of course, is that the Astros needed to weed out the successes from guys like Brian Williams, Jeff Juden, Ryan Bowen, Eric Anthony, James Mouton, Brian Hunter and Andujar Cedeno - guys with high ceilings who never put it all together.

Which leads us back to the future. Be prepared for most of our top prospects to struggle even when they do reach the majors. Rookies rarely start their careers like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. Just as Brett Wallace and J.D. Martinez have experienced, there might be a few years of adjustments ahead for Matt Dominguez, Jonathan Singleton, George Springer, Jarred Cosart, et al before they become dependable stars, if they ever become stars.

Will the decision scientists have the patience to let these players develop before sending them off for other prospects? Will injuries, suspensions, greedy agents, labor disputes and simply bad decisions rob the new Astros of some future stars they should have held onto but didn't? It's an open question.

My point is that roaring back to respectability will probably not be as easy as the remaining Astros fan base seems to think. Yes, the 1968 Astros were winners by 1972 (with a drastically altered club). The 1975 Astros were winners by 1979. The 1991 Astros were winners by 1994. But the 2011-12 Astros dug a deeper hole for themselves and I expect it will take even longer for them to dig themselves out.

We don't even know yet who the flops are, much less who the late bloomers are. The front office, as well as their fans, are going to require a lot more patience than predicted in order to get this right.

The folks we are trusting to make these decisions have no track record yet to build on. They have some experience in finding young talent. They haven't shown yet that they know how to develop or sustain it, at least not at the major league level. That will be the next big hurdle.