What If Wade Had Stayed?

added 9/17/2013 by Bob Hulsey

Imagine for a moment that Jim Crane and George Postolos thought nothing was wrong with having Ed Wade as General Manager and kept him on instead of turning to Jeff Luhnow and his merry band of decision scientists to lead the ballclub through the rebuilding process.

And imagine, too, that Crane behaved as most new owners and wanted to keep a competitive product at a competitive payroll on the field during the rebuilding process - maybe not something that was built to win a title but something that was capable of winning 70 games a year instead of 50.

What might the Astros look like today?

In doing this experiment, let's keep two things in mind. First, the rebuild was fully underway by 2011, Wade's final year in Houston. Many of the top prospects coming up from the minors or almost ready are players obtained by Wade, not Luhnow. That includes George Springer, Mike Foltynewicz, Jonathan Singleton, Delino DeShields, Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens, Brett Oberholtzer, Josh Zeid, Jonathan Villar and Jimmy Paredes. No doubt he would be as committed to bringing up these players when they were ready as Luhnow has been.

Secondly, while nobody knows how creative Wade would have been while drafting and making trades, he probably would not have been as aggressive in dealing veterans for prospects so some of the moves here are purely speculative but would seem in character with Wade's types of moves. They would be more like a man trying to keep the Astros competitive rather than laying waste to the parent club while starting over.

Let's start with the 2012 and 2013 drafts. The Astros had already clinched the top spot for the 2012 draft before Wade left and the consensus top overall choice was pitcher Mark Appel of Stanford. As it turned out, Luhnow chose Appel in 2013 at a somewhat reduced price so - Wade or Luhnow - Appel becomes an Astro and possibly would be a bit closer to being big league ready with an extra year in the minors.

That also means farewell to the parlay of Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers although the Astros would still have used the compensation pick in Round One received for the departed Clint Barmes for some talented prospect. As Wade tried to keep the team competitive, let's hypothesize the Astros finished with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft. Strike Appel from the draft board and the fourth best pick is OF Clint Frazier. However, the appeal of power-hitting college 3B Colin Moran addresses a need and is more like Wade's choice - a lefty-hitting infielder who can hit for power and flash the leather.

The Astros would have had to decide what to do with veteran pitchers Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon as well as the hefty corpse (literally and financially) of Carlos Lee.

Conservatively, Wandy, Myers and Lee stay until their contracts expire and the Astros also get a compensation pick for losing Wandy to free agency. I'm going to presume Wade would not have received some of the deals Luhnow made for these players and expect less in both quantity and quality for the deals he did make.

Wade would have also paid more attention to the bullpen and would never have allowed it to fall to the state where five or six rookies are back there to blow so many leads.

So what might last year's team have looked like? Probably bad, just not quite as bad:

SP - Wandy, Myers, Happ, Norris, Lyles
RP - Melancon, Lopez, LaTroy Hawkins*, Lyon, John Rauch*, F. Rodriguez, Wright
C - Castro, Quintero
IF - Wallace, Altuve, Paredes, Johnson, Jeff Keppinger*, Downs
OF - Lee, J. Martinez, Schafer, Bogusevic, Shuck
* - free agents signed (in real life) to 1-year deals costing a total of $8.025 million making a total projected payroll of $68.9 million.

After 2012, Lee and Myers are gone. F. Rodriguez, Quintero, Schafer and Downs are waived and they do not re-sign Hawkins. Keppinger and Rauch are re-signed. They make Happ a free agent.

Needing a DH and a name player for 2013, Wade signs Mike Napoli to a three-year deal at $7 mil per (in real life, he signed with Boston 1 yr for $5 mil). They find two veteran pitchers still job hunting towards the end of the winter, scooping up SP Kyle Lohse and also bringing back RP Chad Qualls.

I realize some will start chanting names like Kaz Matsui, Pedro Feliz and Woody Williams when forecasting Wade's prowess in signing free agents. I tend to think he'd do better with a sensible budget if Crane wanted to appease fans with a competitive club.

Signing these names is not the same as going after A-grade free agents like Josh Hamilton or C.C. Sabathia. The names I added would have been easily affordable in a $60-70 million payroll.

For 2013, the speculative Wade roster looks like this:

SP - Wandy, Lohse*, Norris, Lyles, Cosart
RP - Melancon, Lopez, Rauch*, Qualls*, Wright, Cisnero, Keuchel
DH - Napoli* (will also sub at 1B and C)
C - Castro, Corporan
IF - Wallace, Altuve, Villar, Johnson, Paredes, Keppinger*
OF - J. Martinez, Springer, Barnes, Shuck

Okay, admittedly still not good - particularly at the plate. But the kids are coming up and impressing. Wandy's contract is history after 2013 and the only significant future money is for Napoli. Probably some veterans were traded for prospects but no telling who for what.

Now we reach 2014. Here's what a projected Astros roster might be without a single Luhnow-traded prospect in the mix. The one major addition is signing OF Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal.

SP - Norris, Lyles, Cosart, Oberholtzer, Clemens
(in the wings, Appel, Foltynewicz, Buchanan, Martinez)
RP - Melancon, Lopez, Zeid, Lo, Cisnero, Keuchel and another lefty
DH - Napoli
C - Castro, Corporan
IF - Singleton, Wallace, Altuve, Villar, Johnson, Paredes
(in the wings, 3B Moran)
OF - Beltran, Springer, J. Martinez, Shuck
(in the wings, DeShields, Santana)

The payroll would be in the $60-70 mil neighborhood or less and there is still plenty of young talent to build around.

Essentially, I'm ignoring any possible trades or waiver claims Wade could have done for 2012-13 in this projection because it would be impossible to know if he would have claimed the likes of Justin Maxwell, Fernando Martinez or Hector Ambriz or whether he might have made deals involving Jed Lowrie, coming or going.

Could a batting order that looks like
SS Villar
2B Altuve
RF Beltran
CF Springer
DH Napoli
1B Singleton/Wallace
3B Johnson
C Castro/Corporan
LF Martinez/Shuck/Barnes
seem more competitive than what we've seen out of the real-life Astros? I think so, although it is still young and offering potential for growth.

Contracts for Napoli and Beltran would be done before the 2015 season and they would make tangible trade bait should the Astros feel a need to deal them. The Astros could, then, go on a shopping spree for 2015 and fill whatever holes had developed.

Some will say they'd rather go 55-107 every year than go 70-92. Losing baseball is losing baseball, they'd argue, and you'll get better prospects the higher up in the draft order you select. On the other hand, the live gate and the revenue probably increase while the TV deal is more likely to happen with some familiar faces for fans to watch and the prospect of winning 40% of the time. With some momentum, perhaps even a .500 season would be possible.

The Astros' market ought to be able to consistently produce a $100-110 million payroll at a profit if they have a healthy organization with productive stars. The mid-2000s proved that.

The oft-cited neglect of the farm system occurred from 2004-2007 when the Astros invested in high-dollar veterans like Jeff Kent, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens instead of paying bonuses to players in the amateur draft. It led to two exciting post-season runs but it also led to the talent drain Wade and scouting director Bobby Heck were hired to fix. They were in the process of rebuilding the minor league talent base even before the sale.

My point is not that Wade would have been a better GM or that Luhnow is not a good one. My point is that any GM dealt the hand Luhnow had would be in a rebuilding mode and looking forward to guys like Cosart, Springer and Singleton leading a new generation of stars into the mid-2010s. Luhnow added some good players, particularly Matt Dominguez who was acquired for Carlos Lee. Asher Wojciechowski, Robbie Grossman and a handful of others Luhnow acquired by trade may develop into stars someday.

There's also the possibility that the debt from the sale and the failure to make the CSN-H tv deal work have more to do with the AAA feel of the organization than a lack of aggressiveness in signing major league talent. In other words, Luhnow may have had no choice but to pursue the course he has.

I think, though, that public anger or antipathy toward the Astros might have been lessened with some investment in major league players to go with all the minor league talent Luhnow has been adding. 70 wins (or even 65) would make a difference to some fans rather than being the worst team in baseball three years running and trotting out a lineup built for Oklahoma City.

It is one thing to say your farm clubs are winning. It's another to have that translate to the major league level. Few in Houston give a whit how well the Redhawks or the Hooks are playing. What they care about is the level of play they see at Minute Maid which has not been very good.

Going "all in" on the rebuild doesn't have to mean going all out to demolish the parent club. I just want to hypothesize the effect of a less drastic approach than what was taken. Some insist Luhnow is doing this "the right way" but, lacking a Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg at the top of the draft order makes it seem like the strategy has, like a lot of other recent things in Astros history, been a victim of bad timing.

I sincerely hope the day comes soon when we can stop seeing headlines when the words "Houston" and "Astros" are paired with the words "worst" and "embarrassment". The psyche of Houston fans can only take so much of that.