One week and three trades later, what do the Astros have? A plan for the future.
When I first got here in 1997, I heard a lot about the 1991 club — a team full of so-called no-names whose average age was around 24 and whose star power packed as much punch as Marie Osmond at a Harley-Davidson convention.
The Astros had just made several moves to get the team younger, and presumably, cheaper. The most famous move was the one that send slugger Glenn Davis to Baltimore for three players no one had heard of — Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling.
That was also the year third baseman Jeff Bagwell, acquired the prior year by the Astros in a hugely unpopular trade that sent fan favorite Larry Andersen to Boston, went from having no shot to make the team out of Spring Training to becoming the Opening Day first baseman (and, later, Rookie of the Year).
That team, whose members also included Craig Biggio (first rounder, 1987); Luis Gonzalez (fourth rounder, 1988) and Darryl Kile, (30th rounder, 1987), went 65-97 that year, tying the club record for losses. Then things got markedly better. In ’92, they were 81-81; in ’93, 85-77; ’94, 66-49 (the strike year); ’95, 76-68; ’96, 82-80. They then won three division titles in a row — 1997, with 84 wins, ’98 with 102 wins and ’99 with 97 wins.
From the time that they won their first Central Division title to the end of 2006, the Astros were non-contenders exactly once — in 2000, when they moved to the new ballpark and a large contingent of the pitchers they brought over from the Dome decided they couldn’t pitch in the new digs (and they were right).
That’s nine contending years in 10 seasons; more if you consider the years just before they started winning division titles. And right in the middle of that run, in 2001, they were named by four major publications as the Organization of the Year.
That means across the board, they were deemed as having the very best Minor League system of all 30 teams. These two elements are not mutually exclusive. You cannot win consistently on the big league level without a good farm system, unless your payroll is north of $200 million — and even then, you still have to be able to produce some of your own talent to lay a foundation that can be fortified later with big-ticket free agents.
The erosion of the Astros’ farm system happened slowly, but in spectacular fashion. A few factors helped push things along. They lost their first-round draft picks in 2003 and 2004 because of the signings of free agents Jeff Kent and Andy Pettitte, respectively. I remember calling Gerry Hunsicker in ’04 to do my annual draft preview and said, “Are you concerned about losing your first rounder a second year in a row?” His answer: “It’s killing us.”
But if I have to pick a true turning point where things collapsed irreversibly, and caused long-term, long-lasting damage, it’s the 2007 draft. The Astros lost their first TWO picks because of two signings of Type A free agents – Woody Williams, 40 years old and clearly nearing the end of his career, and Carlos Lee, one of the top two sluggers on the free agent market who brought with him a $100 million price tag.
The Astros didn’t have a pick until the third round, and they failed to sign both that pick and their fourth-rounder. It was devastating on all counts — they got absolutely no production from Williams and released him after one season, and they set the farm system back even more by not picking until the third round, and then failing to sign their top selections.
Ed Wade took over that winter, hired Bobby Heck and immediately began the restructuring of the scouting department and farm system. They’ve had some good drafts over the last four years but because of the damage that was already done, in all of the time he has been here Wade never had the luxury of dipping into the Minor Leagues with any regularity when he took to shaping the rosters every offseason. By 2009, the Astros had a $100 million payroll and the oldest team in baseball. In other words, it was a mess.
Clearly, it took a while to get to where the Astros are today. The last week has been difficult for everyone — for the fan base, furious at the front office for trading away their two most famous and productive players, and for the front office, which did the unpopular but correct thing in using its two most valuable pieces to infuse the system with more talent.
It’s been 20 years since that 1991 overhaul, and the Astros have enjoyed some of their greatest seasons during the time in between. But this is how it works when a team decides it’s time to push the fast-forward button toward respectability. Call it rebuilding, refueling, reloading or restructuring…it all means the same thing. The Astros are going to allot their resources to three elements: Scouting, player development and the draft. If done correctly, it works. But it takes time and there are no shortcuts, nor can you win division titles with smoke and mirrors.
Wade cites baseball as a “cycle” and mentioned the Indians when giving an assessment of where the Astros are in that cycle. The Indians were dominant in the 1990s, but fell on hard times early the next decade and made the move to start the process over again.
“Think about what Cleveland has gone through,” he said. “The era they were in the postseason play almost every year and they had that solid veteran nucleus. And then they had to go and regroup. There were seasons that it was tough for the Indians fans to be at the Jake. And now they’re back in first place. They’re in first place because at some point in time, they made the commitment to try to build that club back up again. That’s where we are in that cycle.”
More than a few of you have noticed that the players the Astros have recently summoned from the Minor Leagues are coming from Double-A and have asked, “Is our Triple-A team that bad?”
Without a doubt, the majority of the Astros’ talent is at the Double-A level. It’s generally understood that the jump from High A to Double-A is the most telling — it’s where the true weeding-out process takes place. If you’ve made it to Double-A, you can start thinking you have a chance at the big leagues.
Double-A is also more of an immediate path to the big leagues because the playing field is more level. It is, as Wade called it, “peer versus peer.” The players are all young. There are no six-year free agents. No former Major Leaguers taking up playing time, hoping to hang on long enough to get called up.
Double-A is also probably the healthier atmosphere, compared to Triple-A, where the clubhouses are sometimes filled with players with big league service time who believe they should still be there. And they’re occasionally bitter. One reporter who covers a Minor League team said once, “If I was a Triple-A manager, I’d spend all of my time keeping the prospects away from the guys who used to play in the big leagues.”
Double-A clubhouses are comprised largely of players who are all close in age, with no Major League service time, happy to be there and determined to move up. For some teams, it’s the best breeding ground before bringing them to the big stage.
And now, I will completely contradict everything I just said, because two very highly-regarded prospects — left-hander Dallas Keuchel and outfielder Jacob Goebbert — were recently promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City. The moves were necessitated by the addition of the players the Astros obtained in the trades with Philly and Atlanta. Right-handers Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens and Josh Zeid and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer were all assigned to Corpus, which obviously crowds things a bit. And it suggests that there might actually be depth forming at the higher levels. Whodda thunk it?
With the recent roster moves, the Astros had to shuffle their player appearance schedule a bit. Their Astros Buddies Party on Friday will now feature Clint Barmes, Humberto Quintero, Mark Melancon, Jordan Lyles, Wilton Lopez and Jose Altuve, all of whom will sign autographs as the annual kids bash.
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