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?

____________

Programming note:

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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28 Comments

Great post, Alyson. I really hope Crane hangs on to Ed Wade; gonna be another correct but unpopular choice to make. He’s got all the tools necessary to form a championship contender. I just got back from the game tonight and could only recognize a few guys: Altuve (most likely due to his height), Lee (absolutely due to his height/weight), Barmes, and Wandy of course. Dark times ahead, but the night is darkest just before the dawn. “And believe me, the dawn is coming…” -Harvey Dent

Thanks for helping take the sting out of losing Hunter and Michael. It still hurts and will for a while, With Hunter I saw a torch passed from Biggio to Hunter and was hoping he would be with us for his entire career. Michael is an amazing athlete as well. It was sad to see them both go, but I will leave the decisions to those who actually make their career out of knowing the players in other than a fan type status. I appreciate the article and as always look forward to reading your blogs.

Good article Alyson. As far as the history, I have to disagree slightly regarding Jeff Bagwell. I don’t think anyone foresaw him developing into the kind of power hitter he became but I think he was considered a good prospect. Coming up as a third baseman, he was blocked at the big league level by Wade Boggs and faced a similar situation here with Caminiti manning third. Anderson was popular but I don’t think fans felt like we got fleeced. I don’t know about Philadelphia but Atlanta definitely had better pitching prospects and we didn’t get a single one of them.

I think Ed Wade as handcuffed because word got out that he was under a mandate to cut payroll to $60mil. All his trading partners knew he was under pressure to dump salary now. Whoever leaked that should be fired.

Excellent piece. Nice to get an adult perspective.

Agree on the very good article. I had to re-read it a couple times that the Astros won 102 freaking games in ’98. That’s not THAT long ago, but it seems that way with the way the last couple of years have gone.

If you don’t mind me posting the link, Alyson, I think you’ve added to a discussion that we’ve been having over at the AstrosDaily board.

http://evilwontwin.yuku.com/topic/17394/To-what-do-you-trace-all-of-this-back-to

A major conclusion over there is the rise and fall of the Astros’ baseball academy in Venezuela, and in particular, how important Andres Rainer’s contributions were. In short, when you’ve got a Hidalgo, an Abreu, a Garcia, a Guillen, and a few others streaming through your organization without having had to spend a draft pick on any of that talent, you’ve lost most of what allowed you to make the 2000s moves that you made.

You can post anything you want over there, no need to ask. But thanks for checking! And yes, the VZ academy played a huge role in the success. That became problematic years later when everyone else caught up with their own academies and the int’l players started getting hugely expensive.

Fantastic history lesson…should be posted for the rest of the season on the Astros.com home page. Well done!

Well this definitely helps to put things into perspective. I’m sure you’ve seen the discrepancies of information throughout the ‘inter-webs’, but I hope this sheds some more light on the circumstances of everything involved and all of the fans can get back to doing what is most important during all of this; cheering for our baseball team.

Allyson – as always – great article. Wish those who are still bashing Mr Wade would read it and then read it again. Makes so much sense and I applaud Mr Wade for making these tough and unpopular trades. I too hope he will be retained so he can get the credit when these youngster are molded into a great team.

There’s no reason to be mad at the front office. We were spoiled in the past by getting to keep the players we really liked for as long as we wanted. Most teams don’t have that luxury.

Great article..
Thank you for taking the time to put things in a straightforward way that we need to hear.
It’s time to just pull the boot straps up and move on
To the Future>>>>>Cheers!
Christy

Hmmm….. interesting… where are the Wade bashers now after being presented with actual arguments and a history lesson…

Exactly.

Thank you Alyson.

I remember that 1991 team fondly … the trade of Davis hurt but I was immensely excited about Finley, Harnisch and Schilling. Amazing to think that the Astros tried him for a season in the pen, then sent him to Philly for Jason Grimsley. 212 wins later, he may be a hall of famer. Hopefully they stick with Wade, and with building from within, because they can’t have a $200 million payroll.

Hibbler,
Nice point. I shoulda thunk of that.
Directrix,
Wonderful perspective piece. Made me think back to how much I actually knew about those Stros. And the answer is, I thought the Davis deal sucked, but I learned about it weeks late in Germany by accident. And that was a ‘dip’ from the first real wave of successes in the latter 80′s, and much was less clear about how the BB world works then. All that said, I’m willing to go with the rebuilding, but Hunter could have been the new Biggio. Look at when Bigg came up v. the years you’re talking about. We don’t have that dude now. Or if we do, please point him out to me. I’d love for Wallace to be it, or maybe Norris, but I don’t know that Hunter’s intangibles have a replacement any day soon.
Bourn was gonna be gone soon enough, he should have been the priority in tradeness. Maybe he was but it didn’t materialize in an orderly fashion.
Anyway, I worry mostly about who’s going to jerk a knot in CJ’s tail, and who’s gonna talk Haap out of his funk. We need that guy, and I’m afraid we just traded him to Philly.
Peace from the Great NorthWet.

Hey, Alyson, congrats to you and your followers here for climbing to No. 4 overall position on MLB.com/blogs Latest Leaders for July! http://mlblogs.mlblogs.com | Let’s see how many fans start a WordPress blog at http://mlb.com/blogs with MLB theme and try to join you on the monthly rankings.

Alyson, great article perhaps you should do all of Ed Wade’s press conferences, could help explain to the “masses” what’s really going on. I have watched nearly every game this year from home or at the game and I think attendance has been barren at Minute Maid this year summing up most of the public’s opinion of this team, if nothing else all of these trades have peaked some discussion about this team and what ought to be done about it. I know there are a lot of Ed Wade bashers out there, but someone had to do something about our bleak farm system and it certainly wasn’t his predecessor. Plus hey Keppinger, Bourn, Berkman, Oswalt, and Pence fans out there, at least we will be able to see one of our “guys” in the playoffs this year perhaps even the world series!! It sure wasn’t going to happen with the Stros, even if they were all still here.

…and you are #1 OVERALL MLBlog so far in August — just ahead of Adam’s Brew Beat. Make sure your readers know and keep it up! http://mlblogs.mlblogs.com

I like your optimism Alyson.

Alyson! Right on with this post! This wa something I alluded to in a previous comment. Not that I’m an ardent Wade guy or anything, but I really do think he’s on the right track with most of the moves he makes. I think he’s got a good team of scouts led by Heck. Folks, barring all the trades/moves that have involved the Phillies, don’t forget the Phils have a much better farm system that was put together more or less by (and later bore fruit after he left) Ed Wade.

Unfortunately, these are the lean years all of us knew we were going to have to go through at some point, if we were to repair our farm system and hopefully get back to a winning club again.

I look forward to watching these kids and seeing who rises to the top. Not all of them will make it, but you never know which one(s) will become a future star. Alyson, such great points in your article that it’s hard to touch on them all, so I’ll just say ‘AWESOME’!!!

On a personal note, we had already planned and bought tix for the last and only Astros Buddies game we could get to this year, Mon. Sept 12th against the Phillies. So not only will we see Pence’s first return visit to MMP but our tix are on field box level up the 1st base side CLOSE to right field. So, we’ll have a pretty close view of Hunter in his new red stripes. My stomach is already starting to turn, and I haven’t even had a chili dog yet. ;)

The only reason I have been upset with Ed is because it took so long to get to this point. Many of us had already seen that it was time to do this after the 2005 season when it was obvious we had no offense and the good pitchers moved on.

Oh, and I failed to mention this is a great article. Thanks.

Great post Alyson. I remember the 1991 team very well. I remember telling another Astros fan at that time that she should be patient as the team had great promise. I am not saying that this team has great promise, but it does represent the first step in a necessary rebuilding process.

I believe that many of the moves that Ed Wade has made since becoming the Astros GM have been restrained by the general marching orders of Drayton Mclane. It would be interesting to know how much latitude Ed had in moves that have been berated so much by the fans. I realize that type of posting will probably have to wait until after August 18 (the date when Crane should be approved as the new owner). I certainly would like more insight into that aspect of the organization.

I also would like to know how much Crane and Postolos believe in sabermetrics and if they will implement sabermetrics into the evaluation process of players.

In case some fans missed it, there is another post that also puts things into perspective. The link is:
http://blog.chron.com/ultimateastros/2011/08/02/you-wanted-a-new-owner-well-you-got-one-now-accept-it/

Very informative article but the point still stands that Wade has been here for years and has had opportunities to make changes and upgrades to the Astro’s farm system and has not done so. Now he decides to scuttle the team and some of the best players that we do have that are still young and would be around for a long time to come. As you stated Carlos Lee and his $100 milllion price tag, drop him, trade him he isn’t producing and and is wasting money that could have been spent on getting prospects instead of creating a minor league team that calls itself a major league ballclub by getting rid of the talent we did have. Fortunately i guess he ran out of time before he could trade off Norris or one of our other pitchers. After what he has done hopefully the team can last long enough to rebuild without fans coming to the games for the next 10yrs. I don’t see people wasting their money to go knowing nothing but losing seasons are coming for a long time.

Disagree Phillip…Wade and Heck did a lot to advance the farm system. We’re seeing a lot of that now. Improvements to player development don’t happen overnight. Takes years unfortunately. Paredes, Martinez, Lyles all came to organization on their watch.

Im a life long Astros fan and am really mad about giving away our good YOUNG players . But Iv’e good some good news , I happened to go to the San Antonio Missions vs CC Hooks last night and saw an awesome pitcher throwing 90 to 97 mph all night , he pitched 6 shutout innings and only gave up 3 very weak singles with no walks . I checked the local paper this morning to see who he was and was happy to find out he is Jarret Cosart the guy we got for Hunter Pence . Maybe there is light at the end of the very long tunnel .

Sorry Alyson, but every minor league team is in last place. How can you not take responsibility for that?

@Waylon: remember the minors are a lot more about giving players a place to work on particular aspects of their game while they develop. records have far less to do with success than players getting exposed to particular situations and particluar types of pitching, and pitchers are frequently working a certain pitch, or a certain zone. hitters are working situational goals, hitting behind runners, working opposite field, etc.
peace from the Great NorthWet.

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