By The Common Man
On Monday, the Astros were officially eliminated from playoff contention. Twenty-one more teams are going to join them before the season finally winds down, so we thought it would be appropriate to look at the clubs that fell short of the postseason this year, and consider how to fix them for 2012. What should their plans be? What moves should they make? And who should they count on going forward? Since the Astros were kind enough to volunteer to go first, TCM will tackle them today but all three of us will be tackling the also-rans between now and the end of the season.
There is no doubt that the Astros will continue to be bad in 2012. They are on pace to lose 109 games this year, and even with some improvement, a huge regression toward the mean and better luck (their Pythagorean W-L puts them on pace to lose just 100), they are not likely to crack the ninety loss barrier next year, especially after trading two (and potentially all three) of their best players before then.
That won’t win anything, so it’s best for the Astros to continue their slow rebuilding effort, adding young and inexpensive talent to the organization, and avoiding big moves. There is no one available in the offseason that’s worth the Astros breaking the bank over given what will likely be significant payroll restrictions in the near future and the natural desire of most elite free agents to play for a winner. There simply isn’t anyone in the mid-tier of free agents worth over-paying for a team this far out.
To minimize the risk that they will make yet another debilitating move, the Astros would be wise to clean house in their front office, showing Ed Wade the door in the process. Wade’s four years at the helm have been disastrous for Houston. While he acquired Michael Bourn for Brad Lidge, he also signed Kaz Matsui to a three year, $16.5 million deal, traded a ton of good young talent for the husk of Miguel Tejada, dealt three young arms for Matt Lindstrom, signed Pedro Feliz and Brandon Lyon, failed to sell high on Brett Myers, and presided over a decidedly mixed sell-off of anybody who was at all tradable over the past two seasons. It’s never been clear that Wade was the right GM to lead a rebuilding process, especially when he seems to believe that so much of the rebuilding needs to come through mediocre middle relievers with live fastballs. Perhaps most tellingly, in his 11 years as a general manager, Ed Wade’s teams, despite playing in the relatively large markets of Houston and Philadelphia, have never made the playoffs.
Firing Wade will leave the next GM free to set the team’s course for several years with their answer to the biggest question this offseason, which is what to do with Wandy Rodriguez assuming he isn’t dealt to the Rockies before tomorrow. Wandy remains an undervalued pitcher, and one with an acceptable contract for a good number two starter. That has a lot of value to the Astros, of course, but it may have more value to a team that views itself as being a starter short of contention. If the price is right, Wandy should be dealt this winter, maximizing the return the Astros can get for the lefty. There should be any number of suitors for a good, affordable pitcher, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, Rockies, Rangers, Reds, Nationals, and Tigers.
The Astros will be set behind the plate as young Jason Castro returns from his knee injury, and Jose Altuve looks to have 2B wrapped up. The Astros will be unable to deal Carlos Lee, who is making $19 million next year, so he will be taking up space at 1B, and possibly LF. JD Martinez seems to have a good grasp on that position, however, thanks to a terrific start to his Major League career. Brett Wallace may lose out in this arrangement, but he’s done nothing to justify keeping his job. Still, at 25, he will still have some upside, and could offer a decent platoon partner for Lee.
There are significant holes at 3B, SS, CF and RF going into next year. Chris Johnson probably doesn’t deserve another shot at the hot corner, but should probably get one anyway since Jimmy Paredes is not the solution either, unless the Astros can bring in a free agent like Kevin Kouzmanoff or Wilson Betemit on a one-year deal to unload at the deadline. The Astros’ options at SS are grim, with Jonathan Villar still a couple years away from being ready to contribute. Given that MLB Trade Rumors projects that the Astros wouldn’t get any compensation for losing the surprisingly competent Clint Barmes this offseason, re-signing him to a one or two-year contract is probably the best option. In center, Jordan Schafer has got to get 400 ABs to either sink or swim in the Majors, especially after being a significant part of the Michael Bourn deal this July. The crop of available rightfielders doesn’t look great this offseason, so unless they can sign someone like Carlos Beltran or Grady Sizemore to a make-good deal that will be easy to trade, they can stick with someone harmless like Jack Shuck, who will not hurt too bad and won’t block anyone else.
The rotation will certainly have Brett Myers (who is unmovable) back, along with Bud Norris, who won’t have hit arbitration yet, Jordan Lyles, and JA Happ. They can turn the 5th spot in the rotation over to Aneury Rodriguez or Henry Sosa. It may not be inspiring, but with Norris, Lyles and either Rodriguez or Sosa, it at least has some interesting upside and will come cheap. Likewise, the Astros bullpen should contain some interesting options for next year. Mark Melancon has emerged as a strong reliever on the back end, Wilton Lopez has had two straight strong seasons, Sergio Escalona looks to be a usable lefty, and David Carpenter is also plenty intriguing. Brandon Lyon, who was signed to a ridiculous three-year contract, will also be back at some point for his final season in Houston.
The Astros are going nowhere, but sometimes the most interesting teams to watch are the ones that are the worst. Because everything they do has the potential to make the team better. The trick is understanding which of those moves are contributing to the long-term rebirth of the franchise, and which are short-term patches that should be exchanged for additional pieces. Ed Wade has demonstrated, over the last 11 years, that he’s not the kind of GM that can build a winning team, and he’s never presided over a full-blown rebuilding effort before. The first step for the Astros and their new owner must be to clear the decks in the front office, and then set a slow, steady, and patient course over the next three to five years to build a strong foundation for long-term success. Indeed, aside from possibly moving Wandy this winter, the best move for the Astros to make is to remain almost completely still.