Rescuing the Astros won’t be a quick fix


(US Presswire)

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series begins with the Houston Astros.

2011 record: 56-106
Finish: Sixth place, NL Central
2011 final payroll: $81.1 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $58.5 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 30
Hashtags: #100losses, #newowner, #newGM, #albatrosscontract, #idratherhavearealhorsethanelcaballo, #payrollfail, #enron

Offseason action

If, by action, one means taking the pieces of a franchise that has crumbled into irrelevance, quietly tossing them into a dumpster and beginning to assemble a new foundation, the Houston Astros are having the Schwarzenegger movie of offseasons.

After the worst season in franchise history – and it wasn’t even close, really, nine games behind the previous standard of putridity – the Astros finally got a new owner (Jim Crane), who fired his general manager (Ed Wade) and hired a new one (Jeff Luhnow). And rather than stake his territory by pissing money away on free agents like his predecessors had done, Luhnow instead has spent his time fortifying his front office, a savvy move for a team going nowhere anytime soon.

Luhnow, an MBA who came into the game midcareer, certainly isn’t thinking like a hardened baseball man. When he hired Sig Mejdal from his old team, the St. Louis Cardinals, he afforded him a title seen nowhere else in the game: director of decision sciences. Luhnow also named Stephanie Wilka, one of the few women in baseball front offices, as coordinator of amateur scouting.

Based on what he inherits, Luhnow has to do something different. He wasn’t going to pay Clint Barmes more than $5 million a year like the Pittsburgh Pirates did, so he dealt Mark Melancon – no awful team needs a player whose value heightens as a closer – to Boston for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. Whether Lowrie is the .287/.381/.526 player of 200 plate appearances in 2010 or the .252/.303/.382 bundle of mediocrity in 2011 will be the ultimate arbiter on Luhnow’s first move.

He hasn’t made any in free agency, and it’s reasonable to assume he’ll spend the rest of this offseason without having done so, either. Luhnow comes from a scouting background, and even though the new collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from going too wild in the draft, he’s going to take great pains to do in Houston what he did in St. Louis: unclog the talent pipeline.

The only difference: He’s got to do it at the major league level, too.

Reality check

The Astros may field as many as 18 pre-arbitration players on opening day. This is a staggering amount – inconceivable, really – and shows how a team can descend from the sport’s apex to its nadir in less than a decade.

Remember when Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman (and, sure, Derek Bell, if we want a full accounting) comprised the Killer B’s? Well, now the Astros have Carlos Lee and Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez and Brandon Lyon – the Killer Contracts. Not even the Department of Defense wastes $47 million with such efficiency.

Carlos Lee

Lee will pocket $19 million in the final season of his six-year, $100 million deal. He’s coming off a 2011 that did more to invalidate defensive metrics than any single performance in history; UZR pegged him as saving 11.2 runs with his glove, which lends credence to those who urge onlookers to take multiple years of UZR numbers before lending judgment as well as to those who believe Lee is passing out bribe money to sabermetricians around the country.

Rodriguez could be traded if a team grows desperate and the Astros’ asking price is lower under Luhnow than it was under Wade. Myers and Lyon are dead weight. Humberto Quintero, J.A. Happ and Lowrie should make $1 million or so. And the rest of the group, from J.D. Martinez to Jimmy Paredes, Jose Altuve to Jordan Schafer, Brian Bogusevic to the rest of the pitching staff, will get less than $500,000.

Between a relatively barren farm system – not as bad as before they dumped Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn at the trade deadline last year but nothing that will cause hosannas throughout Houston for what’s coming – and a major league roster littered with the above, the Astros are ripe candidates for back-to-back 100-loss seasons. On the bright side, that would mean consecutive No. 1 picks in the amateur draft, which, with the new CBA rules, amounts to a significant advantage.

Of course, looking at the Astros like they’re some impoverished small-market team is a mistake. They play in the fourth-biggest city in America. They own the 10th-biggest media market. Once their regional sports network launches in 2013, their TV money should boom. And by then, if Luhnow does what he intends, they’ll be back to killin’ it instead of getting killed.

Savior

Jim Crane

There is no sure thing in the Astros’ farm system – not even Jonathan Singleton or Jarred Cosart, the two centerpieces of the Pence trade – and the obvious answer here is Luhnow. Problem is, Luhnow’s ability to operate well depends on just how much financial leeway Jim Crane gives him. Crane going all Freddie Krueger on the payroll isn’t endearing him to Houston fans. Owners can make or break an executive strictly with a swipe of the pen on a check. Crane is breaking the Astros for now. He’d better make good soon, or the attendance that has dipped from 37,289 per game five years ago to 25,519 last year will go a whole lot lower – fast.

Astros in Haiku

The bigger you are
The harder you fall. First it’s
Enron, now Astros

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012