It all fell apart for the Houston Astros on … well, on Opening Day.
Brett Myers had pitched seven strong innings against the Philadelphia Phillies and the Astros took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Closer Brandon Lyon entered, faced seven batters, allowed six line-drive singles and the Phillies danced away with a 5-4 victory.
We can skip the other lowlights since then. Fast-forward to late July and the Astros are 35-70, a .333 winning percentage that puts them on pace for a final record of 54-108. What’s remarkable about that winning percentage is no other team in the majors is playing less than .400 ball (although the Cubs are sitting right at .400). In a sea of parity, the Astros are in need of a lifeboat, as they are sinking to a lonely state of putridity.
This has led to speculation that the club is shopping around two of its three best players, All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence and lefty starter Wandy Rodriguez. The Astros, after all, have little talent on the big-league roster and a farm system widely considered one of the most barren in the majors. They may as well trade a couple of their few valuable assets, get a slew of prospects and start over under new owner Jim Crane, who will soon take over the club. (By the way, for those who think baseball is struggling, Crane purchased the Astros for $680 million, the second-largest sale in major league history.)
The thinking goes like this: Pence is a good player, albeit short of a superstar. He’s hitting .309/.356/.472, plays hard (he hit a one- hopper over the third baseman’s head on Thursday and hustled in a double), is durable, popular and the face of the franchise -- but he’s also 28 years old already and starts to get expensive next year.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is one of the few good starters potentially available at the trade deadline. He’s 7-7 with a 3.47 ERA, 106 strikeouts in 122 innings, good control and a crafty knowledge of getting hitters out. He’s also 32 and due at least $25.5 million for 2012 and 2013.
So what should general manager Ed Wade do?
I think he should hold his cards.
First off … it’s Ed Wade! I think the last thing Crane wants is Wade pulling the trigger on these deals. I don’t know if Crane has veto power since he’s not officially running the team, but Wade is dead man walking as the club’s GM. The first move Crane will make will probably be to fire Wade. It’s the logical move to make. This is Wade’s 12th season as major league GM and it will be his 12th without making the playoffs. While you can credit him for helping build the Phillies’ 2008 World Series winners (he was fired after the 2005 season), he hasn’t won in Houston and he hasn’t done much to rebuild the farm system. Wade knows he’ll get fired; he’s been in the baseball business long enough to know his fate. Don’t he think he owes the new regime to let them make the key decisions that will affect the future of the franchise?
The other reason not to trade Pence or Rodriguez: I think the Astros could get more for both guys in the offseason. Right now, the Astros would be dealing with a limited number of trade partners. In Rodriguez’s case, the Phillies, Braves, Giants, Pirates and Brewers don’t need starting pitching. The Cardinals already dealt for Edwin Jackson. That leaves only the Reds and possibly the Diamondbacks as suitors among National League teams. American League teams are going to be less likely to make a push for Rodriguez, a guy with a fringy fastball that may not translate as well when facing the deeper lineups in the AL. Rodriguez becomes more valuable in the winter as teams lose free agents and fail to sign others (plus, it’s a weak crop of free agents to begin with).
As for Pence, considering he still has two seasons of team control after 2011, and plays the style of game that GMs and managers love, a lot of teams would covet him. But many of those teams are already out of the playoff hunt. Wait until the offseason and the Astros double their number of potential trade partners.
It’s sad watching a team in this situation. I watched the Astros’ win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday. Rodriguez gave up three early runs but settled down and pitched seven solid innings. He never wows, throwing 89-90, but he works up and down the zone and changes speeds. Nothing fancy, just effective. The Astros announcers, Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies, kept mentioning Rodriguez’s rank among all-time Astros pitchers in different categories, almost mourning a trade before it happened. (“He finished just two short of Bob Knepper for most strikeouts ever by an Astros left-hander!”) They talked about Pence saying about the trade rumors, “I haven’t been able to keep it completely out of mind.”
Right now, the Astros are a joke. Only two teams in 40 years have lost 110 games -- the 2004 Diamondbacks lost 111 and the infamous 2003 Tigers lost 119 -- and the Astros have a chance to reach that dubious number. They have a tough rebuild ahead. But I think it should begin in the offseason, with Crane and a new GM pulling the strings.
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