SweetSpot: Morgan Ensberg

What went wrong with the Astros

May, 17, 2011
From 1979 through 2006, the Houston Astros were one of baseball's best and most consistent franchises. They suffered just six losing seasons and made the playoffs nine times. They finally reached their first World Series in 2005, but that was primarily an aging club at the end of a long run of success. Jeff Bagwell was done, Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens were old, Andy Pettitte would return to the Yankees and Morgan Ensberg never repeated his big season.

And the talent dried up. The Astros are on their way to their fourth losing season in five years and will likely lose more than 90 games for the first time since 1991. As Buster Olney wrote in his blog today, with Drayton McLane selling the team to Jim Crane, the new ownership group knows it has to pay more attention to player development.

[+] EnlargeBrad Lidge
Photo by Craig Melvin/US PresswireThe Astros haven't had much luck in the first round of the draft since taking Brad Lidge in 1998.
1. A string of bad drafts. Former scouting director David Lakey nailed his first two first-round picks, drafting Lance Berkman in 1997 and Brad Lidge in 1998, but the Astros haven't drafted a first-rounder since who has developed into a solid major leaguer. (Time will tell, of course, on recent picks like Jordan Lyles and Delino DeShields Jr.) The Astros only had one top-10 pick from 1993 through 2007 (Chris Burke, 10th overall in 2001), which doesn't help, of course. The team also forfeited its first-round picks in 2003 (for signing Jeff Kent), 2004 (for signing Andy Pettitte) and 2007 (for signing Carlos Lee). It's hard to fault the Kent and Pettitte signings, but Lee has been both expensive and now unproductive.

Every team misfires in the draft but the Astros have had a long string of misfires. In 2005, under scouting director Paul Ricciarini, they were picking 24th and selected pitcher Brian Bogusevic, who was later converted to an outfielder. Matt Garza was the next pick and Colby Rasmus went later in the round. With the 23rd pick in 2006 they took high school catcher Max Sapp, who hit .224 in three seasons in the minors and then developed meningitis, which ended his career. Even before contracting meningitis, the Astros had shown their doubts about his future big-league status, drafting catcher Jason Castro in the first round in 2008. Two picks after Sapp, the Angels selected another high school catcher, Hank Conger, now playing well as a rookie. But the big blows were a string of drafts from 2000 onward that produced few big leaguers -- guys who should be in their primes right now.

2. McLane refused to spend on the draft, sticking to the MLB recommended slot bonuses. For example, the team failed to sign third-round pick Drew Stubbs in 2003; he later became a first-rounder of the Reds. Castro, drafted 10th overall in 2008, was taken one pick before Justin Smoak, whom most scouts rated much higher. Smoak signed for a bonus $1.5 million more than Castro.

McLane always operated the franchise like a mid-market team, instead of one playing in the sixth-largest metro market in the U.S. Under McLane, the Astros ranked in the top 10 in payroll in the majors just twice -- sixth in 2006 and eighth in 2009. Maybe there isn't quite enough fan interest in Houston to allow the Astros to play with the big boys -- even during their great run in the late '90s and early '00s, they reached a peak attendance level of fifth in the NL.

3. The Venezuelan pipeline shut down. Whether through deploying fewer resources, not spending money or just signing the wrong guys, a once fruitful operation in Venezuela -- arguably the best in the majors -- has returned little talent in recent years. Among the players Houston signed out of Venezuela: Richard Hidalgo, Bobby Abreu (although he was lost in the expansion draft), Carlos Guillen, Johan Santana (lost in the Rule 5 draft), Freddy Garcia and Melvin Mora.

4. Bad deals. The Carlos Lee -- six years for $100 million in 2007 -- was a bad deal at the time, an overrated RBI guy with mediocre OBPs who played poor defense. As predicted, it's become an albatross and he'll still be making $18.5 million in 2012. The team drafted Ben Zobrist and later traded him to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff. That's 68 games of Huff before he left as a free agent.

Crane will take over officially sometime this summer. He's got a lot of work ahead of him.

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Carlos DelgadoDavid Seelig/Icon SMICarlos Delgado hit 473 home runs and drove in more than 1,500 runs in his career.
Carlos Delgado officially announced his retirement, in slightly less dramatic light than Manny Ramirez.

He was a great hitter, a player worthy of some random thoughts ...

1. Delgado came up through the minors as a catcher and everyone knew he could hit -- he ranked as Baseball America's No. 4 prospect in 1993 and No. 5 in 1994. He caught two games in the majors but the Blue Jays originally tried him in left field before he settled in at first base. The attempt to make him a catcher meant he spent two seasons in Triple-A when he was ready for the majors (and probably cost him 500 career home runs).

2. Long home runs. Outside of maybe Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa (ahem), did anyone in the past 15 years hit longer home runs than Delgado? Loved that left-handed power stroke, like he was using a big sledgehammer.

3. The four-homer game against Tampa Bay in 2003. Delgado had taken antibiotics for a cold earlier in the day and homered in all four trips to the plate. His fourth homer was a mammoth blast to center field off Lance Carter.

4. His 99 extra-base hits in 2000 -- he had 57 doubles, a triple and 41 home runs -- tied for 16th-most in one season. Delgado hit .344/.470/.664 that season -- and finished fourth in the MVP voting. Yes, there was a lot of offense that year.

5. His one season with the Marlins. Actually, I don't remember this much at all.

6. Finally making a postseason appearance with the Mets in 2006 -- and raking. He hit .351/.442/.757 in 10 games, with four homers and 11 RBIs. In Game 7 of the NLCS, the Cardinals wanted nothing to do with him -- they walked him three times.

7. He only made two All-Star teams (2000 and 2003). What? The same number as Scott Cooper? How is this possible? Well, here are the first basemen who got selected in his prime years ...

1998: Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro, Mo Vaughn.
1999: Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro, Ron Coomer ... yes, Ron Coomer! ... plus THREE DHs (Harold Baines, John Jaha and Jose Canseco).
2001: John Olerud, Tony Clark, Jason Giambi, Mike Sweeney.
2002: Jason Giambi, Paul Konerko, Mike Sweeney.
2004: Jason Giambi, Ken Harvey ... yes, the immortal Ken Harvey.
2005: Derrek Lee, Albert Pujols. This one was weird. The NL selected only two first basemen, but Pujols started at DH. Third baseman Morgan Ensberg ended up playing first base. But Cesar Izturis and Felipe Lopez were All-Stars that year.
2006: Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Ryan Howard, Nomar Garciaparra. Nomar was hitting .358 at the break.
2007: Delgado had a bad year.
2008: Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez. This was the year Delgado had a monster second half.

Anyway, I'm not saying he deserved to make it all those years, but it's surprising he was only a two-time All-Star. Heck, Bruce Benedict was a two-time All-Star.

8. His stance against the war in Iraq. Not an easy decision, but I applauded his courage to take a political stand with thought and conviction.

9. He finished with a career WAR of 49.1 via FanGraphs, 44.2 on Baseball-Reference. I'd thought it would be higher, but he's being compared against some great first basemen from his era. That places him about 26th among first basemen (minimum 50 percent of career games at first base) since 1901, similar in career value to guys like Orlando Cepeda, Gil Hodges, Don Mattingly and Boog Powell. He loses a lot of value for baserunning (terrible) and fielding (below average). Based on hitting value alone, he's about 13th to 15th among first basemen.

10. Hall of Famer? Not quite.