Houston, the Astros have a problem...
By Richard Zowie
Despite their blah uniforms and hideous colors (more on those later in the column), I love the Houston Astros.
Lately, though, I've been getting frustrated over how the team has been doing. Thought by some to be favorites to win the National League Central Division and possibly go to their first-ever World Series, the Astros lately have been struggling. They've also made some fairly risky trades, sending fireballing left-handed closer Billy Wagner to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Brandon Duckworth and minor leaguers Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio.
The trade has so far favored Philadelphia. Wagner has a sizeable 4.70 ERA while converting 11 of 13 save opportunities for the Phillies while none of the three pitchers traded for him seem close to major league caliber. Wagner has a large salary and will turn 33 this month, and those two factors might be reasons why Houston chose to move him. The Astros also recently traded right fielder Richard Hidalgo (who has one of the strongest throwing arms in baseball) to the New York Mets for two pitchers.
Houston then traded closer Octavio Dotel to the Oakland Athletics in a three-team trade where they obtained centerfielder Carlos Beltran from the Kansas City Royals. Beltran is a good player, but he's also a free agent at the end of the season. Remember back in 1998 when the Astros gave up three talented players to acquire free agent-to-be Randy Johnson from the Seattle Mariners? In the off-season, Johnson left Houston for Arizona when the Astros decided the cost of Johnson's new contract was too high. In retrospect, the trade was a mistake.
Astros owner Drayton McLane is starting to remind me of his predecessor, John McMullen. Shortly after 1986 when the Astros nearly went to the World Series, McMullen began a cost-cutting venture. He let go Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and used the money saved to sign journeyman pitcher Jim Clancy. While Ryan went 41-25 with a 3.20 ERA and 616.1 innings pitched in his first three seasons with the Texas Rangers, Clancy went 9-24 with a 5.02 ERA and 278 innings pitched with the Astros. You get what you pay for. Clancy said it best at the press conference announcing his signing when he told reporters he knew he could never replace Ryan.
And then the avalanche of departing Astros soon followed as pitcher Danny Darwin left via free agency and power-hitting first baseman Glenn Davis, whose home run statistics were impressive despite playing in the very homer-hostile cavernous Astrodome, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles when he announced he would pursue free agency for more money. Talented, successful like Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Kenny Lofton once played in Houston but were subsequently traded away.
McMullen, the astute businessman he might've been, didn't seem to grasp that saving money by bringing in second-rate talent will ultimately lose money since the result will be worse teams and fewer ticket sales.
In recent years, McLane has now been saying the Astros need to cut payroll to avoid red ink. Memo to Mr. McLane: if it's money you're trying to save, this is the wrong venture. Running a professional sports franchise-especially with today's salaries-requires a lot of capital. If you don't have the money, then you'd better have a general manager with a shrewd judge of talent to know which players to acquire and not acquire.
Finally, I'm crossing my fingers that the 'Stros will ditch those horrible, black and brick-reddish-orange uniforms they've sported since the 2000 season. The word Astro is short for astronaut and comes from the Greek word for star. Please, Mr. McLane, return back to the space theme that the Astros had in the mid nineties when they wore blue and gold and had the moving, open star. Personally, I would like to see the Astros adopt a royal blue, red and silver color scheme-the colors of the NASA logo. The Astros' current logo focuses on trains. While I have nothing against trains, it's better to stick with a theme focusing on the Astros name that honors Houston's space industry.
Richard Zowie is a reporter and columnist for the Times Guardian. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your phone number if you want your comments published.