Commentary

Astros should focus on rebuilding, not contending

Originally Published: November 9, 2007
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

How time flies.

HOUSTON ASTROS
Astros GM: Ed Wade
Manager: Cecil Cooper
'07 record: 73-89, 4th NL Central
'07 payroll: $87.8M, 15th MLB
Runs scored: 723, 13th NL
Runs allowed: 813, 11th NL
OPS: .742, 11th NL
ERA: 4.68, 12th NL
Fielding percentage: .983, T-8th NL
Only two seasons ago Houston brought the World Series to Texas for the first time. But that accomplishment didn't buy even two years of job security for manager Phil Garner and GM Tim Purpura. Both were sacked during the course of a disastrous season, which was put into motion by the loss of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to free agency last winter.

Purpura made matters worse by overpaying to get right-hander Jason Jennings from Colorado. It was a huge gamble because Jennings had only one year left on his contract, and it ended badly when Jennings rejected Purpura's efforts to re-sign him and then pitched badly.

Purpura also invested heavily in free-agent left fielder Carlos Lee, who piled up impressive statistics but rarely won games for his team. A weak farm system provided little relief to the mess, and the year ended with Ed Wade as the GM and Cecil Cooper as the manager.

Primary needs

Two starting pitchers: The Astros are painfully thin behind Roy Oswalt. Their starters were 10th in the National League in staff ERA and would have been worse had Oswalt not delivered his usual quality work.

Brad Lidge

Lidge

Closer: The Astros finally pulled the plug on Brad Lidge, who had not inspired confidence since Albert Pujols hit that massive blast off him to keep Houston from wrapping up the NL pennant at home in 2005. After trading Lidge to the Phillies, Houston will need to find a new closer.

Catcher/second baseman who can hit: This is a weak lineup beyond Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman and Lee. Brad Ausmus and Chris Burke figure to go into 2008 as the catcher and second baseman, with Burke finally getting a chance to replace the retired Craig Biggio, but the Astros could use players who will be more of a factor at the plate. Ausmus does great work handling pitchers, but it might be time for him to move to a backup role.

Free agents

RHP Jason Jennings, 2B Mark Loretta, 1B Mike Lamb, OF Orlando Palmeiro, LHP Trever Miller and RHP Brian Moehler.

In the picture: The Astros are likely to aggressively pursue the second tier of free-agent starters, which includes Josh Fogg, Odalis Perez, Steve Trachsel, Matt Clement and Kyle Lohse.

Roy Oswalt

Oswalt

Trade bait

Roy Oswalt: Only Johan Santana would create a bigger stir in the market than Oswalt, if the Astros chose to make him available for trade. They would probably do it only if Oswalt forced the issue, as he's their No. 1 foundation piece, but it seems unlikely that they can contend in the next two or three years so why not at least listen to offers? This is something that could develop before the trading deadline next season.

Woody Williams: A major disappointment a season ago, he appears at the end of the road.

Farm aid

LHP Troy Patton: He's long been considered the organization's top pitching prospect even though he throws in only the low-90s. He is a fierce competitor, making the most of his skills. He got to Houston last September and could stick in the rotation this spring.

C J.R. Towles: An excellent athlete, he has overcome a history of injuries to become the heir apparent to Ausmus. His overall package of skills compares to those of a young Jason Kendall.

RHP Felipe Paulino: An old-fashioned flamethrower, Paulino has an Ubaldo Jimenez-style fastball. He used it to win two games for the Astros in September. There are questions about his command, which could force him to start 2008 in Triple-A, but he's got a lot of potential.

Outlook

For a smart man, hands-on owner Drayton McLane does not seem to have grasped the importance of building from the ground floor up, robbing tomorrow for a brighter today for many years now. The bill appears to be coming due.

Wade's primary focus should be on rebuilding the farm system, not trying to get the big club back into contention. There are a lot of people in baseball who think this team is headed for an extended downward spiral because of the lack of depth throughout the organization.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).

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