The Houston Astros are 46-54, 12 games back in the National League Central, tied for last place with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Making a comeback even more unlikely, Houston is playing in perhaps the toughest division on the Senior Circuit.
Apparently, though, Drayton McLane feels that this team can contend right now, as he signed off a puzzling deal yesterday afternoon.
The Astros shipped Triple-A right-hander Chad Reineke to the San Diego Padres in exchange for aging lefty Randy Wolf, who is making $4,750,000, is on the wrong side of 30 and has been ineffective away from pitcher-friendly Petco Park all season.
Shawn Chacon’s chokehold on Houston general manager Ed Wade appears to have affected his eyesight, because if he honestly feels that the Astros can turn into the ’08 version of the Colorado Rockies, he is blind.
The Chicago Cubs have the best record and run differential in the majors, recently added Rich Harden and have a potent offense. Despite the Milwaukee Brewers’ acquisition of CC Sabathia, Chicago is the clear-cut favorite to win a division title, sitting with the highest chances of reaching the playoffs of any team in the game.
With the recent moves, Milwaukee has dramatically increased its chancing of ending a long postseason drought. Sabathia has energized the Brewers’ clubhouse, in addition to adding a capable ace to anchor the starting rotation alongside Ben Sheets. The club also added veteran second baseman Ray Durham earlier this week, has a solid young core of offensive stars—Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Prince Fielder—and are clearly going for it right now.
The St. Louis Cardinals, two games back, are in the thick of things as well. St. Louis has been a surprise team, as Dave Duncan continues to work his magic with castaway starting pitchers. The Cardinals also have the best hitter in the league, Albert Pujols, a tremendous manager and pitching help coming on the way when ace Chris Carpenter makes his long-awaited return.
Which is why it is puzzling for Wade to act as a buyer at the deadline. Even if Houston was placed in the lowly NL West—where the Arizona Diamondbacks are the only team with a record at .500—today, his roster does not have enough talent to make a realistic run towards the postseason.
With a -61 run differential, the Astros appear to be about five players away from righting the ship, not just one or two, as they rank 23rd in the majors with 4.2 runs scored per game.
Even with MVP candidate Lance Berkman and his 1.063 OPS and slugger Carlos Lee, the team has combined to post a line of .258/.320/.404, and basically sits in the lower percentile in nearly every offensive category.
Run prevention has also been a cause for concern in Houston, 16th in the league in defensive efficiency—the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs. The defensive struggles have not helped the pitching staff, which has posted an ERA higher than all but six teams in baseball. Not only that, the Astros have allowed 4.86 runs per game, with the pitchers combining to post an opponents’ OPS of .803.
Miguel Tejada (Getty)
To put that into perspective: only three Astros hitters have a higher mark, Berkman, Lee and Ty Wigginton. Miguel Tejada (.733 OPS), an undeserving All-Star, is 80 points off the mark of what the Astros’ pitching staff has allowed. Hunter Pence is nowhere close to that total as well.
How does Wade not see this? He needs to begin the rebuilding effort now, as the Astros’ farm system was stripped in a few unwise deals—Tejada, anyone?—this offseason. Like the Baltimore Orioles’ situation, where Peter Angelos refused to rebuild for years, McLane needs to take his lumps through improving the minor league depth in the organization. Or, if he likes losing, he can always allow his team to remain on its current course.
Reineke is 26 years old still pitching in Triple-A and was 5-9 with a 4.41 ERA in 19 games started at Triple-A Round Rock, so it is unlikely that he will become a future star in San Diego. The Miami of Ohio product could perhaps turn into a solid reliever in the majors, though, and will benefit from pitching at Petco when he makes his San Diego debut.
Still, the puzzling part has more to do with Wolf, who would probably not add that much value if the Astros were in contention, anyway. The soft left-hander is 6-10 with a 4.74 ERA and 1.42 WHIP so far. Even those numbers are inflated, as he benefited from the spacious gaps at his home park, where he won five games and posted a 3.17 ERA. On the road, however, he went 1-6 with an ERA near 7.00 for the Padres. For the amount of money that Wolf is making, he is just not worth the financial cost if he cannot get things back on track.
This decision is not quite as bad as the Pirates’ acquisition of Matt Morris to become the highest-paid pitcher in franchise history despite being nowhere close to contention. The deal, though, did have a silver lining, as it led to a necessary shake-up in the Pittsburgh front office.
Still, any trade that brings memories of the Morris—who was released by Pittsburgh after going 0-4 with a 9.67 ERA in five starts this spring—deal has a chance to become one of the worst decisions of the year.
The Astros clearly have no chance of making the playoffs. Instead of living in fantasy world, Wade and his baseball operations staff should start looking towards the future, possibly dangling some of his veterans—probably not Roy Oswalt, whose value is low as he is currently on the DL and is having a down campaign—on the market in exchange for some much-needed prospects. Similar to the Seattle Mariners’ predicament under recently fired GM Bill Bavasi, the longer a club waits to make necessary chances, the longer it will struggle.
Wade should open his eyes and take note.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.