Who's On Deck for the Houston Astros in 2008?

The Astros' post-Biggio era begins with a lot of unanswered questions, but the biggest one of all is: Just how bad are things going to get?

"You can't get much worse than that," says Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis.

Callis tosses around words like "disaster" when describing recent Astro drafts.

"They haven't drafted as well as they used to the last few years," he says. "And they used to be on top of Venezuela as well, the only organization there really, and they haven't brought any talent out of there of note in the last couple of years."

The Astros traded away a bunch of prospects to get Tejada from the Baltimore Orioles; if they had waited a day, until his steroid allegations emerged, maybe they could have got a lower price.

But that's not the only time they've been unlucky. In 2005 they had the 24th pick in the draft and were hungrily waiting to pounce on Oregon State outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Instead the Red Sox took him with the 23rd pick, and he batted .360 in the postseason for them last year.

"Shoot, he'd probably be playing centerfield for the Astros right now," Callis says.

But it's not just bad luck that's killed the farm system. "It's kind of a killer combination," Callis says. "They're spending less money, and they're being less effective. Sometimes if you're spending more money you can be less effective and still come away with more talent, but they haven't done a great job and they're spending less, so they're really feeling it."

Callis, for what it's worth, isn't all that enamored of new GM Ed Wade. "I guess the diplomatic way to put it is I don't think he did a good job in Philadelphia, and just from talking to people in baseball, I haven't been blown away; I haven't liked some of the moves he's made since taking over in Houston," he says.

Gosh, the upbeat, optimistic hits just keep coming, don't they? How about if the Astros decided to go back to their roots of having a strong farm system to develop young talent; that wouldn't take long, would it?

"It's tough, it takes — you could turn it around pretty quick if you had a draft where you had extra picks and really hit on them and made a bunch of trades for prospects, but realistically it probably takes a minimum, unless everything really goes your way, three to five years to turn it around," he says. "The problem is, even if they had the best draft in baseball in 2008, you're not going to feel the impact of that at the major-league level for at least three years and more like five. So they're not going to get much help from the farm system anytime soon. It's probably going to be a little bleak for a while."

Hey, thanks, guy. Way to stomp on that last little piece of hope.

It's a Hit

If the Astros' season turns sour quickly, fans shouldn't feel totally forlorn — they'll at least have the new Larry Dierker musical to look forward to.

Dierker, who has been a pitching star, manager and announcer for the team, has long been known as a writer. He's done columns and books and takes it seriously — in the pre-Internet days he could be seen in the downtown public library, scouring old magazines and newspaper microfiche.

But a musical? By someone who doesn't play an instrument, much less read music?

"It's kind of hard to explain how a tune comes into your head," he says. "But I used to do a lot of taking popular songs and replacing the words in them, and then somewhere along the line I started to come up with new tunes."

For Old Stories, the baseball musical he's working on, he would write lyrics and then sing his idea of the tune to local jazz pianist Paul English.

English would then pretty much change it completely, Dierker says. ("In most cases for the better," he adds.)

Dierker isn't annoyed at that — in fact, talking with him, it becomes clear he's remarkably clear-eyed about his theatrical effort.

"It's a crap shoot, I knew that going in — the chances of it getting on a stage are 50-50 at best," he says. "That's what every playwright probably faces unless you're Andrew Lloyd Webber or Sondheim."

There have been two packed and successful readings of the musical at Stages, but Dierker is taking that with a grain of salt. "That was kind of misleading — the people there were all mostly relatives or friends of the cast or the musicians or me...Most people were predisposed to like it," he says.

Dierker also, unlike some musical wannabes, realizes that theater is a collaborative thing where everyone from the director to the choreographer, the actors and the producers gets a say. "It's not like writing a book — it's more like being on a team again," Dierker says.

The show, about one team's season, features a hotshot rookie, an aging star with a struggling marriage, and a Cinderella run to the pennant. The music ranges from country to jazz to doo-wop, although the creative team is discussing whether that eclecticism hurts or helps.

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