When you're replacing a legend, the fear is always that the bar has been set too high, that whomever you decide to trot out to second base, after nearly two decades of Craig Biggio, will die under the immense weight of the stats, the hustle, the memories. Biggio finished his career with 3,060 hits, seven All-Star appearances, lots of dirt stains, and a period of dominance (1995-1999) matched by few to ever play his position.
As icons go, Biggio was the Astros' gold standard in every sense of the word -- statistically, psychologically, philanthropically, you name it. Safe to say, the ceiling for the Astros' franchise at second base is firmly established.
For every ceiling there's a floor.
Kaz Matsui signed with the Astros in the off-season between the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Ed Wade's first big free-agent signing as general manager of the Astros. Signed on November 30, 2007, Matsui was a chaser to the Brad Lidge trade to Philadelphia earlier that month and a precursor to Miguel Tejada coming to the Astros in a 4-for-1 deal a couple weeks later.
On Wednesday night, Matsui's career as a Houston Astro came to an end with the team putting him on waivers for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release. Sayonara, Kaz.
In signing Matsui back in late 2007, Wade inexplicably decided that it made sense to give three years and $16.5 million to a guy who had never played more than 114 games in a season since coming over from Japan in 2004 and was who was coming off an "okay, but not great by any means" 2007 season (.288/.342/.405 in 104 games).
Matsui rewarded Wade's faith by playing only 96 games in a season (2008) where he could still hit a little bit (.781 OPS), setting a career high in games played (132) in a season (2009) where he declined precipitously as an offensive threat (.659 OPS), and bottoming out in the third year (2010) by putting up an OPS number (.352) in 78 plate appearances that was less than Felipe Paulino's 2010 batting average going into Wednesday night's game.
On top of all this, he will probably be best remembered by those of us with a maturity level of your average eighth-grader for establishing a new standard for "injuries that can most easily segue into a sophomoric one-liner," missing the first few weeks of his first season as an Astro with "anal fissures." So if you're keeping score at home, for $16.5 million the Astros got a second baseman who couldn't stay healthy, wasn't a disciplined-enough hitter to bat near the top of the order, and wasn't explosive enough to bat anywhere above eighth. And anal fissures.
Could Kaz Matsui's Astro career have ended any more appropriately than an 0-for-20 skid, including two final-out at-bats in one-run losses in San Francisco? The only thing missing was Kaz going back to the dugout and plopping himself onto an inflatable hemorrhoid donut on the dugout bench.
For Ed Wade, the release of Matsui signals an ignominious end to his first multi-year, needle-moving contract signing as the Astros' general manager. A move that was hatched when the city of Houston had very little first-hand experience to go on with respect to Wade's eye for talent is now a major blemish on his record. $16.5 million over two-plus seasons for a guy who gave you virtually nothing -- which wouldn't be as painful if the Astros were getting anything from the $34 million they're spending on the two highest-paid bats in the lineup (Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman). Wade said as much in a brief post-game media session: "If we were firing on all cylinders at other positions this would be something we would push to the back burner, but we felt it was important for us to do it at this time."
For what it's worth, Wade was complimentary of Matsui's professionalism, even if it yielded next to nothing. "Obviously it's never easy to talk to a player at this point in the season about an unconditional release, particularly somebody who has conducted himself with the level of professionalism that Kaz has here," Wade said, which is a little like thanking a guy for making the bed after he just got done sleeping with your wife. Yeah, Kaz was a pro's pro at cashing those checks. Whatever.
Up until now, there has not been much for us on which to grade Ed Wade as a general manager. He's cobbled together a roster each season largely built with high-priced veterans he inherited (Lee, Berkman, Roy Oswalt), year-to-year independent contractors (Blum, Feliz, the gaggle of veteran one-year arms), a few kids, and guys picked up in a few bold moves. In short, most of Wade's moves for the major league roster have been of the stopgap variety.
In terms of the aforementioned "bold moves" that are "grade-able" for Wade so far in his Houston tenure, there are the Tejada and Lidge/Bourn trades (I'd call each one a slight edge to the Astros with a big upside obviously to the Bourn deal), the Jose Valverde trade (edge to the Astros), the Lyon signing (incomplete, but not great so far), and the Matsui signing (disaster on every level).
The unknown is Ed Wade's friend right now. We hear about the seeds being planted in the minor leagues, we hear about the Astros signing a majority of their draft picks, we hear about Wade changing the culture of the organization. The average fan doesn't see these things, but instead trusts that it means good things are coming. In terms of immediate gratification, we can only truly see what's on the field night in and night out at Minute Maid Park. So far, so bad.
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To be fair, no general manager was going to put together a team that could live up to Drayton's silly "we are champions" mantra the last few years. In 2007, Wade inherited a bunch of inflated contracts and a wasteland of a minor league system. So to say the Kaz Matsui deal somehow cost the Astros anything noteworthy would be folly. However, Wade did make the deal. With Matsui, he saw something where there was truly nothing; even more scary is he was virtually the only one who saw something.
Chewing on that doesn't taste so good -- the guy who is ultimately responsible for evaluating the talent that will hopefully replenish the Astros' 40-man roster sometime before 2013 is the guy who didn't blink at giving Kaz Matsui $16.5 million. In the real world, that move unto itself isn't enough to get you fired, but it probably keeps you from getting invited to the boss's house for dinner.
For every ceiling there's a floor. The Kaz Matsui Era is over. I think I can safely say that the Astros' next everyday, long-term second baseman will perform somewhere in between Matsui and Biggio. It's virtually impossible for him not to.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show", and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.