The mood in the Astros clubhouse yesterday after the 2-1 loss to the Phillies was about what you'd expect. Michael Bourn tried to stay upbeat, citing that the team is fighting hard and they know they have good players. (Fortunately, unlike many around Minute Maid Park, Bourn sounded like he actually believed the part about the good players.) Geoff Blum punctuated his post-game interview by rolling his eyes (rightfully) at some cameraman who asked him the idiotic question "Did you anticipate being 0-6 at this point?"
Roy Oswalt? Well, he let his pitching do the talking yesterday...and I don't mean that in a "Roy brought the funk and needn't say anything" kind of way. I mean it in a "Roy threw 114 pitches in six innings, lost 2-1, and then chose not to speak to the media afterward" kind of way. I suppose for the paltry of sum of $15 million per year, it probably is a lot to ask Roy to stick around and speak all of us on days he actually pitches.
As Brad Mills stood in front of the cameras and talked about how hard the team fought Sunday and, like Bourn but with more emphasis, claimed that "That's a good baseball team we have in there," I couldn't help but fast forward to June....July...and think of how many times Mills is going to have to stick up for his team, reassure us that they're going to continue to fight, search for slivers of positivity amidst a sea of empty green seats at the ballpark.
Because the fact of the matter is that this is not a good baseball team. We've made one turn through the starting rotation and it hasn't been pretty. Granted, Philadelphia will make a lot of teams' pitching look like batting practice, but it doesn't change the fact that the Astros have lost these first six games in every conceivable way, finally crossing "pitchers' duel" off the list Sunday afternoon.
So here we are. 0-6. No other team in baseball is winless, and only the Astros and Baltimore Orioles (Two teams that will be colliding in the same sentence a whole lot more if the Astros don't win a game soon, Signed 1988) have fewer than two wins. One week into the season, and the season is basically over.
And I'm here to tell you what Drayton McLane and the 2010 Astros won't, Drayton because he doesn't know when to turn his sprinkler system of bullshit off, and the team because it's their job to win games --- in the grand scheme of things, losing and losing BIG is not the worst thing that could happen to this franchise.
You see, sometimes it's not good enough to be able to merely see rock bottom from where you are; you have to fall all the way there, face first. You need to bottom out completely. Like in Party of Five, when Bailey Salinger was going through his alcoholic phase in Season 3, he knew he was drinking all the time, but it didn't really faze him. His family staged an intervention for him, and that wasn't enough. It took Bailey nearly crashing his jeep and practically sending his ex-girlfriend Sarah (played to perfection by an up-and-coming Jennifer Love Hewitt) through the windshield to finally wake up and realize that he needed help.
I think Drayton McLane realizes his baseball team needs to make changes. He's given Ed Wade more control than Tim Purpura ever had, and has been much more open to actually signing players that the team drafts. However, Drayton hasn't had his "Ed Wade goes through the windshield" moment yet, where he realizes that his team needs more than just tweaks, that it needs a total and complete facelift.
A summer of empty seats and a 62-100 record would be just that -- Drayton McLane screeching his jeep into the middle of an intersection as Ed Wade bounces headfirst off of the windshield . (And yes, I just compared Drayton to a maniacal alcoholic and Ed Wade to Jennifer Love Hewitt...where else can you get analysis this hard-hitting?)
Baseball teams generally fall into one of five categories:
1.) Genuine contender -- at the very least, a high probability to be playing in October (Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Cards)
2.) One or two flaws away -- will hang around long enough to stay in the conversation, much hope for the future (Tampa Bay, Minnesota, San Francisco, Florida last year are all examples)
3.) Building toward something -- optimism generally exceeds their won-loss record, usually a young team (Milwaukee the last few years may be best example of this)
4.) Mediocre ambiguity -- average to below average in every sense of the word (see: Astros, 2009)
5.) No hope (the usual suspects -- Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore)
The Astros spent the better part of 1997 through 2005 as a Category 1 or Category 2 team, making the playoffs more often during that time than not and finally making a run at a world championship in 2005. The only year that you could really say they were a bad baseball team in that timeframe was 2000, their first season in the new ballpark.
The Astros' problem now is that they are (and have been for four years) a Category 4 team, mired in that meaty low-70 to low-80 win part of the baseball curve with a team that has only a handful (literally) of future building blocks and where two-thirds of the payroll is being used on four or five players who are all well over 30 years old and are either ineffective, injured, or fat. Just a bad situation made worse by an owner who spent too many years thinking that the fan base couldn't deal with taking a couple steps back in the name of logical rebuilding.
The end result? Well, you're looking at it. For now.
Getting back to my original premise that losing at historically bad levels would actually be good for the Astros, the bottom line is that the team needs to find some way to get from the ambiguity of Category 4 to the clarity and hope of Category 3, and the fastest way there is to supplement the seeds FINALLY being planted in the minor league system through the draft with some more prospects and some serious shedding of bad salaries.
Basically what I'm saying is, we all know this is going to be a Category 5 (hopeless) summer for the Astros, so my guess is Drayton would rather pay the pro-rated portion of, say, $62 million than $92 million for hopelessness.
Drayton McLane has never been a seller at trade deadline time (if you listen real close you can hear him saying "It's not what champions do..."); he's been a buyer a couple times, most notably Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran. The only way Drayton McLane moves Roy Oswalt (easily the biggest asset he has) or Lance Berkman (this knee thing isn't helping his value) or Carlos Lee (oh please God, hear our prayers) is if the Astros are a clear dud, on the field and at the turnstile. And trust me, if you've seen the crowds this first week, until this team puts something watchable, something with potential, out there on the field, then the two go hand in hand.
What I'm saying is a team that in June is on pace for about 62 wins with a lineup full of 30-something-year-old independent contractors may be what finally gets Drayton McLane to okay the final phase of becoming a true rebuilding franchise. No one, and I mean NO ONE, will show up to watch a bunch of old guys that suck. No one showing up means a whole lot of dollar ticket giveaways and a whole lot of unconsumed beer and nachos. It also means that shelling out a $92 million payroll gets a lot more painful (not that he can't afford it, but Drayton's not into making Berkman and Lee into charitable causes). It means veteran guys, no matter how great Brad Mills is at making the ballpark a happy place, will be disgruntled with all the losing. In short, it means they finally aggressively move their aging guys. This needs to happen.
Staying on pace for 70-something wins means there is hope. That's a little too good. 62-100 feels futile. Downright hopeless. The Astros, for the time being, need to have no hope for 2010. As George Costanza once said, "Hope is killing me. My best bet is to be hopeless. It's my only hope." Exactly. (And last I checked, George Costanza had at least one more World Series ring than Drayton McLane or Ed Wade. So there.)
Before the halcyon days of 1997-2005, the Astros went through their own rebuilding period. In fact, you could call the early 1990's a Category 3 period for the franchise -- lots of mediocre to average records, but a young team that had a plan (minus the Drabek/Swindell double-dip fiasco), a nucleus, and was building toward something. Go to baseball-reference.com and look at the lineups of the Astros from 1991-1994 -- it's almost all guys under the age of 30. Now, not all of them panned out, but you had a direction. Look at their lineup in 2010 -- other than Bourn, Hunter Pence and Tommy Manzella, the whole lineup including the top of the rotation and highest-paid reliever are all 30 or older.
If nothing else, even if most of the 20-somethings of the early `90's either didn't pan out or wound up blossoming elsewhere (the late Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez), at the very least the young clubhouse created a dynamic whereby Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were forced to lead. The seeds of their greatness as players, but moreso as leaders and professionals, were planted in those early years when they had no choice but to lead. Who else was going to do it?
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Fast forward to 2010 -- if your building blocks of the future are Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, hell even Jason Castro, let's put them in a clubhouse that's theirs. Throw them in the leadership swimming pool and see if they can do more than dog paddle. Wouldn't you rather see a bunch of younger players following Pence's insane work ethic and Bourn's cool demeanor than all of these old guys getting iced down watching Carlos Lee get fatter and Lance Berkman getting his knee drained again?
Gut it, Ed Wade. Gut the whole team, keep the good, young parts. Move forward.
And if you want to ask one of your so-called leaders, Roy Oswalt, about his thoughts on being traded (after all, he does have a full no-trade clause), I would suggest you try and find him somewhere other than at his locker after a game. He doesn't seem to be hanging out there much lately.
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.