Make The Astros Better: Forget Free Agents

A friend sent me this Richard Justice blog post over the weekend, then he asked, given the premise that Drayton McLane was going to allow unlimited spending for next season's team, just what it was that I would do.  

First, unlike one of Justice's suggestions, I wouldn't waste any money on Oakland pitcher Justin Duchscherer. He hasn't pitched this season because of injuries. He missed most of last season because of an injuries. He's currently undergoing treatment for depression. He's over 30. If you think about it, this guy could be just like Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz, but he would get more money. And the key to the Astros getting better for next season is not wasting more money on aging, injury-prone veterans.  

But there's something else I would do differently than Justice, and from what my friend wants.  And it's this: I wouldn't spend much money on signing free agents. That's because signing expensive free agents is the opposite of the approach I would make with the team. This team needs to get younger. It needs to get more talent. It needs to position itself to be able to make a run for the title for years, not for a season. In short, I'm revisiting the Astros of 1990.

This team is stuck with Carlos Lee. No team is going to take on a contract like that for a guy like Lee. But Lee aside, I'd try to get rid of every high-priced contract for as much talent as the team can get. So that means Lance Berkman, Kaz Matsui, and Roy Oswalt are up for trade. I'd let Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde walk, and if anybody wants Wandy Rodriguez, then they're welcome to have him.

This is what the Astros did after the 1989 season. The team was an aging contender that was just good enough to stick around, but not good enough to win. So the team started releasing and trading players. Berkman and Oswalt can be good players for contending teams, and contending teams usually have a lot of young talent to part with. So let's see if there's some team out there that will trade the equivalents of Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch, and Curt Schilling for Lance Berkman. And if Larry Andersen was able to get the Astros Jeff Bagwell, then a good general manager should be able to get the equivalent of two or three Bagwells for Oswalt.

Of course, that means the Astros need a good general manager. Which means that I would dump Ed Wade and find some way to get Gerry Hunsicker back here to run the team. Put Hunsicker together with scouting director Bobby Heck, and these two should be able to find talent and get the farm system restocked.

The team's going to be full of really young guys with some aging journeymen veterans and Lee to fill out the rest of the roster. So a good manager will be needed who can help the young guys get used to losing and help them handle the slumps. So Drayton will have to be convinced to forgo first-time managers or failed rejects. As much of a control freak as he is, a good name to call would be Buck Showalter who was more responsible than Joe Torre for those late-90s Yankee teams, and who then turned the Arizona Diamondbacks from an expansion team into a playoff team.  

The hardest part will be dealing with Drayton and the fans. Because this team will be bad for several years. But if the money is invested in the farm system and the front office, and if youngsters like Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn are signed to long-term contracts that buy out their arbitration years, then a team following this blueprint can become a contender in a matter of years.  

If smart people are in charge, this is a winning formula for the future. Just look at the Minnesota Twins who contend year-after-year despite big name free agents, but through the use of a great farm system and great young talent. The same works for the Florida Marlins, and it has worked for the Cleveland Indians.

And more importantly, we know it works because this is the path that the Astros have used time and time again to contend. A great farm system, good, young talent, a good front office and a good manager. It worked in 1980, 1986, and from 1997-2005. So don't spend the money on free agents, spend the money on getting young talent.  

It is a formula that has been proven to work.

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