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5 Ways the Houston Astros Can Rebuild and Return to NL Contention


Thankfully, for Houston Astros fans, the 2010 Major League Baseball regular season is finally over.  The Astros stumbled to another sub .500 finish and traded away the last remnants of the 2005 World Series team.  As their team enters a rebuilding phase that should’ve started after Craig Biggio’s retirement, Astros fans have reason to be optimistic.  Here are 5 ways the Houston Astros can rebuild and return to contention.

1.  Learn from the Twins

The Astros have thrown money at high-priced veterans since 2005 in a desperate attempt to return to the World Series, but they have floundered around the middle of a traditionally weak NL Central.  All of their big-name acquisitions (Lee, Tejada, Hampton, Pudge, Matsui, Preston Wilson) have underperformed and cost them money and draft picks.  They forfeited their future trying to win immediately and their minor league system is routinely ranked as one of the worst in the majors.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins have put on a clinic in how to build contending teams with little money in a small market.  The Twins drafted and developed their core players (Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Span, Baker, Kubel, Blackburn, Slowey), traded for young players who blossomed (Nathan, Liriano) and signed low-price veteran free agents who exceed expectations (Thome, Pavano, Hudson).  The Twins have won the AL Central six of the last nine seasons and have proven that building a winning team starts with scouting and player development.

The Astros have tried to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox – throwing huge contracts at players whose best years are behind them.  Though owner Drayton McLane has proven he’s willing to spend money to win, the money was always poorly invested and spent at a detriment to the team’s future.  Now, after parting with the last remnants of the World Series team and amidst rumors McLane is considering selling the team, the Astros are officially rebuilding and should study the Twins.

2.  Dump Carlos Lee

The Astros owe El Caballo $37 million over the next two seasons.  His power numbers have steadily declined since arriving in Houston and he hasn’t exactly become a fan favorite (apart from his sombrero-sporting “El Caballitos”).  The Astros don’t need Lee’s performance and salary restricting them from fully rebuilding.  Brett Wallace is the first baseman of the future and plopping Lee there as a result of his sloppy outfield play only takes away at-bats from a player the Astros need to develop.

Other clubs will not be calling in the offseason begging to take Lee’s contract off their hands, but the Astros need to keep their eyes open for opportunities in the 2011 season.  As soon as a big market team suffers an injury, the Astros need to be on the phone working out a deal.  Even if they have to absorb some of his contract themselves, Lee could still command a good prospect or two if a contending team is desperate.

3.  Prepare for the long haul

The Astros and their fans will need the patience of Job as they are likely to suffer through more seasons in the cellar.  A proper rebuilding takes time and the Astros need to dedicate a few seasons to retooling the team and creating a winning atmosphere before thinking about contending for the pennant.  Thankfully, manager Brad Mills showed great promise in an otherwise disastrous 2010 season.  The Astros somehow didn’t finish last in the NL Central and Mills was able to get the best out of a club with low expectations that lost its biggest names.

4.  Get Michael Bourn on base

Michael Bourn is a dynamic game-changing player on the bases.  He’s led the NL in steals the last two seasons and is one of the game’s best at manufacturing runs.  However, getting him on-base remains a struggle.  Bourn missed significant time in 2010 due to injury and his average and on-base percentage both dropped.

The Astros’ lone All-Star, along with Hunter Pence, will be the cornerstone in the rebuilding process.   If Bourn can’t find a way to get on-base as often as other premiere lead-off men, the Astros young bats will continue to struggle putting runs on the board.

5.  Get a right-handed bat to take advantage of short left field

The left field fence in Minute Maid Park is 315 feet from home plate.  The left field fence on the field where I play city league softball is 325 feet from home plate.  I’ve seen construction workers and youth ministers crush slow pitch softballs over the 325-foot fence but have yet to see a right-handed power hitter properly take advantage of Minute Maid’s short porch.

When the park opened in 2000, Jeff Bagwell hit a career high 47 home runs, but the shoulder injury that ended his career kicked in shortly after and he never again eclipsed 40 and retired 5 seasons later.  Since Bagwell, the Astros haven’t had a right-handed bat take aim at the train tracks.  I’ve already documented Carlos Lee’s disappointing tenure, Lance Berkman hit for power better left-handed and Hunter Pence puts up good numbers but isn’t really a pure power hitter.  The Astros need to draft and develop a right-handed power-hitting prospect who can spend his peak seasons aiming for the train.