When the 2006 season ended, the Astros were coming off an 82-80 record, and a final two-month stretch where they went 33-24. On September 28, 2006 Roy Oswalt beat Tom Gorzelanny and the Pirates, 3-0, to close the Cardinals' division lead to half a game. Roger Clemens lost a 4-1 game to the Braves' Chuck James (while the Cardinals beat Milwaukee, 10-5) to push the Astros back to 1.5GB, the final deficit of the season.
But the Astros, at least on paper, had reason to feel good. They were a year removed from a World Series appearance, and had been 1st or 2nd in the division for six straight seasons (and twelve of the previous thirteen seasons from 1994-2006). If you didn't really look at the minor-league system, the Astros had put together as dynastic a franchise as you could find in the NL Central.
Sure, the average age of the position players was 30.5 (and pitchers 29.8), but the Astros were going to do what they had always done - and that was compete. The Astros didn't rebuild. And they had money to spend. Roger Clemens ($12.2m) and Andy Pettitte ($16.4m) were coming off the books for 2007. Oswalt, Adam Everett, Morgan Ensberg, etc, would be getting raises, but nothing approaching the $28m available for free agents.
In 2006, the Astros were last in batting average (.255), next-to-last in slugging (.409), and were in the lower half of OBP (.332), resulting in a .741 OPS, ever-so-slightly higher than the Cubs, and only better than the Pirates. Preston Wilson was the primary LF in 2006, hitting .269/.309/.405 until he got released on August 12 (and signed with the Cardinals six days later), and the Astros could look at possible replacements.
28-year old Luke Scott got 249 PAs, and hit .336/.426/.661 (including 50 games at LF, where he hit .340/.426/.612). Would they give him a chance to be the everyday left fielder?
When free agency opened, there were some big fish out there. Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, and Aramis Ramirez (who opted out of his deal with the Cubs) were the prime position players in addition to Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, and a Japanese pitcher named Daisuke Matsuzaka.
The name that stood out to most Astros fans was Carlos Lee. Lee was traded midway through the 2006 season by the Brewers (when they realized they weren't going to be able to re-sign him to a long-term deal) to the Rangers on July 28, who were 2.5GB of the Angels, and 2GB of the A's. But the Rangers weren't interested in re-signing Lee.
During 2003-2006, Lee hit .290/.344/.513 (119 OPS+), with 131 homers, 329K:206BB, for (according to FanGraphs) a 14.1 WAR over those four seasons. Also, Lee had a cattle ranch in Wharton. Surely he would be interested in Houston, with its short left field?
But Houston wasn't the only team looking to spend the owner's money. Nick Cafardo listed the Cubs, Red Sox, Orioles, and Astros as the four major players in the 2006 free agent market. The Cubs were interested in Soriano and Lee, as were the Orioles, the Dodgers, and the Phillies.
Phillies' GM Pat Gillick, on Lee:
"He's a nice looking player, someone who would definitely draw some interest," Gillick said, adding he has spoken to Lee's representatives...Lee is listed at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds and there have been questions about him being out of shape, but Gillick said his size isn't a concern. "Lee is a heck of an athlete," Gillick said.
Baltimore VP Jim Duquette, on Lee:
"We're in the mix, definitely,"
And the Astros were working on signing one of the two - Soriano, or Lee. And then the Cubs signed Soriano to an 8-year, $136 million deal, surprising all of baseball, and surprising Tim Purpura:
"If it's to the numbers that are being reported, we've certainly not been involved to that level. We've certainly been involved to a high level. But to the terms and the dollars (reported for Soriano in Chicago) we haven't been involved that high."
With Soriano off the board to the Cubs (who allegedly outbid the Angels by $50m), those other teams might be persuaded to step up their pursuit of Lee. Meanwhile, Purpura knew he was in a balancing act:
"It's not just about today, it's about tomorrow and on to the future. You don't have the record we've had over 14 years by being shortsighted. It's a real balancing act. You've got to take care of today as well as tomorrow."
The cost of Carlos Lee was getting out of control. On November 21, Justice labeled it an "understatement" to say that the bidding was "far beyond" what the Astros expected.
The Associated Press began free agency predicting that the winning team on Lee would need to go to four years, and $50 million to sign him. But that was before the Soriano deal rocked the market, which meant anyone who wanted Carlos Lee was going to have to fly past the 4yr/$50m mark. Richard Justice said on November 19 that it was down to the Orioles, Phillies, and Astros. And the Orioles were offering six years at $80-90 million, which which Justice suggested the Astros should pass on.
When we met this offseason to plot our strategy, we set up our goals for what we wanted to accomplish in the offseason market in the free-agent market and the trade market. Our first priority was to increase our offensive production in the outfield."
"I know this is a team where I have a good chance to win a championship. I've always liked this team, they're always very good, and I like this ballpark. I like a lot about Houston. That's why I told my agent this was one of the places I'd like to play."
Was it too much money for too many years? Everyone seemed to think so, but it was worth it - at least for now.
Drayton McLane overpaid to get Carlos Lee, but he did get him. And because he got him, the Astros didn’t just get better Friday. They got way better. That six-year, $100-million deal is considerably more than the Astros thought they’d have to spend, but the market took a dramatic turn upward with Alfonso’s Soriano’s $136-million deal.
There were concerns about his fielding ability, but the Astros had two power bats in the lineup for the first time since Bagwell left.
"This is a historic commitment to winning,"
Carlos will fit very nicely in the middle of that lineup -- oh, my goodness, that's going to be nice. I'm sure that Berkman is over there enjoying his turkey dinner a lot better right now, knowing there's just no way now they're going to get around him. By adding these two guys we'll be definitely better."
Even The Crawfish Boxes (or at least StrosBro) were fired up:
I think we overpaid for Lee, but I think we should have. I'm ecstatic on both of these signings.
"I remember watching Carlos with the White Sox and with the Brewers and he broke our hearts a few times. His statistics are as good as they get...This is by far the biggest single commitment in the history of the Houston Astros."
Ultimately, the Astros made too long of a commitment at too high a price. But that's what we know now. Sure, there was the pre-diarrhea feeling that things were going to go badly, but at the time, from a major-league standpoint, Lee made the Astros better. And after the run the Astros had since 1994, standing pat would upset the fan base.
The deal worked out exactly as it was supposed to, except the Astros weren't ready for it. And the point of the whole preceding Whatever is to show that Lee was highly sought-after, his salary was inflated by the obscene Soriano contract, and the Astros weren't in a position (from your casual "Hey-let's-go-to-the-game-tonight" fan) to start rebuilding one season removed from the World Series.
If you look at the guys around him, Morgan Ensberg dipped from a .283/.388/.557 line in 2005 to a .235/.396/.463 (still enough for an .858 OPS, but propped up by 101 walks in 495 PAs) line in 2006. He made it through 85 games of weakened numbers in 2007 before getting cut. Biggio was gunning for Hit #3000. Berkman was coming off a 1.041 OPS year. We criticize the Astros for not blowing it up earlier, but the Astros wouldn't be really interested in letting Biggio try to get his 3000th hit in an empty stadium.
It's easy to criticize the Carlos Lee deal now that he's going to take up about a third of the Astros payroll in 2012, the final year of his contract. But the context is important.