We're in a position where we have to start moving forward. We can't give (at-)bats to players because they have been in that spot before. We have to get production and performance out of our players.
-Astros General Manager Tim Purpura: July 13, 2006
Months removed from their World Series run in 2005, the Astros returned key components of the pennant-winning roster. Berkman was coming off a .293/.411/.524 season in 2005. Ensberg hit .283/.388/.557. Jason Lane hit .267/.316/499. And that's beside the return of Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, plus Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, and Brad Lidge. The only issue up in the air from 2006 was the return of Roger Clemens, who was pondering retirement for a third time.
The 2006 Astros started out hot. At the end of games played on April 30, the Astros were 16-8, a half-game behind the Reds and the Cardinals, who were both 17-8. The Reds were helped out by the Astros, who dropped two of three in a series at Cincinnati to end the month. But as a team, the Astros were hitting .273/.355/.457 to end April 2006. Berkman hit 10 home runs in April and was hitting .348/.413/.728 to end the month. Morgan Ensberg hit nine home runs for a .329/.467/.765 line. Biggio was enjoying a .304/.350/.511 line with ten doubles and three home runs. Brad Ausmus - Brad Ausmus! - was hitting .339/.462/.387, with 7K:1BB and 4 HBPs. Chris Burke - for crying out loud - in 35 ABs, was hitting .400/.447/.657 with seven of his 14 hits going for extra bases.
Roy Oswalt was 4-1 with a 2.76 ERA, Wandy was 4-0 with a 2.53 ERA, Taylor Buchholz had allowed just 12 hits in 26.1IP for a 2.05 ERA. Qualls and Lidge both had ERAs over 6.00 and Pettitte was struggling with 13 walks in 36IP and a 5.25 ERA. But overall, you couldn't ask for much more, right?
Then the Astros started to slip. Though they split a two-game series at Milwaukee to open May and took both games in a 2-game series at home against the Cardinals (both one-run wins), The Astros then went on a seven-game road trip in which they went 1-6 to start a month in which the Astros would go 11-19, including dropping a series at St. Louis to end May 7.5 games back in the division. The bottom fell out for Taylor Buchholz in May (8.44 ERA), Andy Pettitte was still struggling (6.06 ERA). Fernando Nieve made six starts, going 1-3 with a 5.66 ERA. Reliever Dan Wheeler lost three games by himself. On May 27, the Astros lost an 18-inning game at Pittsburgh that lasted almost six hours to fall to .500 for the first time since the second game of the season.
On June 1, Roger Clemens announced that he would return for a 23rd Major-League season and would hopefully make his season debut on June 22. The Astros were 7.5 games back in the division. But June started similarly to how May ended. The Astros were swept at home by the Reds - outscored 27-12 - and dropped the first game of a series against the Cubs before rebounding to win eight of their next nine games. They turned that momentum into a skid that saw them lose ten of their next 13 games. But thanks to the rest of the division scuffling, the Astros were only five games back to open July.
The Astros took a series at Arlington, a series against the Cubs, and won the first game of a four-game series with the Cardinals to close within three games before dropping the next three - two of them in extra innings - to end the 1st Half with a 43-46 record, six games behind the Cardinals, two games back of the Reds. The Astros were booed by fans after Sunday's loss - the last before the All-Star Break.
Richard Justice warned Purpura that the Astros were "mentally dead and physically short of talent:"
If you return Thursday with the same club that booed out of Minute Maid Park on Sunday, you'll be making a huge mistake.
Purpura didn't return with the same club. During the All-Star Break, the Astros made a move to bolster a lineup tied for last in the NL in batting average, trading minor-leaguers Ben Zobrist and Mitch Talbot to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff, whose contract would expire at the end of the season.
General Manager Tim Purpura was getting tired of the non-production from key spots in the lineup:
Obviously it will cut into (Ensberg's) playing time. We're in a position where we have to start moving forward. We can't give (at-)bats to players because they have been in that spot before. We have to get production and performance out of our players.
He was speaking partially of Jason Lane, who in 74 games, was hitting .205/.330/.393, and who was sent to Round Rock to make room for Huff. Purpura obviously singled out Morgan Ensberg, who was hitting .236...but had still hit 19 homers with 70K:68BB for an .890 OPS. But Ensberg was playing poorly enough for Richard Justice to wonder if he was trying to play through an injury.
Huff could play both right field and third base, but spent most of 2006 at third base for Tampa Bay - starting 60 of 63 games there. And he had hit .283/.348/.461, striking out just 25 times in 256 plate appearances. An added benefit was that Huff would join the switch-hitting Berkman as the only lefty options in the lineup. Huff was a rental, though, his contract expiring at the end of the 2006 season.
This will give us an offense boost which we sorely need.
Huff was Tampa Bay's franchise leader in games, ABs, runs, hits, doubles, home runs, and RBI. He was one of five lefty hitters to average 100+ RBI from 2003-2005. Tampa Bay was in a familiar place for them - last place in the AL East - and the move was designed to push the organization forward. VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman said at the time of the trade:
To accept where we are is to accept mediocrity. Our goal is to build a competitive team that we can sustain.
The day after the trade was announced, Purpura fired hitting coach Gary Gaetti. The Astros went on one of their then-customary late-season runs, going 33-24 from August 1 to the end of the season, 5.5 games better than the Pirates, 8.0 games better than the Reds, Brewers, and Cardinals. Problem is, from the All-Star Break to the end of July the Astros went 6-11, digging themselves a 9.5-game hole before going on that run, and falling short of a return to the postseason.
In 2006 Huff killed right-handed pitching to the tune of .278/.358/.500. And while he hit fairly well for the Astros: .250/.341/.478, 107 wRC+ (again, 100 is average), Huff didn't provide the spark for which the Astros were looking, because of their early season troubles. For comparison, from the beginning of the season to the day of the Huff trade, Ensberg - whom Huff was brought in to replace - had a 128 wRC+. Purpura actually downgraded the offense.
Justice loved it:
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Team has need. Team fills need with an under-the-radar acquisition that has almost no risk. Aubrey Huff? Yes.
So what did the Rays get from the Astros? Mitch Talbot was the Astros' 2nd Round pick in the 2002 draft. Baseball America said he had the best changeup in the Astros' organization in 2005. When the Astros traded him, Talbot was 6-4 with a 3.39 ERA, striking out 96 batters in 90.1IP. Talbot made his major-league debut for the Rays in 2008, relieving Scott Kazmir against the Red Sox, and made two more appearances in 2007. He was traded to the Indians in 2009, made 28 starts in 2010 with a 10-13 record, 12 in 2012 with a 6.64 ERA, and is now pitching in Korea.
Yes, Talbot but also 25-year old shortstop Ben Zobrist. The Astros drafted Zobrist out of Dallas Baptist in the 6th Round of the 2004 draft, and in 68 games he hit .339/.438/.463 for Tri-City, with 31 strikeouts and 43 walks. He progressed to Lexington and then Salem, where in 110 he posted an .880 OPS, again drawing more walks (84) than strikeouts (52). For Salem he hit .333/.475/.496. How did the Astros let him go?
The Astros had Adam Everett - who was 29 and couldn't hit for anything, but was as solid a defensive shortstop as you would ever see. Behind him there wasn't much, but since Everett was in his Age 29 season, the Astros could ride it out with a plus defender until 2005 3rd Round Compensation pick Tommy Manzella (whom the Astros selected with one of the picks they received from the Mets for losing Carlos Beltran) was able to take over at short.
And it's not as though it was immediately evident that Zobrist was any great loss. The Rays brought him up almost immediately, and in 52 games he posted a .224/.260/.311 line at short. He played in 31 games in 2007, hitting .155/.184/.206. In 83 career Major League games, Ben Zobrist had a .200/.234/.275 line.
Prior to the 2008 offseason, Zobrist met with swing coach Jaime Cevallos at Showtime Sports Academy in Franklin, Tennessee - about 20 minutes south of Nashville, where Zobrist lives with his wife and children. Zobrist had Cevallos check out his own swing. Tampa Bay Online wrote about Cevallos and Zobrist, saying:
Cevallos is a swing coach. Not a hitting coach, but a coach who is interested in one part of the swing, the slot position of the bat as it meets the baseball.
In addition to Cevallos' suggestion to drop his elbows and create a flat plane of a swing, Zobrist was told by Rocco Baldelli to swing harder at the ball and by James Shields to stop chasing so many pitches out of the zone.
In 2008, he got a third shot - this time as a true utility man, playing SS, 2B, 3B, DH, and all three outfield positions. He played in seven games in May, posting a .267/.353/.400 line, returned for two games in June at Florida and went 3x9 with two home runs. When Zobrist returned to the lineup on July 5, he hit another home run. In 83 games in the Majors prior to 2008, he had hit only three career home runs; Now he had three in three consecutive appearances. He wouldn't hit quite like that the rest of the season, but did well enough to finish 2008 with a .253/.339/.505 line and a 1.5 fWAR.
2009 was when Zobrist became Zorilla. He hit 27 home runs and was so valuable defensively that he posted an 8.6 fWAR - the 9th-most valuable individual season in baseball since 2006.
So, yes, Ben Zobrist got away from the Astros, who traded him away for a return shot at the postseason less than a year removed from their first World Series berth. But Zobrist was able to stick on a Tampa Bay team that had the flexibility and the patience to move him around the field, and continue to give him a shot. I don't think the 2006-2008 Astros had either of those qualities.
Zobrist's story is a fantastic one, and while it's entertaining to lament the players that got away, the Zobrist that Tampa Bay ended up with is not the one the Astros traded.