Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Season of Actual Expectations

This offseason is weird. After trades that saw the departure of once and future prospects Domingo Santana, Josh Hader, Brett Phillips, Jacob Nottingham, Mark Appel, Vince Velasquez, and a couple of other names I'm probably forgetting, the Astros find themselves in a position we haven't seen since 2004: Expectations.

Here is a basic summary of Astros offseasons since they last went to the World Series:

2006: The Astros saw the writing on the wall of their 2005 World Series team and started to draft well and reload and plan for the future. Oh, no. Wait. The biggest acquisition in the offseason heading into 2006 was to sign Preston Wilson. They added Roger Clemens on May 31, 2006.

2007: After trading Mitch Talbot and Ben Zobrist for Aubrey Huff and then letting Huff walk in free agency, the Astros made the big-splash acquisitions of signing Carlos Lee and Woody Williams, resulting in the loss of their 1st and 2nd Round draft picks in 2007. They also traded Willy Taveras, Taylor Buchholz, and Jason Hirsh to the Rockies for Jason Jennings. The Astros signed Mark Loretta and Brian Moehler. This was the last chance to prevent what became of the Astros from 2009-2014.

The best move of the 2007 offseason was when they signed a little fella named Jose Altuve as an amateur free agent on March 6.

2008: Easy Eddie Wade shipped Eric Bruntlett and Brad Lidge to the Phillies for Michael Bourn, Mike Costanzo, and Geoff Geary. Later in November he would sign Geoff Blum, Doug Brocail, and Kaz Matsui. On December 12, 2007, the Astros would release Adam Everett and then trade six players for Miguel Tejada...on the day before he was named in the Mitchell Report. Two days later the Astros traded Chris Burke and Chad Qualls for Jose Valverde. Darin Erstad and Shawn Chacon were signed.

...And on March 29, 2008 Woody Williams was released.

2009: In a continued effort to get younger and improve the farm system, The Astros signed Mike Hampton, Jason Michaels, Aaron Boone, Russ Ortiz, Pudge Rodriguez. The clubhouse featured blue-plate specials of fried fish and okra with dinner beginning at 3pm. Player parking spots had to be extended so the aged could park their Crown Victorias.

They drafted Enrique Hernandez, Dallas Keuchel, and J.D. Martinez.

2010: Signed Pedro Feliz, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers. Drafted Delino DeShields, Mike Foltynewicz, Vince Velasquez, Jake Buchanan. During the 2010 season the rebuild began. They traded Roy Oswalt for Anthony Gose, J.A. Happ, and Jonathan Villar and flipped Gose to Toronto for Brett Wallace. Two days later Wade traded Lance Berkman to the Yankees for Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes.

2011: Traded Felipe Paulino for Clint Barmes. Signed Bill Hall and Gustavo Chacin. Bill Hall would be released in June. Drafted George Springer and selected Lucas Harrell off waivers. They traded Jeff Keppinger. They traded Hunter Pence for Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton, Domingo Santana, and Josh Zeid. They traded Michael Bourn to Atlanta for Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, Jordan Schafer, and Juan Abreu.

Ed Wade was fired and Jeff Luhnow took over.

2012: The Astros traded Mark Melancon to Boston for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. Traded Jason Bourgeois and Humberto Quintero for Kevin Chapman. Drafted Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, and Preston Tucker. Luhnow traded Carlos Lee to Miami for Matt Dominguez and Rob Rasmussen. In July 2012 the Astros and Blue Jays made a ten-player trade that brought back Joe Musgrove, Kevin Comer, Asher Wojciechowski, and Carlos Perez in exchange for David Carpenter, J.A. Happ, and Brandon Lyon. In the final ten days before the 2012 trade deadline, Luhnow shipped off Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Chris Johnson.

2013: Signed Rick Ankiel and Carlos Pena. In February 2013 Luhnow traded Jed Lowrie and Fernando Rodriguez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock, and Max Stassi. On July 29 Luhnow sent Jose Veras to the Tigers in exchange for Danry Vasquez and David Paulino. He traded Bud Norris to Baltimore for L.J. Hoes, Josh Hader, and the Orioles' 2014 Comp pick, which was used to select Derek Fisher.

2014: In 15 days in December Luhnow traded Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles for Dexter Fowler, signed Chad Qualls, and selected Collin McHugh off waivers. He signed Jesse Crain and Jerome Williams. The Astros also released Brett Wallace and J.D. Martinez. At the trade deadline Luhnow traded Cosart, Enrique Hernandez, and Austin Wates to the Marlins for Jake Marisnick, Colin Moran, Francis Martes, and the Marlins' 2015 Comp pick, which was used to select Daz Cameron. He drafted Brady Aiken and Jacob Nix.

2015: Luhnow selected Will Harris off waivers. He traded Carlos Perez and Nick Tropeano for Hank Conger. The Astros protected Ronny Torreyes instead of Delino DeShields, who was picked by the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft. Signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Signed Jed Lowrie. Traded Foltynewicz and Rio Ruiz to Atlanta for Evan Gattis and James Hoyt. Traded Dexter Fowler to Chicago for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. One day later, he signed Colby Rasmus. Traded Dan Mengden and Jacob Nottingham to the A's for Scott Kazmir. Traded Domingo Santana, Josh Hader, Brett Phillips, Adrian Houser to the Brewers for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers.

2016: Which brings us to this offseason. Luhnow traded Jonathan Villar to the Brewers for Cy Sneed. He traded Jed Lowrie to Oakland for Brendan McCurry. He traded Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman, Vince Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, and Harold Arauz for Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz. Since then he has signed Doug Fister, Wandy Rodriguez, and Neal Cotts.

There was a gradual shift. The years between 2006 and 2012 were fairly depressing - past-their-prime veterans signing as free agents in a desperate effort to catch lightning in a bottle and put together something without actually developing anyone to take their place. By the time Drayton allowed Ed Wade to rebuild, it was too late. There would be seasons and seasons of hell coming.

From 2006-2014 the Astros led the majors with 834 losses - 31 more than the Pirates, 32 more than the Royals, and 49 more than the 27th-ranked Mariners. That's a lot of losses.

Then you see a shift when Luhnow gets to Houston - trading MLB pieces for prospects then throwing those prospects against a wall and hoping that they stick. This is admittedly better than Shawn Chacon throwing the GM to the ground and hoping he sticks. The Astros focused on development and the draft. In 2012 that worked out for them, bringing in Correa, McCullers, and Tucker. The 1-1 overall picks in 2013 and 2014 didn't work out so well, but the strength of the overall draft has led the Astros to where they are now: expectations of a truly competitive season for the first time since 2008 at the latest, 2005 at the most realistic definition of "competitive." Consider all those prospects the Astros traded for Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, and Scott Kazmir. Now consider that the Astros still have what is considered the 10th-best farm system in baseball.

Baseball Depression has its peaks and valleys. After the Astros wore that August four-game sweep against the Ramgers in Dallas, I was as Baseball Depressed as I had been since the Carlos Zambrano no-hitter in Milwaukee. Gone are the times when the most exciting day of the baseball season is the amateur draft. The time has come for all of these moves to start paying off. Last season the Astros were the ones trying to unload prospects for a postseason run. I mean, Scott Kazmir didn't do anybody any favors, but Carlos Gomez will anchor center field for at least one more season. Mike Fiers has to be considered one of the better SP5 options in baseball.

I guess what I'm saying is: Congratulations, Astros fans. We're still here with a (mostly) functional liver, and good times damn well better be ahead.