From 1979 through 2006, the Houston Astros were one of baseball's best and most consistent franchises. They suffered just six losing seasons and made the playoffs nine times. They finally reached their first World Series in 2005, but that was primarily an aging club at the end of a long run of success. Jeff Bagwell was done, Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens were old, Andy Pettitte would return to the Yankees and Morgan Ensberg never repeated his big season.
And the talent dried up. The Astros are on their way to their fourth losing season in five years and will likely lose more than 90 games for the first time since 1991. As Buster Olney wrote in his blog today, with Drayton McLane selling the team to Jim Crane, the new ownership group knows it has to pay more attention to player development.
1. A string of bad drafts. Former scouting director David Lakey nailed his first two first-round picks, drafting Lance Berkman in 1997 and Brad Lidge in 1998, but the Astros haven't drafted a first-rounder since who has developed into a solid major leaguer. (Time will tell, of course, on recent picks like Jordan Lyles and Delino DeShields Jr.) The Astros only had one top-10 pick from 1993 through 2007 (Chris Burke, 10th overall in 2001), which doesn't help, of course. The team also forfeited its first-round picks in 2003 (for signing Jeff Kent), 2004 (for signing Andy Pettitte) and 2007 (for signing Carlos Lee). It's hard to fault the Kent and Pettitte signings, but Lee has been both expensive and now unproductive.
Every team misfires in the draft but the Astros have had a long string of misfires. In 2005, under scouting director Paul Ricciarini, they were picking 24th and selected pitcher Brian Bogusevic, who was later converted to an outfielder. Matt Garza was the next pick and Colby Rasmus went later in the round. With the 23rd pick in 2006 they took high school catcher Max Sapp, who hit .224 in three seasons in the minors and then developed meningitis, which ended his career. Even before contracting meningitis, the Astros had shown their doubts about his future big-league status, drafting catcher Jason Castro in the first round in 2008. Two picks after Sapp, the Angels selected another high school catcher, Hank Conger, now playing well as a rookie. But the big blows were a string of drafts from 2000 onward that produced few big leaguers -- guys who should be in their primes right now.
2. McLane refused to spend on the draft, sticking to the MLB recommended slot bonuses. For example, the team failed to sign third-round pick Drew Stubbs in 2003; he later became a first-rounder of the Reds. Castro, drafted 10th overall in 2008, was taken one pick before Justin Smoak, whom most scouts rated much higher. Smoak signed for a bonus $1.5 million more than Castro.
McLane always operated the franchise like a mid-market team, instead of one playing in the sixth-largest metro market in the U.S. Under McLane, the Astros ranked in the top 10 in payroll in the majors just twice -- sixth in 2006 and eighth in 2009. Maybe there isn't quite enough fan interest in Houston to allow the Astros to play with the big boys -- even during their great run in the late '90s and early '00s, they reached a peak attendance level of fifth in the NL.
3. The Venezuelan pipeline shut down. Whether through deploying fewer resources, not spending money or just signing the wrong guys, a once fruitful operation in Venezuela -- arguably the best in the majors -- has returned little talent in recent years. Among the players Houston signed out of Venezuela: Richard Hidalgo, Bobby Abreu (although he was lost in the expansion draft), Carlos Guillen, Johan Santana (lost in the Rule 5 draft), Freddy Garcia and Melvin Mora.
4. Bad deals. The Carlos Lee -- six years for $100 million in 2007 -- was a bad deal at the time, an overrated RBI guy with mediocre OBPs who played poor defense. As predicted, it's become an albatross and he'll still be making $18.5 million in 2012. The team drafted Ben Zobrist and later traded him to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff. That's 68 games of Huff before he left as a free agent.
Crane will take over officially sometime this summer. He's got a lot of work ahead of him.