2011 is proving to be a long season in Houston.
The recent trade deadline was a sad reminder for Astros fans of where their team has fallen to. Losing fan favourite Hunter Pence to the Phillies and lead-off speedster Michael Bourn to the Braves was depressing enough. Watching those players leave during the same period when Carlos Beltran moved from the Mets to the Giants made it even worse.
The trade of Beltran didn’t affect the Astros directly. It was meaningful because it called to mind a very different, and much happier, time in Houston.
The last time Beltran was traded in mid-season, it was the Astros who acquired him to add a spark to their 2004 postseason charge. It was seven years ago; seven years that must seem like a lifetime.
That feeling isn’t limited to people residing in Houston. There is a decent smattering of Astros fans in Britain due to the team’s period of success coinciding with MLB’s stint on British terrestrial TV. Baseball arrived on Five in 1997 and that was the first year the Astros had made the playoffs since 1986.
It started a ten year period when they finished first or second in the National League Central in every year except for a fourth-place finish in 2000. Fans brought to the game by Baseball on Five knew the Astros as perennial contenders, led by the Killer B’s of Bagwell, Biggio, Bell and then Berkman, with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt ultimately providing the pitching to go along with the hitting.
There are no Killer B’s in this Astros team. Clint Barmes is a dedicated professional who gives his all, but he is about as lethal as a water pistol.
Things are so bad that one Houston Press blog went as far as to describe their lineup on 1 August as the “worst lineup in Major League history”. There are people vastly more qualified than me that can assess the accuracy of that claim, but there’s little question that it is an undistinguished group. Frankly, it looks Major League in name alone.
And that’s where the pain of Astros fans is joined by an uncomfortable feeling for others.
The San Francisco Giants haven’t played the Astros so far this season. They will face Houston seven times over the next two months, after they have traded away their two best offensive players. The Giants’ main rivals for a postseason spot, the Arizona Diamondbacks, played the Astros three times at the end of May. They won all three of those games, but how would they feel if they had been swept by that Astros team and they narrowly lost out in the NL West with the Giants taking six or seven wins against the Astros-lite?
That’s just one example, but it hints at a deeper problem.
There’s not much fairness when it comes to the MLB schedule and any sports schedule will be subject to an opponent’s strength being weakened by injuries at a particular time. However, in this type of situation, the Astros have deliberately chosen to play out the rest of the season with a weakened team. Wolves and Blackpool have been fined for doing that in the Premiership in recent years, yet it’s an accepted practice in MLB and seems to fly in the face of the general conept of things being done ‘in the best interests of baseball’.
It’s a difficult situation because, like a lot of onlookers, I’ve watched the Astros going nowhere while holding on to veterans in recent years and stated that they should be rebuilding for the future.
Rebuilding – trading away your established players for prospects, acquiring some of the best young talent due to the high draft picks given to the worst-performing teams etc – is not only a legitimate approach, it’s arguably an essential one for teams without the largest financial resources if they ever want to have periods of challenging for the World Series.
However, the current situation with the Astros shows the ugly side of this.
There is no relegation in MLB, or any major North American sport. I’m not suggesting that should change – there are plenty of negatives to having relegation and, in any case, introducing it would be close to impossible considering how professional baseball is structured in the States – but the way in which organizations can get rid of their best players and field below-standard teams doesn’t seem right. It goes beyond the ‘race to the bottom’ to secure the number one draft pick; the MLB competition over the season’s final two months can be compromised by teams all but giving up.
The big question now is whether the reported increase of playoff teams from eight to ten next season will change this through making less teams decide to completely blow up their roster? That remains to be seen.
It was a shame, if not much of a surprise, to see Greg Halman optioned back down to Triple-A by the Mariners on Friday. The Dutchman get off to a decent start when he made the Majors in June, but July proved to be a difficult month for both Halman and the rest of the team; as emphasised by their miserable 17 game losing streak. His first stint in the Big Leagues will have taught him a great deal about what it takes to succeed at the highest level and he can take heart from the favourable reviews of his play in the outfield and from hitting his first two Major League home runs.
You can’t really argue with the decision to suspend Yadier Molina for five games for bumping the umpire Rob Drake. Just like raising your hands in football, every ballplayer knows that making contact with an umpire will lead to a suspension (rightfully so, and Molina himself has accepted the decision). However, it would be interesting to know if Drake’s part in the incident has been reviewed by MLB. Molina was uncharacteristically angry because Drake called him out on strikes on a pitch that was clearly inside. Nobody is perfect, but replays suggest he missed that call by a significant margin. Players have to control themselves, but you can fully understand Molina’s frustration at getting a call like that in extra innings during an important game. Molina got punished for his mistake; will Drake face any penalty for his?