The Beltran Blues

When Carlos Beltran traded in his red Astros pinstripes for a set of blue Mets pinstripes on Monday, he did more than just break the hearts of Houston fans. Rather, he set back the Astros by at least a spot or two in the division. He also sent the team spiraling into a rebuilding mode with only 35 days left until Spring Training camps open and with precious few free agents still on the market.

On June 25, 2004, Carlos Beltran arrived as a potential savior in Houston. Up to that point, the ’stros had failed to meet their very lofty expectations. Andy Pettitte had missed a lot of time with a bad elbow, and Houston was 38-34 in fourth place. At first, Beltran didn’t seem to be the answer. On July 24th, a week before the trading deadline, the Astros were going nowhere fast. They were 48-49 in fifth place in the division and six games out in the Wild Card race.

The rest, as they say, is history. After an incredible stretch drive, the Astros came within 27 outs of the World Series. Beltran hit eight postseason home runs and dove into right and left fields to rob Cardinals of their doubles. He seemingly carried the team to the brink of that World Series.

During the subsequent months, Drayton McLane clearly wanted to resign Beltran and use the 27-year-old outfielder as a keystone to a decade of Houston success. To free up the finances to do so, the Astros declined Jeff Kent’s $9 million option and saw him leave for Los Angeles. They didn’t even talk to Wade Miller who signed with Boston, and they didn’t open serious negotiations with any of the other available free agents who could have helped the team. Instead, they made Beltran the biggest offer in Astros’ history only to see him decline it.

The problems are worse however. First, Lance Berkman tore his ACL in early November and will be out until at least May and probably until June. Next, there is the issue of Roger Clemens. Clemens has not decided yet whether or not to return to Houston this season. His return was largely contingent on the Astros putting together another competitive team. But with Beltran and Kent gone, Berkman out for two months, and no viable replacements from any of these players, speculation is that Clemens will opt to retire.

In effect, the Astros’ failure to sign Carlos Beltran has cost them a lot more than just one player. It has cost them nearly one-third of all of their games from last year. Looking at 2004 statistics, the Astros are in danger of losing as many as 100 win shares depending upon the severity of Berkman’s injury and the speed of his recovery. If Berkman can make a full recovery, the Astros would be down 68 win shares — or the equivalent of nearly 33 victories. It is very unlikely that the Astros can climb out of this hole this deep in time for the 2005 campaign.

With Beltran just a physical away from the Mets, the tough part begins. The Astros have to figure out who will replace their departed players. If Clemens does indeed retire, the loss would be as devastating as Beltran’s decision to head for the Big Apple. The front end of the rotation would be Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, but there are question marks around Pettitte’s health. Behind these two, the loss of Wade Miller will be noticeable as well. While injuries limited his action down the stretch last year, he was a solid third or forth starter. He has won 52 games for Houston since 2001, and his DIPS (that’s defense-independent pitching statistics) showed that he was good and not just lucky. Brandon Backe would step in to the rotation, as would some combination of Tim Redding, Pete Munro, Brandon Duckworth, and whatever else the Astros farm system has. That’s a major step down for a team that was just nine innings away from the Series.

In the outfield, with Berkman’s injury and Beltran’s departure, the Astros are left with the potential starting three of Jason Lane, 40-year-old Craig Biggio, and career journeyman Orlando Palmeiro. The three combined for a whopping 92 RBIs last year. In the infield, the Astros are left with Mike Lamb to fill in for Jeff Kent. Clearly, this team is a far cry from the one that upended the Braves and nearly upset the Cardinals just three months ago.

While I’ve painted a fairly dire picture for the Astros and their fans this upcoming season, there is still hope that they could land a free agent or two to help alleviate these losses. Jeromy Burnitz and Magglio Ordoñez remained unsigned. Ordoñez could adequately replace Beltran’s bat in the lineup, but he too has some health issues. Burnitz is appealing, but his numbers are Coors-inflated. He’ll be 36 in April, and there’s no way he would hit 37 home runs and drive in 110 at sea level. Other than that, the pickings are slim.

So then, where did the Astros go wrong this off-season? This is a team with money that was willing to spend. I think the obvious answer lies in their infatuation with Carlos Beltran and the way in which they played into Scott Boras’ hands. There’s no denying that Carlos Beltran is a great player. His .536 postseason OBP and 1.022 slugging proved that this kid can play, and the towering home runs were enough to blind even the most objective of baseball analysts. But this was Beltran’s biggest contribution to the team. He did little to push the team into the playoffs, hitting .258 in September while slugging just .474. He drove in only seven runs the entire month.

Despite an unclutch performance, the Astros blindly pursued Beltran. They did not look at Steve Finley; they did not look at Moises Alou; they never talked to any of the free agent pitchers that would have fit nicely into the back end of their rotation. In the end, Beltran opted to walk. Scott Boras used Astros to get seven years and $119 million from the New York Mets. Now, the Astros are left without a second baseman, without a solid outfield, and possibly without the reigning Cy Young winner.

They are left, however, with a large cache of cash. If they want a shot at contending this year, they had better spend some of it quickly and pray that the Rocket wants to fire up his right arm one more time.

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