Horse Trading: Cardinals at Astros

Columnist Will Horton shows how new Houston General Manager Ed Wade has transformed the Astros… but "into what, exactly?" is the open question…

This Central Division of the National League doesn't have much for tradition, compared to the generations-old East and West. But what it does have is mostly made up of tooth-and-nail competition between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros for prominence. From the mid-90's through this decade, these two teams matched deal for deal that brought big names to this relatively unsung division: the Cards brought in McGwire/Edmonds/Rolen/Walker … they countered with Randy Johnson/Alou/Beltran/Clemens.

One significant difference between the two teams' payoffs from these trades was that the Cardinals often were able to sign and keep their acquisitions and integrate them into the nucleus of their team, where the Astros usually lost out in free agent bidding. You can credit the Cardinals owners for being comparatively generous, or blame Houston owner Drayton McLane for pinching pennies, perhaps, but the fact of the matter was that the Cardinals had to retain these players to stay competitive. The Astros didn't.

Houston's organization had been playing the business version of "small ball," by doing outstanding work in the draft room and their minor leagues. Offensive cornerstones Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman came through this pipeline, along with Morgan Ensberg, Willy Taveras, Luke Scott, and current outfield phenom Hunter Pence. A formidable pitching staff was developed that centered around Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller, and a rotating cast of dominating relievers from Billy Wagner to Octavio Dotel to Brad Lidge. For the Cardinals under Jocketty, by contrast, the minor leagues have been little more than a producer of trade bait (excepting a certain 13th-round draft pick, of course).

Last season, though, both teams collapsed ingloriously, the enfeebled Astros barely finishing above the hapless Reds, with the proud but irreparably broken Cardinals just a few games ahead. It was a season that portended dramatic change, and both clubhouses saw plenty of it.

Houston fired manager Phil Garner (right) and GM Tim Purpura in August, and again the Cardinals matched moves by letting go the long-tenured Walt Jocketty. But here the two teams' paths diverged. The Cardinals as an organization decided that they needed to "look within" to solve their problems, while the Astros have cast outwards for saviors.

John Mozeliak advanced from within the Cardinals organization to heal a vast organizational divide and perform triage on an aging lineup and makeshift rotation, and is reaping early laurels.

Meanwhile, Houston performed an extensive GM search that lasted nearly a month, interviewing at least ten different candidates (including Mozeliak that September), and settled on an aging, overpaid veteran: Ed Wade, eight-year GM of the Phillies. Astros' owner McLane was quoted in USA Today following the signing: "[Wade's] Phillies team was put together not through big trades but through player development. We had some wonderful candidates, but Ed just stood out."

However, McLane may have gotten more than he bargained for, as his new hire immediately set about trading away Astros prospects and home-grown major leaguers by the bucketful. Here's a handy breakdown:

Received Sent Away
Michael Bourn OF (25) Brad Lidge RP (31)
Mike Costanzo 3B-AA (24) Eric Bruntlett SS (30)
Jose Valverde RP (28) Chad Qualls RP (29)
Chris Burke 2B (28)
Juan Gutierrez SP-AAA (24)
Miguel Tejada SS (32) Luke Scott OF (30)
Matt Albers SP (25) 
Mike Costanzo 3B AA (24)
Troy Patton SP AAA (22)
Dennis Sarfate SP AAA (27) 
(arbitration not offered) Adam Everett SS (31)

These three monster deals happened in a dizzying span of weeks surrounding the winter meetings, a GM's equivalent to ripping a phone book in half with his bare hands. But in the process, a good chunk of the Astros' top 10 prospects (highlighted in bold) were lost to the winds, even if none of the players traded qualified as "fan favorites."

However, perhaps drastic measures were in order. As Jim Callis wrote for Baseball America, the entire philosophy of the Astros' minor leagues is in need of overhaul. This was exemplified by a complete disaster in 2007's draft, in which the team could only sign two players from its first eight rounds of selections, none from the top four.

So what is Ed Wade thinking? Is he trying to rebuild aggressively at the major league level? He managed to get younger in the outfield and at closer, while clearing the path for Pence to play full time. And, he has championed the promotion of young slugger J.R. Towles to be the team's catcher at least half-time, despite an injury-abbreviated spring.

Or, is he looking at the age of his premier players, Berkman, Oswalt, and Carlos Lee, and trying to cattleprod this team back into one last year of contention? The acquisition of Tejada, at such a steep price in talent, only makes sense in this scenario.

If it's the latter, this only heaps more weight onto the slim shoulders of the 30-year-old Oswalt, who has been called upon to anchor the Houston pitching staff for the last six years. The stubborn whip of a man with the meanest staredown in the division has averaged more than 220 innings pitched since 2004, and perhaps the fatigue is settling in. His strikeout rates have been dwindling year over year, and last year he walked far more than his usual compliment of batters. This year has started out ominously, with a well-earned 0-2 record and reports of surprisingly hittable stuff.

The rest of the Astros' rotation combined couldn't produce even a quarter of the intimidation factor that their ace brings to a series. Chris Sampson, Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez are all former prospects suddenly staring at 30 and finding few new tricks to learn. They are joined by the unmentionable Shawn Chacon, who has to pitch somewhere, I suppose.

Ed Wade took a team that had 73 wins and made three huge gambles, gutting his minor leagues in the process. John Mozeliak, the man the Astros passed on, took a 78-win team and cut away three perennial fan favorites (four if you count Taguchi, who is beloved by the kids), but has refused to trade away youth.

In so doing, the Cards and Astros have unwittingly traded personalities, at least for the time being. The question is whether, in so doing, they can reclaim their former glory.

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