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Justice on the Astros

Richard Justice explains why, to my great dismay, the Astros are a deeply flawed team. There are several reasons, but at the top of the list is a cheap owner, something that Astros fans have been putting up with for decades:

Remember that owner Drayton McLane's offseason priority was to slash the payroll. He ordered the trade of Billy Wagner and wanted Richard Hidalgo gone as well. Only when Andy Pettitte took a hometown discount did he change his mind and begin talking about a championship.

He has said that Pettitte and Roger Clemens could not have been signed if Wagner hadn't been traded. This is ridiculous. Pettitte's deal was too good to pass up no matter what. As for Clemens, McLane would never have turned down the chance to have him in an Astros uniform. And he came cheap, too.

Justice is right - Pettite and Clemens were profitable signings with or without Wagner. McLane is one of America's richest men, but he can't "afford" a winner. He's cheap.

Update: Tom Kirkendall emails with a correction too large to fit in the comment box.

Mr. Justice does what many sportswriters tend to do -- they make superficially sensible assertions without factual support. In this case, the facts do not back up Mr. Justice's view.

Wagner was an expensive pitcher who was coming off one of the best seasons of his career. At his age, his performance likely does not get better than it was last season. The Stros traded him for two excellent pitching prospects (Buckholz and Astacio), and the trade has turned out to be a good one. Wagner just went on the DL for the third time this season. Moreover, based on Lee Sinins' runs saved against average ("RSAA") formula, Wagner has been a marginally above-average NL pitcher this season. Wagner's RSAA is 4, which is the same as the Stros' Pete Munro. Although Munro has been a pleasant surprise this season, the addition to this Stros' staff of another pitcher pitching at his level of effectiveness would not have made much of a difference in the Stros' overall performance this season.

Finally, the Stros' currently have the third best pitching staff statistically in the NL. Their primary problem this season has not been pitching; rather, their problem has been lack of hitting generally and lack of power hitting in particular (notably, Bagwell and Ensberg's dramatic power declines).

Which brings us to Hidalgo. Another hugely expensive player, Hidalgo has had precisely one above-average season since his monster season of 2000. Again, using Mr. Sinins' runs created against average statistic ("RCAA"), Hidalgo has been just an average NL hitter this season, which means that he is far below average as a rightfielder (where most teams field an above average hitter). The Stros did not get much in return for Hidalgo, which reflects that the trade was primarily a salary dump. But that salary dump allowed the club to pick up Carlos Beltran, who is a far superior player to Hidalgo.

So, don't be too hard on McLane. The Astros are a flawed team, but it's not because of the decisions to deal Wagner and Hidalgo. Rather, it's because the club has suffered a somewhat unexpected power drain this season while suffering the effects of a farm system that has produced too little since the likes of Berkman and Oswalt.

My reaction: excellent points, but note that Tom does not take issue with my claim that Pettitte and Clemens were profitable signings. Therein lies my beef with McLane: don't cry to me about your payroll if payments to superstars increase your revenues by a similar or greater amount. McLane did the same thing with Randy Johnson in 1998. Adding the Big Unit increased payroll, but it also sold out the Dome, just as Clemens has done in the Juice Box. They were profitable moves. McLane is no fool, but he's too prudent for my tastes. Fortune favors the brave, and McLane the Owner is not brave. He's a prude.