Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 9, 2006
BASEBALL: The Astros' Worst Mistakes, 1991-2006
Every baseball organization has its share of disastrous trades (don't even get Mets fans started on this). But over the past 15 years, few franchises - and still fewer successful franchises - can match the Houston Astros' record for giving away talent for little return. Let's count down the 11 worst personnel moves of Astros history since 1991 in terms of surrendering talent for little or no return; while many of these are more in the category of bad moves in hindsight than just plain stupidity, the fact is there's a lot of lost talent here:
11. November 11, 1994: Astros trade Pete Harnisch to the Mets for Todd Beckerman and Juan Castillo. Harnisch was a highly effective pitcher in 1991 (12-9, 2.70 ERA, 172 K) and 1993 (16-9, 2.98, 185 K), but he had a bad, injury-riddled 1994 and the Astros dumped him and his $3 million salary to the Mets for a couple of nonentities. Harnisch was OK for the Mets in 1995-96, although it wasn't until 1998-99 that he became once again an outstanding pitcher. The deal wasn't indefensible, but it clearly gave away a servicable pitcher for peanuts.
10. October 17, 1997: Let Melvin Mora leave as a minor league free agent; Mora signed with the Mets the following July. Now, Mora was 25 at this point and had been stuck in the minors for seven years without progress, so this wasn't so much a glaring error as "one that got away". But Mora eventually went on to several years of star-caliber play with the Orioles, capped by a 2004 season when he batted .340/.562/.419, drove in 104 runs and placed (18th) in the AL MVP balloting.
9. December 16, 2002: Let Mark Loretta sign as a free agent with the Padres. Loretta, who had made $5 million in 2002, killed the ball in a brief trial with Houston down the stretch, batting .424 and slugging .576. He signed for a bargain price of $1.25 million and proceeded to bat .314 in 2003 and .335 in 2004. This one is ameliorated by the fact that the Astros signed Jeff Kent (for $7.5 million) and gave Morgan Ensberg the third base job, so they would only have had room for Loretta if they'd stretched him defensively at shortstop and benched Adam Everett.
8. December 9, 1997: Let Luis Gonzalez sign as a free agent with the Tigers. Gonzalez had returned to Houston in 1997 after having played there from 1990-95. Behind him was a career as, at best, an average corner outfielder, and one on the downside: he was entering his 30s, coming off batting .258 with 10 homers, and was a career .268/.425/.342 hitter, who wouldn't have cracked the Astros' 1998 outfield of Moises Alou, Carl Everett and Derrek Bell. From 1998 through 2003, though, Gonzo batted .306/.550/.395 and averaged 108 RBI per year, including batting .336 in 1999 and smacking 57 homers in 2001.
Honorable mention goes to the June 28, 1995 deal that sent Gonzalez away the first time along with Scott Servais for Rick Wilkins, who hit just .218 with 7 home runs in an Astros uniform (after a .303 and 30 HR season in 1993).
7. December 2, 1993: Traded Doug Jones and Jeff Juden to the Phillies for Mitch Williams. Jones posted a 1.85 ERA in a career-high 111.2 innings and 36 saves in 1991, his sixth outstanding season in seven years despite a fastball that wouldn't dent bread, but backslid to an unsightly 4.54 ERA (in the Astrodome, in the pre-1994 era) at age 36 in 1993. Juden was still just a raw prospect at that point, 22 years old with 23 career big league IP. The flamethrowing Williams, by contrast, was 29 and had saved 43 games in 1993 before a disastrous postseason capped by the infamous Joe Carter home run that ended the 1993 World Series.
The deal was a train wreck for the Astros. Williams never recovered, walking 24 batters in 20 innings for a 7.65 ERA for the Astros and getting released by Memorial Day; he pitched just 17.2 more innings in the bigs, although the Astros were able to paper over the closer job with youngster Todd Jones and rookie John Hudek. Meanwhile, Doug Jones posted a 2.17 ERA in Philly and saved 27 games that strike-shortened season (Jones would remain inconsistent, having one more great year as a closer at age 40 in 1997 for the Brewers and pitching well as a setup man in Oakland in 1999-2000). Juden also pitched fairly well in 1995 and 1996, but never lived up to his promise and never stayed in one place for long.
The redeeming feature of the Williams deal, besides giving an opportunity to Hudek, was that a week later the Astros dealt Eric Anthony to Seattle for Mike Hampton.
6. August 10, 1995: Traded Phil Nevin to the Tigers for Mike Henneman. The Astros gave up on Nevin, the first pick in the draft in 1992, at age 24 with just 60 major league at bats behind him, trading him to shore up a bullpen weakened by an injury to Hudek. Henneman gave the Astros some decent work (8 saves and a 3.00 ERA) on the way to a second-place finish, one game behind the Rockies for the wild card, but that would be all - he left after the season and retired a year later. Nevin, meanwhile, slugged .533 as a part-timer in 1996 and would, by 1999, develop into an outstanding player.
5. June 25, 1991: Released Mark McLemore. In six major league seasons, the 26-year-old McLemore had batted .225/.289/.295 and not even been a particularly effective (71%) base thief. The Astros cut bait. But Johnny Oates and the Orioles saw something nobody else did, and signed McLemore; by 1993, McLemore batted .284 with a .353 OBP, and after following Oates to Texas he became a perennially productive regular, posting a .360 OBP in nearly 6,000 plate appearances from 1993 to 2004 and retiring only at age 39.
4. December 10, 1991: Kenny Lofton and Dave Rohde to the Indians for Eddie Taubensee and Willie Blair. Now, the real disasters. Lofton immediately set out on a long and productive career that saw him make six All-Star teams and four Gold Gloves, finish as high as fourth in the MVP voting, score 100 runs six times, bat .300 seven times, steal well over 500 bases and keep playing to this day, batting .335 as recently as 2005 at age 38. Taubensee never got his OBP above .300 in two-plus years in Houston, though he would later be a productive player, And Blair pitched poorly and was gone from the Astros in a year.
3. December 13, 1999: Allowed the Marlins to snag the 20-year-old Johan Santana in the Rule V draft, after which the Marlins flipped Santana to the Twins for cash and a minor leaguer. Santana, of course, became an elite pitcher by 2002, won the 2004 AL Cy Young Award, and at 27 is now the best pitcher in baseball. He would have looked very good in last year's Astros rotation.
2. April 2, 1992: Traded Curt Schilling to the Phillies for Jason Grimsley. I'll repeat what I wrote before on this - one of the great underrated terrible trades in recent baseball history is the Astros' decision to trade Schilling straight up for Grimsley. Schilling and Grimsley were both young pitchers trying to establish themselves at this point - Grimsley was 24, Schilling 25 - and both had followed some success as rookies in 1990 (a 3.30 ERA in 57.1 IP as a starter for Grimsley, a 2.54 ERA in 46 IP as a reliever for Schilling) with struggles in 1991 (1-7 with a 4.87 ERA in 61 IP as a starter for Grimsley, a 3.81 ERA in 75.2 IP as a reliever for Schilling). But it should have been obvious at the time not only that Schilling threw harder but that he was closer to breaking through: 103 K and 58 walks for Schilling in 121.2 IP over the previous two years - including 71 K in 75.2 IP in 1991 - compared to an abysmal record of 83 K to 84 walks for Grimsley (and 16 wild pitches) in 118.1 IP. And the results were immediate and dramatic: Schilling posted a 2.35 ERA in 226.1 IP in 1992 for the Phillies - 4th best in the NL - and would pitch a shutout in the World Series by the end of 1993, while Grimsley never pitched a game in an Astros uniform and was released a year later (although he was still pitching until this week).
It's not clear to me, years later, what Houston was thinking; with Pete Harnisch, Darryl Kile, and Butch Henry, Houston had no shortage of young starters, and Schilling had started in the minors. Perhaps Grimsley had options left and Schilling didn't (after all, the deal was April 2)? Either way, the Astros don't get nearly enough grief for this one in the annals of catastrophically bad trades.
1. November 18, 1997: Allowed Bobby Abreu to go to Tampa Bay in the expansion draft (a move only topped in its foolishness by the Rays then flipping Abreu to Philly for Kevin Stocker). Yes, as discussed above in connection with the departure of Luis Gonzalez, the Astros were glutted with outfielders at this point, with the cheap offseason acquisitions of Alou and Carl Everett adding to the incumbents Bell and Gonzalez and prospects like Abreu and Richard Hidalgo. But Abreu's been clearly the best of that group since 1998, and entered this season a lifetime .303/.512/.411 hitter (plus 241 career steals) and a legitimate future Hall of Famer. For which, as with so many on this list, Houston got nothing.