Last Saturday night, the Houston Astros hosted the Cincinnati Reds. They lost by seven runs and failed to score. When they take the field tomorrow the players will be a week older and the season a week closer to ending, but that is true of all teams. What makes the Astros’ week so special is the all but guaranteed absence of their most well known players. Roy Oswalt started that game, and so did Lance Berkman. Now, it appears, neither will be a member of the only organization they have known. Oswalt is the Phillies’ newest addition and making his debut tonight; Berkman is on the verge of heading to the Yankees.
Reportedly, the return in the Berkman deal is minor with the Astros essentially dumping his salary while giving him the chance to participate in a pennant race. For their part this week, the Astros will walk away with Brett Wallace, J.A. Happ, Jonathan Villar, whatever may come from the Yankees and without Oswalt, Berkman, and the $11 million sent to Philadelphia. Their payroll sat at more than $90 million entering this season and now the Astros appear ready to shed the following contracts:
– $10 million of Roy Oswalt
– $2 million buyout of Lance Berkman
– $5.5 million of Kazuo Matsui
– $4.5 million of Pedro Feliz
– $3 million of Brian Moehler
– $1.5 million of Geoff Blum
– $0.8 million of Jason Michaels
Some players will be signed and others given raises, but that’s nearly $30 million off the books for a team that should have a low payroll based on the lacuna of elite talent. You can debate the quality of the returns and question whether Drayton McLane is setting this franchise back even further by meddling into Ed Wade’s responsibilities. Those are legitimate concerns. What is worth pointing out is that there was never going to be a panacea. Never a magic bullet. The term “salary dump” has an ugly connotation but sometimes salary dumps are legitimately fruitful moves; especially when applied to erase mistakes.
Berkman and Oswalt are fine players and put in commendable service with Houston during the glory years. On this team, though, on this 2010 team their salaries and presences were nothing shy of onuses. By having those two, McLane forced himself and his management alike into thinking they were fringe contenders when they were nothing of the sort. Some ill-timed hot streaks catapulted the Astros into a state of naivety on their own limitations.
This is painful for Astros fans and it may only get worse. The team has lost its face in one brisk swoop. A deck sealer company used to rain commercials about a torture test. That is exactly what McLane is about to endure. Can he exercise better judgment and see this process through or will he venture for a scapegoat and keep his franchise locked in the jaws of mediocrity. This is the first cut; more will come because more have to come.
As for what’s next; the most obvious question is whether McLane will put the team up for sale. Beyond that, the Astros should try like heaven to move hell – Lee’s contract – even if it means engulfing the disaster for next season in order to free up cash for 2012. Wade is by no means a great General Manager, but one has to feel sympathy for him. He’s performing with the sword of Damocles overhead.
Note: And moments later Buster Olney tweets that the Astros are picking up a lot of money owed to Berkman. So much for a salary dump.