During a year of economic recession, the federal government trotted out a gimmick called "Cash For Clunkers" designed to get old vehicles off the road and replace them with newer models. In Houston, the Astros offered their own version of "Cash For Clunkers", trotting out a host of players well past their prime and expecting the fans to pay their shrinking dollars to watch them.
The oldest team in the majors was able to stay up with the rest of the Central Division, creaking within one game of first place in late July after sweeping the first-place Cardinals but once St. Louis chose to hit the gas, the Astros broke down, gasping and wheezing to a fifth-place finish at 74-88.
When General Manager Ed Wade entered the 2008 Winter Meetings, his plan was to trade closer Jose Valverde for prospects and re-sign starter Randy Wolf. When he found there was no market for Valverde, he reversed course and rescinded his offer to Wolf then signed Valverde to one more year. The strategy cost the Astros not just Wolf but also third baseman Ty Wigginton as Wade tried to balance the budget.
The poster-child for the over-the-hill gang was probably Mike Hampton, who was a star lefthander as an Astro in the late 90s but, a decade later, was an oft-injured risk who hadn't made it through a whole season in five years. Hampton was signed at a reduced cost to take Wolf's spot in the rotation but he eventually needed to be shut down after a 7-10 season.
Grizzled veterans Brian Moehler (8-12, 5.47 ERA) and Russ Ortiz (3-6, 5.57) rounded out the rotation after Roy Oswalt (8-6, 4.12) and Wandy Rodriguez (14-12, 3.02). Ortiz was released at the end of July. Hampton, Moehler and Oswalt all spent time on the disabled list.
Out of necessity, the Astros finally turned to the minors for starters and had to be impressed with the results. Bud Norris (6-3, 4.53), Felipe Paulino (3-11, 6.27) and Yorman Bazardo (1-3, 7.88) showed the inconsistency of youth but each had moments of promise.
The bullpen was also bit by the injury bug and overuse. They, too, found some positive answers from the minors. Jose Valverde (4-2, 2.33, 25 saves) missed a month with a calf injury. LaTroy Hawkins (1-4, 2.13, 11) missed time with shingles. In their absence, Jeff Fulchino (6-4, 3.40), Chris Sampson (4-2, 5.04, 3) and Tim Byrdak (1-2, 3.23) took larger roles and when they needed rest, Alberto Arias (2-1, 3.35), Wesley Wright (3-4, 5.44) and Sammy Gervacio (1-1, 2.14) stepped forward.
Another golden oldie was 36-year-old Aaron Boone, the hero of the 2003 ALCS, who was signed to platoon at third with 36-year-old Geoff Blum after the loss of Wigginton. Instead, Boone needed open-heart surgery and returned in September to go 0-for-13 on the season. Boone and 42-year-old reliever Doug Brocail, who missed time with shoulder and hamstring injuries, gave the Astros the only active roster with two heart patients in major league history.
Spring training opened early due to the World Baseball Classic and, despite the diluted rosters, the Astros had trouble finding a catcher who could hit above .150. They finally signed 37-year-old Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez late in March as a remedy. Rodriguez was a shell of his Hall-of-Fame self but was still better than anyone in camp.
Meanwhile, the Astros had gone 19 straight spring games without a victory. They bounced back with a small winning streak which caused Manager Cecil Cooper to predict a 90-win season. Reporters waited for the punchline only to discover Cooper was serious.
Needing a replacement for Boone, Wade added Jeff Keppinger from Cincinnati, a spring chicken at 29, who started hot before settling into numbers you'd expect for a journeyman infielder.
Lance Berkman (.274 average, 25 homers, 80 RBIs) struggled much of the season while Carlos Lee (.300, 26, 102) and Hunter Pence (.282, 25, 72) blew hot and cold. Miguel Tejada (.313, 14, 86) - who plead guilty to federal charges but received only probation and community service - sacrificed power for productivity and ended the year with 199 hits and a 21-game hitting streak.
Michael Bourn (.285, 3, 35) was the best surprise, leading the league with 61 steals and winning a Gold Glove for his play in center field.
The rest of the supporting cast were Rodriguez (.251, 8, 34), Blum (.247, 10, 46), Keppinger (.256, 7, 29), Kaz Matsui (.250, 9, 46), Darin Erstad (.194, 2, 11) and Jason Michaels (.237, 4, 16). While not awful, the Astros had a season-long knack for not hitting with runners in scoring position, grounding into double plays and assorted baserunning blunders. Houston finished 14th in runs scored (643) and 13th in runs allowed (770), making a losing season rather predictable.
It was a bumpy ride for Cooper as well. Fending off early reports that he was close to being fired, Wade signed Cooper to a one-year extension. Pitchers griped at his handling of the staff and there were apparent cases of miscommunication. As his lame duck status became more apparent, Cooper's hot seat became insufferable. He was fired with just 13 games left in the year and replaced with coach Dave Clark on an interim basis.
A post-season managerial search ended with the hiring of Brad Mills, a former infielder who had not managed for over a decade. Mills had spent much of the century as Terry Francona's understudy in Boston.
During the year, there were personal highlights. Ivan Rodriguez, Berkman and Lee all celebrated their 300th career homers. Rodriguez also set the big league record for games caught. Tejada passed 2000 hits while Matsui passed 2000 hits combining his American and Japanese numbers. That was a big deal in Japan where his feat led to his automatic induction into their country's Meikyukai, similar to our Hall of Fame. Berkman moved into second place on the franchise's all-time home run list (behind Jeff Bagwell) while Oswalt tied Larry Dierker for second on the franchise wins list, behind Joe Niekro.
There were also odd moments, most notably an invasion of bees that took over the left field foul area during the ninth inning of a July 2nd win at Petco Park in San Diego. After a bee exterminator eliminated the threat, play resumed after a 52-minute delay.
Having spent $107 million to put together a fifth-place product, Wade had dual mandates for 2010 - spend less and get better. To the amazement of most, he accomplished just that.By Astro Daily
- Aaron Boone, Alberto Arias, Brad Mills, Brian Moehler, Bud Norris, Carlos Lee, Cecil Cooper, Chris Sampson, Darin Erstad, Dave Clark, Doug Brocail, Geoff Blum, Houston Astros, Houston Astros 2009, Hunter Pence, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Michaels, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Fulchino, Jeff Keppinger, Joe Niekro, Jose Valverde, Kazuo Matsui, LaTroy Hawkins, Lance Berkman, Larry Dierker, Michael Bourn, Miguel Tejada, Mike Hampton, Randy Wolf, Roy Oswalt, Russ Ortiz, Tim Byrdak, Ty Wigginton, Wandy Rodriguez, Wesley Wright, World Baseball Classic, Yorman Bazardo