Just What Is Jim Crane Buying In The Houston Astros?

Drayton McLane is finally handing over the Astros, but only after the team was run into the ground.

Not only are Jim Crane and his buying group going to be allowed to go through with their purchase of the Astros, but they will also get their requested discount for swapping the club to the American League. While little is known about Crane in terms of what kind of baseball owner he will be, chances are good he will be an improvement on the current owner.

The 2012 season will be the first time since 1992 that Drayton McLane has not run the team. His tenure was not always a bad thing, as it is mostly recognized as today. From 1993 through 2005, the Astros had a collective win percentage of .543, with a 100-win season, four division titles -- including three in a row from 1997 through 1999 -- and a World Series appearance via the Wild Card in 2005. There have been nothing but problems since that high point in the franchise's history, though. In 2006, they finished second with a record of 82-80, but since have gone 365-444, a winning percentage of .451. Previously the problem was mediocrity, but a roster nearly bereft of quality major leaguers lead to a 56-106 record in 2011.

That is the roster that Crane is buying from McLane, who, thanks to years-long resistance to rebuilding the team, is handing over the keys to a farm system with little to look forward to, and a major league roster with even less quality. It's no wonder Crane wanted a discount to move to the more difficult AL, where the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Rangers, and others will now get to feast on the hapless Houstonians. 

The Astros currently have $47.5 million in contract obligations. That doesn't sound so bad, but it's tied up entirely in just four players: Carlos Lee ($19M), Brett Myers ($12.5M), Wandy Rodriguez ($10.5M), and Brandon Lyon ($5.5M). Lee and Lyon are free agents following the 2012 season, while Myers has a 2013 option with a $3M buyout, and Rodriguez is in town until 2014, assuming his option ($2.5M buyout). isn't picked up. Every other player on the roster is either arbitration eligible or pre-arb, meaning the Astros don't have to keep them.

There is little reason to not keep them around, though, even the ones who aren't that good. They are cheap, and the minors aren't bursting with replacements, either. Take Kevin Goldstein's recent evaluation of the Astros, for instance. In his top 20 prospect lists for teams, Goldstein also ranks the 25-and-under players, to avoid penalizing a club that has recently promoted heavily. Brett Wallace, a career .248/.328/.354 hitting first baseman nicknamed "Walrus", ranked ninth. Wallace hit fine enough in the minors, but isn't expected to be much of anything in the majors, yet he ranks within a list that measures the "best" the organization has to offer. 

Part of the lack of depth comes from a 2007 draft with no first- or second-round picks due to free agent compensation. Their third- and fourth-round picks that season didn't sign, either, meaning their first pick was essentially #171 in the draft. That player, Collin DeLome, is struggling in Triple-A, closer to minor league free agency than the majors. Before that draft, just two of their prospects -- Hunter Pence and Troy Patton -- ranked in the top 100 prospects, too. They needed an injection of talent, and they didn't get it. (To be fair, Bud Norris, selected in 2006, has had a better major league career than he was projected to by his prospect status.) 

Trades have helped, to a degree. Besides Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Singleton, acquired in the Pence deal, the Astros have Jordan Lyles and Jose Altuve to look forward to in their near-term future. Lyles is likely a mid-rotation guy, as he doesn't miss a ton of bats, but induces grounders and generally keeps walks under control. Altuve has a long way to go, as the 21-year-old showed when his lack of plate discipline was exposed by major league pitchers, but there is a lot to like about his hitting potential. Outfielder George Springer is the other major prospect, but he isn't expected to debut for another few years. J.A. Happ was the other piece in the Oswalt deal, and while he struggled in 2011, he is expected to be a solid, albeit unspectacular, lefty arm in the future, much like Brett Obertholtzer, another southpaw picked up in the Bourn swap with the Braves.

The good news is that this team is close to being free of all of its major contracts, and they still have pieces they can deal for prospects (Rodriguez, Myers, even Lyon if a team is desperate for relief help). Crane is taking over to do the job that McLane couldn't bring himself to do: rebuild the Astros. It's going to take a long time to rebuild, considering shopping for supplies has barely begun, but with time, the organization can finally get back on track.

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