Around lunchtime today news came that the Philadelphia Phillies were calling an unscheduled press conference. Rumors quickly spread through social media that the team planned to fire manager Charlie Manuel and, indeed, they did. I was very surprised to hear this because Manuel has been with the team for so long it seems hard not to associate him now Philadelphia. He arrived in 2005, shortly after being fired by the Indians as their skipper, and had incredible success in Philly. From 2007 to 2011, the Phillies won five NLDS titles, two pennants, and a World Series in 2008. But success is fleeting and—as we’ve seen many times before—the core players eventually get older, more expensive, and more injury-prone. The perennial playoff contender starts under-performing, so the organization makes a move to try and shake things up.
Charlie Manuel’s situation reminds me a lot of Phil Garner’s when he was the Astros skipper. Sure, he didn’t have quite the run that Manuel did, as Garner only coached the Astros from 2004-2007, but he certainly experienced the same kind of highs and lows that Manuel did. The Astros had never even won a playoff series before Garner took over, but in his first year, 2004, the team won the NLDS before being defeated in the NLCS by the Cardinals. In 2005 they went all the way—almost. NLDS, NLCS (barely), and then swept in the World Series by the Chicago White Sox. But 2006 was a failure and then in 2007, with team sitting 15 games under .500, Phil Garner was fired. Like Manuel, both firings occurred after failing to make the playoffs in consecutive years.
Garner’s replacement was Cecil Cooper and, honestly, his tenure as Astros manager isn’t particularly memorable to me. He was a very good baseball player in the 1980s, but Cooper had a prickly personality and didn’t seem very well-liked in or outside of the clubhouse in Houston. The 2008 Astros, Cooper’s first full year on the job, hardly resembled the 2005 team that went all the way. Biggio and Bagwell were gone. Familiar faces Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt were still around, but the 2008 team was propped up by aging vets and a few unproven youngsters. That said, they made a second-half push towards the playoffs and narrowly made it, too, before collapsing in late September. (Had Hurricane Ike not hit the Houston area in 2008, who knows what could have been?) But that was it. 2008 is where winning baseball currently ends for the Astros organization. As for Cecil Cooper, he lasted most of one more season in Houston before being shown the door in September 2009.
Ryne Sandberg is now Philadelphia’s Cecil Cooper. He has an unenviable task of trying to take an old roster and make them a winner again. And who knows? Maybe he has better success than Cooper did and is able lead the Phillies back to the playoffs for one last push. But like the Astros in the years following 2005, with core players (Howard, Lee, Utley, etc.) on the wrong side of thirty and no impact minor leaguers on the horizon to replace them, the window for winning grows increasingly small. Houston finally realized it wasn’t working, but it took until 2010 to start a very modest rebuild that, now three years later, seems close to ending. The Phillies aren’t quite ready yet to throw in the towel, but eventually they’ll have to face the same reality the Astros have. And no manager will be able to fix that.
Bud Norris sporting the Colt .45s uniform during the 2012 season. (photo: Houston Chronicle)
If you haven’t noticed already, it’s that time of the year again. No, not the All-Star break. July. Or, more importantly for Astros fans, trade season. Not so long ago, this used to be the time of the year when we all looked forward to the Astros being buyers, adding pieces here and there for a playoff push. But we’re in lean times now and, with the Astros in a fourth year of rebuilding, we get used to another season of Houston listed under the “sellers” column. Although all the big trade chips are gone, the team has a few chips left to deal. They are Carlos Pena (to a limited extent), Jose Veras, and Bud Norris.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m totally on-board with the rebuild. I don’t agree with everything the Astros front office has done over the past few seasons (most notably, the Jed Lowrie trade), but I’m pretty much on board all the moves as a whole. Carlos Pena and Jose Veras are two players who help the Astros in the short-term, but they are also veterans on one-year deals. They don’t really figure in to the plans of the franchise past this season, so by all means the team should be looking to move them. But that’s where I stop. Bud Norris should not be traded. Here are a five reasons why:
1. Norris likes playing in Houston. Yes, it’s true. Bud Norris didn’t come to this organization via trade or free agency. He was drafted by the Astros in 2006 and has known only this franchise as a pro-baseball player. It’s easy to forget that sometimes. He made his debut in 2009 (making him one of the longest-tenured players on the current roster) and, although he’s seen a lot of turnover and bad baseball in the years that have followed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more upbeat and positive influence on the team. Norris is a fan favorite, too, and many folks would be sad to see another familiar face go. If you want to go back to the article that caused controversy (where Bud said he would love to play for his hometown San Francisco Giants), fine. But I would also like to point out an excerpt from this MLB.com article:
"As far as Houston goes, I love the city,” Norris said. “The people are very nice and very friendly, and it’s big. There’s a lot to do, and you’re not going to get bored. There’s always a new restaurant to try, which is nice, or always new steakhouses.”
2. He’s effective. Norris, after years of frustrating up-and-down performances, is finally growing in to a good Major League pitcher. His 3.63 ERA, .6 HR/9, and 2.8 BB/9 this season are all career bests. He’s not striking out as many batters as he used to, but he’s pitching deeper in to games than at any point in the past. He is also, without question, the best starter on an otherwise dreadful Astros rotation. He’s in the prime of his career at 28, but he’s been fairly durable and is finally starting to produce the results the Astros had hoped he was capable of doing. Do you really want to lose that now?
3. The Astros can afford him. Houston’s payroll this year is in the $26 million dollar range, making it the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball by a fairly large margin. Norris, who’s the most expensive player on the 25-man roster, is earning $3 million this season and that’s still $2 million cheaper than what Wandy Rodriguez is getting paid by the Astros to pitch for the Pirates! 2013 was Bud’s first year of being arbitration eligible, so his salary will continue to increase in the years to come, but he’s under team control (meaning he’s not eligible to be a free agent) until 2016. The Astros can not only afford to pay his salary now, they should continue to do so. And if they are worried about him getting more expensive, then now is the time to work out a potentially team-friendly contract extension that will buy out his remaining arbitration eligible years (similar to what they did with last week with Jose Altuve).
4. No team values Norris as much as the Astros do. This might be the biggest issue I have with trading Norris, because while he’s a good player for the Astros, some consider him no better than a fourth starter on most other teams. And, I’m sorry to say it, but a potential #4 (even with team control) is not going to net the same sort of high-upside prospects that came in the Hunter Pence deal. That is a potential game changer.
5. Do we really need more prospects? By some accounts, the Houston Astros have one of the top five best farm systems in all of Major League Baseball—and that doesn’t count the crop of players taken in the Rule 4 draft last month. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow recently said this:
"I wouldn’t say we’re at saturation but we certainly can’t do what we did last year and just add depth for the sake of increasing our depth," Luhnow said. "Because we feel like we have a robust system - there’s not a lot of spots to put people."
Where do you stick the guys you’re acquiring and, more importantly, who are you cutting from the current minor league rosters in order to do so?
Another issue with this is MLB teams value their farm depth much more so now than they did in the recent years. Teams don’t want to give up the type of Major League ready talent that the Astros desperately need, but they are willing to deal players in A or AA ball. We’ve seen this with many of the trades Luhnow has completed over the past couple of seasons. The further down the minor league ladder a baseball players is, the less likely they are to end up as big leaguers. I’m not convinced we take on more risky bets at this point. The Astros’ AAA affiliate, the OKC Redhawks, could use a talent infusion the most, but getting a GM to part with near Major League ready players at full market value might be a difficult task.
Bud Norris should remain a Houston Astro for many years to come. He’s good, he’s cheap, and the fans like him. If nothing else, he’ll be a good stop-gap type piece in the rotation until some of the bigger name prospects are ready to take their spots, which will hopefully be before 2016. More relevant to today, however, Norris might help prevent the 2013 Astros from doing the unthinkable and losing 120 games this season. I think that’s pretty important and you should too.
It’s your move, Astros.