The last time the Houston Astros made the playoffs, they reached the World Series. That season was 2005, and their appearance in the fall classic was over almost before it started, as the Chicago White Sox swept the Astros behind one of the most dominant starting rotation performances in recent playoff memory. Since then, the Astros haven’t reached the playoffs, finishing under .500 three times. With what seems as one last grasp to maintain the memory of their mid-decade glory, the Astros signed the remaining holdover from the 2005 World Series squad, starter Wandy Rodriguez, to a three year, $34 million contract on Tuesday.
There’s little doubt about Wandy’s ability right now. The 2010 season was Rodriguez’s third straight posting an ERA, FIP and xFIP under 4.00. Since 2008, Rodriguez has a WAR of 10.2, ranking 28th in the MLB, which can be attributed to both his production as well as his durability – at least 195 innings for the last two seasons and 180 or more in three out of the last four. Although Wandy isn’t a bona fide staff ace, he has established himself as an extremely reliable and quite productive pitcher.
The problem is Rodriguez’s age, as he turned 32 last week. His new contract takes him through his age 32, 33, and 34 seasons, a tumultuous time for even some of the most stalwart starting pitchers. Wandy should be good enough in 2011 to outplay his contract, but for 2012 and 2013 he will have to fight off not only the decline that tends to grasp at players his age, but also the injuries that eat away the careers of many a pitcher in their 30s.
Still, in a vacuum, this contract makes sense, even if it isn’t great. If we assume Rodriguez is a 3.5 WAR pitcher – fair, I think, given has last few seasons – and then assume half a win of decline per season – maybe generous, given his age – the Astros will pay $34 million for 9 wins. That’s already better than the market value of around $5 million per win, and after accounting for inflation in the final two seasons, it only looks better.
But given the Astros current roster – they might run out a lineup with Clint Barmes batting second – and the short-term moves made by NL Central teams this winter, contention just isn’t in the cards for 2011 and probably not 2012 either. It wouldn’t be fair to the Astros to count them out by 2013 already, but that is the year in which Rodriguez is least likely to provide them with value and therefore most likely for that contract to be burdensome.
One of the main reasons behind the Astros’ recent incompetence appears to be a presence of low value, high cost veteran contracts. The Carlos Lee signing looks crippling right now. Miguel Tejada was paid $14+ million in 2008 and 2009. The Astros have needed to rebuild for at least a couple of years now, but contracts like these have prevented their talent on hand from becoming assets and forced the team to simply hope for waves and waves of talent like those soon to come out of the Kansas City Royals system. Unfortunately, the Astros’ highly paid players have been just talented enough to win enough games to keep their draft picks out of the top slots. The result? A dry (albeit slightly invigorated in 2010) system which doesn’t seem to have the answers as of yet, at least not on the scale necessary for a rebuild.
When presented with the choice of unloading Rodriguez for pieces of the future – and looking at some deals for starting pitching this year, there may have been some choice prospects available – or hoping that Wandy could stay around for Houston’s next competitive season, the Astros chose the latter. But given everything surrounding the organization – a lack of talent on the field, on the farm, and, at least given many of Ed Wade’s recent moves, in the front office – as well as Rodriguez’s relatively advanced age, the odds are long that the Astros will get anything of real value for their money or years.