Astros Shed Payroll, Credibility, Fans

(published August 1, 2011)

Imagine that you’re a Houston Astros fan.

Your team last won its division in 2001, the fourth division title in five years under Larry Dierker, who was fired for his inability to get past the first round of the playoffs.  (Because, of course, performance in a 3-of-5 series is a better indicator of a manager’s value than the 162-game season.)

The next five years saw five second-place finishes, two of which were good enough to win the wild card.  In 2005, the ‘Stros reached the World Series for the first time, only to lose four straight to the White Sox.

It hasn’t been so pretty since.  From 2007-10, the Astros were 29 games under .500.  This year, they’re 38 games under, on pace for 110 losses.

What do you do when you own a clunker like this?  What else – you put it on blocks, sell off the useable parts, and dump the rest for scrap.

That’s exactly what owner Drayton McLane is doing.  Pending approval from his fellow baseball owners, McLane has agreed to sell the club to Jim Crane, a freight executive who tried to buy the Texas Rangers last year.  In the meantime he’s stripping the club, slashing payroll, trading his few major-league caliber assets for a handful of beans.

The Astros had one player – Hunter Pence — on the NL All-Star team this season, impressive enough when 41 players in the 16-team league were designated All-Stars thanks to injuries, Sunday starts, and assorted other excuses.  Friday,  Pence was traded to Philadelphia for four prospects, two of whom – right-hander Jarred Cosart and first baseman/leftfielder Jonathan Singleton – are highly regarded but have yet to play a game above Single A.

In order to persuade the Astros to throw them into this particular briar patch, the Phillies insisted that Houston give them a reported $2 million in cash to cover Pence’s salary for the remainder of the season.  The trade was reminiscent of the days when the Kansas City Athletics functioned as a virtual farm team for the Yankees in the 1950s, except the lordly New Yorkers never had the gall to demand cash tribute as well as top talent.

Sunday, centerfielder Michael Bourn was shipped to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for a bunch of lottery tickets: four players, the best of whom is projected as a potential fourth or fifth starter.  Only one of them has appeared in the majors:  centerfielder Jordan Schafer, who has shown a good glove and an anemic bat (.223 batting/.310 on-base/.303 slugging in more than 400 at bats).

Bourn was a perfect fit for the Braves, who needed a centerfielder and a leadoff hitter.  Though his numbers are off this year, he has the second-highest UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced defensive metric available at among centerfielders over the last three seasons.  It’s a vital contribution for the pitching-centered Braves, and he also brings a .363 on-base average to go along with his major-league-leading 39 steals (and 84.7% success rate).

Naturally, the Astros exploited Atlanta’s need at the position to extract … none of the Braves’ four best minor-league prospects.

So, again, imagine you’re an Astros fan.  (I never said this was going to be easy.)  Are you really supposed to pay major-league prices to see a team that has consciously decided not to present a major-league product?

Teams announce ticket-price hikes all the time, declaring them to be the result of rising payrolls and expensive acquisitions.  If they are, then why don’t prices come down when the team is getting rid of its costly players?

The Astros have reduced their payroll each of the last two seasons after hitting an all-time high in 2009, when the 74-88 squad earned an estimated $102 million, according to   So, of course, with expectations and salaries sharply lower this year, the team raised its prices for nearly all types of seats.

The ‘Stros are far from the most egregious example of this; their ticket prices have changed very little since 2007.   Drayton McLane justified the increase by noting that the drop in attendance during 2010 meant less income for the team.

Just wait until the new owner sees the figures from 2011 and 2012.

There are three principles to remember here:

(1) Ticket prices have nothing to do with team payroll; they correlate with one thing and one thing only, and that is the Law of Supply and Demand.

(2) Teams don’t raise prices because they’ve acquired free agents; they acquire free agents so they can raise prices.  Winning creates Demand; see principle (1), above.

(3) With all the talk of “buyers” and “sellers” around a trade deadline, it is easy to forget the pain that such stripping of a franchise causes for its fans.  There’s no guarantee you’ll win them back, because the fans learn the vital lesson that they shouldn’t care so much or get too attached.

For Astros fans, only one question comes to mind.

Are you ready for some football?






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