Comparing Astros Rebuilding Efforts: 1987 and 2006

When was the last time the Astros tried to rebuild? That would be after the 1986 team lost to the Mets in the NLCS, right? Now, in 2010, it looks like the team is facing another overhaul of the roster. Are there any similarities between the two teams? Can we learn anything from the past moves?

You know I like the history stuff. For some reason, this question had been sitting around for a while, waiting for me to answer it. Thanks to Baseball Reference, I was able to do just that. What I wanted to do is look at the rosters of each team's Year After squad to see how long it took those players to then leave the roster. I also wanted to look at how they left. Were they traded? Did they leave via free agency? Did they just retire? I had remembered the 1986 team as being older, for some reason, and expected there to be big differences between the two.

You should not be surprised to learn that I was able to stitch the two teams together pretty neatly, which I'll elaborate more on after the jump.

First off, here's my logic in looking at the rosters in 1987 and 2006. Generally, a team doesn't decide to rebuild in the same season they have their most success. For the 80's Astros team, that was the 1986 team and, obviously, the other peak was the World Series appearance. But, because of normal player movement, retirements and player regression, often that next season makes a team go another way. Unless you're the Yankees.

Take that 1987 team. Very few starters were replaced from the NLCS losing squad. The '87 team, on the other hand, famously underwhelmed, leading to Nolan Ryan winning the league ERA crown with a losing record. Still, very little happened after that 1987 season. The decision to rebuild didn't seem to start in earnest until later. 

In fact, it wasn't until after the 1988 season that real movements started on that team. Ryan left famously after that season, as did Denny Walling (via trade). Jose Cruz retired after the 1987 season, which gave a spot in the lineup to Gerald Young. Alan Ashby was pushed to a bench role and retired after the 1989 season, as did Craig Reynolds. 

Then started the trades. Between 1989 and 1991, there were three pretty big trades of pieces off those teams. First, Billy Hatcher was sent to PIttsburgh for Glenn Wilson. Then, BIlly Doran was sent to the Reds for fluff and reliever Butch Henry. Finally, Larry Anderson was traded for a Red Sox third baseman who was bad defensively. Heard he's a hitting coach somewhere now.

The big trade, though, the one that must've hurt ownership the most was sending first baseman Glenn Davis to the Orioles after the 1990 season. Davis was one of the few All-Stars left on the roster and was just 29 at the time of the trade. He had been 25 when the Astros won their second division crown in '86 but netted three pretty good prospects back from Baltimore: Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling. While Senator Bloody Sock didn't excel with the Astros, the other two were pretty integral parts of those early '90s Astros teams. 

And that's pretty much it. The rest of the starters drifted away via free agency or retirement, as the Astros held onto their stars for a bit too long. I'm sure they didn't want to lose the goodwill from that magical playoff run and sell stars like Mike Scott or Kevin Bass. Instead, the team was built through some incredibly productive drafts starting in 1987. The Astros added quite a few players in that time who would be starters on that 1994 team, the peak of this rebuilding effort.

Notice how few players were actually acquired through trades in the rebuilding effort. I was a little surprised by that, but let's get through the 2006 roster before dwelling on any big conclusions. I was startled to see just how much changed from that 2006 roster till now. Only Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and Lance Berkman remain as contributors from that '06 team. The rest left via free agency, retired or were released.

I mean, Preston Wilson got the majority of the at-bats in left, for Pete's sake. How did this team not get blown up? What also surprised me is how similarly these two teams operated. Want a comparable to Nolan's leaving? How about Andy Pettitte not being offered arbitration? What about the Miguel Tejada trade the next year? That's Rafael Ramirez being picked up from the Braves after the 1987 season. Biggio, like Cruz, retired shortly after this period and some guys just got cut. Want a comparable to the Pedro Feliz signing? Try the Astros trading for Buddy Bell to hold down third base.

It's uncanny. 

There haven't been any trades as lopsided as Anderson-for-Bagwell lately, mainly because that trade effed those sell-high on reliever traded forever. But, Roy Oswalt's eventual trade has the potential to be like the Davis move. From everything I've read, only the Phillies could offer a return like Finley, Harnisch and Schilling. The Astros would absolutely need to hold out for Jonathan Singleton, though, to get that third impact player. Other than that, we have to hope that the past few drafts have brought a Craig Biggio, a Darryl Kile and friends to form a solid core. Otherwise, hello Rebuilding Effort III in 2013. 

The main takeaway, though, is that rebuilding has always been an evolving process with this team. Though ownership and management has changed over the years, the process is still the same, with stops and starts and detours along the way. Other teams have different philosophies. When I was researching this article, I asked a question on Twitter about the Marlins process. They turned over quite a bit of their roster after the 1997 World Series title, but had to suffer through quite a few bad seasons before another playoff run. My question was, would you take two exceptionally bad, 100-loss seasons if you have a good chance of making the playoffs for the next three and then have a shot at a World Series? A friend of mine who's a Royals fan brought up that his team should have a couple WS titles if that's the case.

Most of the Astros fans, though, agreed that the juice would be worth the squeeze. Keep telling yourself that, friends, after Roy and the Astros finally part ways.

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