There are plenty of people who get a bad rap in Astros history, but the duo of Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell may take the cake for lasting impact. You could make the case that those two big free agent signings affected the entire rest of Drayton McLane's ownership. It meant Houston didn't re-sign Randy Johnson (because Drayton wouldn't go four years).
Swindell signed a four year contract for $17.5 million, including a $1 million signing bonus. He was 27 years old the previous season and had one All-Star game under his belt. McLane had just bought the team the previous year and was looking to make a splash.
It was a defensible move (I guess). His strikeout rate was never great, but Swindell was effective enough in stints in both Cleveland and Cincinnati. He had ERA+s of 120 and 136 in the two seasons previous to signing with Houston. Sure, he was never one of the best pitchers in the league and he never even got Cy Young votes. But, he was the kind of guy who could anchor a rotation with 200 innings.
Except that he didn't once with Houston.
Signed as an innings-eater type, Swindell came closest to that mark in 1993, when he threw 190 innings for Houston. His ERA was a respectable 4.14, but it was far different from the 2.90 mark he put up the year before.
Why was that? Well, it appears something shifted in Swindell when he went to Houston. He was a guy with great control, regularly posting walk rates right at 2.0 or lower. He was fairly consistent in giving up about 1.00 homer per nine innings, but in Houston (in a pitcher's park), he gave up homers much more consistently, topping 20 per season in his first three years of his time in Houston.
His WHIP was also really consistent early on, staying below 1.20 for most of his time in both Cleveland and Cincy. In Houston? That jumped to almost 1.40 for pretty much the entire time. Without an increase in his walk rate, that means he was just giving up a ton more hits.
Does that mean Swindell was less effective or that the defense behind him got worse? We know his walk rate didn't change and his strikeout rate also didn't change. I say his K rate didn't change, but it did. It dropped about a strikeout and a half in his second year in Houston, but quickly rebounded. Still, the hits persisted.
That makes me think the defensive angle could make some sense. In Cleveland...well, I have no idea how good the infield was in Cleveland, but his one year in Cincy, he had Billy Doran, Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo, which adds up to a pretty good defensive group. In Houston? The only real weak link was Andujar Cedeno, and I think he was probably pretty good with the glove.
So, maybe the injuries affected him.
Ahh, we hadn't mentioned injuries, had we? That's because I'm not sure what they were, but they were definitely there. Swindell topped 30 starts every year from 1990 through 1993 and didn't do it ever again. In fact, by 1997 he was pretty much a full-time reliever. He threw over 800 innings through his Age 25 season in the majors. Add in any overuse while he was at the University of Texas and Swindell could have been an arm injury waiting to happen.
In the end, he threw in 96 games for Houston with a 30-34 career record, an ERA of 4.48 and the lowest strikeout rate (5.4) of any team he pitched for. It's easy to see why he was a disappointment at $17 million, as not even his ending could do anything for Houston. Swindell wasn't traded in the final year of his contract...he was flat-out released on June 3. Then, he became a reliever and won a World Series ring with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
I'd argue that the Astros couldn't have made that move with Swindell, given all the baggage that came with him, even if it would have helped them gain something out of their investment. But, I've already dwelled enough on this sad chapter in Astros history.