Recently, Astros owner Jim Crane has been making noises about wanting to sell more tickets and get more butts in seats at Minute Maid Park. In my observational experience, there are two ways to do this. First, win more. That really is not a realistic option for the 2013 Astros, at least not enough to make a difference in attendance. There are a few things that can be done to boost wins (keep reading), but playoff contention is out of the picture. The second method for boosting attendance is to bring back old heroes.
My plan is a cost-effective idea for boosting attendance, adding wins to the Astros' total, setting them up for future moves to rebuild the farm system, and still keep them in contention for a top-5 draft pick in 2014. The plan is wholly outrageous and based on a lot of "what-if's", but it is possible, and fun to consider.
Hire Brad Ausmus, Jeff Bagwell, and Craig Biggio
This past weekend, the Astros fired their manager, first base coach, and hitting coach. Three of the heroes of the 2005 World Series team are available and would bring an immediate boost in attendance just due to their popularity. Ausmus, a former Astros catcher, has a Bachelors of Arts in Government from Dartmouth, is widely respected among baseball insiders, is loved by fans (especially the ladies), and is one of the most intelligent-sounding baseball players I've had the privilege of hearing give a speech in person (if you can call a roast of Bagwell a speech). He has long been considered a future managerial candidate somewhere in MLB, and other players (particularly pitchers) seem to like working with him. According to Astros County, Ausmus is already interviewing for the position.
Jeff Bagwell would make a good addition as an Astros hitting coach. He is the greatest hitter in Astros' history, another fan favorite, and has worked with young Astros hitters in the past. He seems to be a private dude, so a behind-the-scenes role might suit him better than one that puts him in front of cameras on a regular basis.
Filling the First Base Coach position with Craig Biggio would be the icing on the cake. He has a decent SB% (74%) and can also assist with hitting instruction and base running. The dynamic between the coaching staff and the players would be fun to watch, and these three guys would have the longest leash with the fans of any Astros coaching staff ever.
The point of this is it will return three of the most popular Astros ever back into the Houston uniform, and that would bring many fans back to the park with no other changes to the team. The fact that they are qualified for the positions and would generate instant respect among the current crop of Astros' players is a bonus.
More ideas after the jump...
Sign Melky Cabrera
For those who have not been paying attention to baseball current events outside of Houston, Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera failed a test for Performance Enhancing Drugs last week. He then tried to cover it up by inventing a fake supplement product and paying several thousand dollars for a website for said product. Apparently, his intention was to claim he took that product, not knowing it had a banned substance in it. Wisely, he eventually decided against it and admitted his substance use and will serve the 50 game suspension, which should be up before the end of the Giants' season.
Cabrera was seen as the second-best outfielder on the free agent market this upcoming season, behind Josh Hamilton. Thus, some people expected a contract in the range of $70 million or more. Now, those same experts think that he jeopardized his chance to make the big money, because teams will be unsure if they will get the pre- or post- 2011 Melky Cabrera if they sign him.
Prior to 2011, Cabrera was a .267/.341/.397 hitter (5 seasons)
Post 2011, Cabrera hit .322/.372/.489
Playing pretend, let's say the Astros sign Cabrera to play Right Field and he averages halfway between those performance levels (.294/.356/.434). If one were to take "averaged" Melky and insert him into the 2012 Astros instead of the fellows who patrolled Right Field this season, it could represent an increase of 29 runs scored over the season to-date (up through August 20). For the skeptical, see my "methods for nerdy people" section below for more explanation.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the Astros only have $5.5 million in payroll currently committed to 2013. Because of Cabrera's now-tarnished reputation and the Astros' sudden payroll flexibility, the Astros have a low-risk opportunity. They should offer Cabrera a contract on par with 2-years $12 million (he's currently making $6M) and cross their fingers. Other teams may have the same idea, but the Astros have the financial ability to slightly outbid everybody. If Melky over-performs and lives up to his 2011-2012 numbers, the Astros have a huge, cheap trade chip with which to further rebuild for their future. If he under-performs, he's still not completely useless and the club would only be paying him an annual average salary close to what Ed Wade paid Pedro Feliz or Brandon Lyon.
Sign Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, go to a Six-Man Rotation
Clemens and Oswalt are two more characters who would bring casual fans back to Minute Maid Park, no matter how badly they pitch. But the thing is - no matter how badly they pitch, which of these two groups do you think would have provided better performance in 2012?:
Group 2 contains the 2012 Astros who contributed as 4th or 5th starters. Combined, they gave up 152 runs (130 earned) in 207 innings, for an ERA of 5.66. Replacing those guys with Clemens and Oswalt and extending the rotation to six guys (to protect old arms and young arms alike), the 2012 starters would look thus:
Obvoiusly, the 2013 rotation would look a little different, but replacing the 2012 Astros' 4th and 5th starters with Oswalt and Clemens could represent a decrease in Runs Allowed of 52 runs (give or take...see below).
It's not unreasonable to assume that Oswalt is still good for an ERA of 4.50 and that Clemens would be under 5.00, though probably barely. This still is an upgrade over anybody the Astros would put in the final two 2013 rotation spots from in-house. Oswalt and Clemens have the added benefit of boosting attendance at each of their games by 10,000 fans or more (particularly Clemens). Oh, and both would be relatively cheap.
Implications of Player Signings
With no other changes, simply adding Cabrera, Clemens, and Oswalt to the 2012 Astros and removing the players they would replace could represent an increase of eight wins. That takes the Astros to 68 Wins, which is still terrible, but infinitely more interesting than it would be otherwise. Applying the same reasoning to the 2013 roster means that the club would perform better than it would with current in-house options, regardless of the actual number of wins, but attendance would be boosted significantly.
Whether fans like it or not, the club needs to make money in order to return to respectability sooner. Bringing back these guys in addition to a coaching staff populated by Astros legends would allow that to happen.
Methods, for nerdy people
Skip reading this section if you don't care how I arrived at the claims above.
If one is astute, one will notice that most of the claims above are hedged with words like "could" and "should", and do not take into account that using 2012 as a baseline for increased runs scored or decreased runs allowed really doesn't directly apply to 2013. But here's how I came to those numbers:
For Cabrera, I simply used Fangraphs' wRC stat to find how many runs were created this season to-date by Cabrera and by Astros Right Fielders. I then equalized them by setting both to an equal number of Plate Appearances (I used Melky's average of 566 PA/season), then subtracted the number of runs created. This resulted in a difference in 29 runs scored. It's important to note that this is really fuzzy math. The only important takeaway from the exercise is this: Melky Cabrera, if he performed an exact average between his pre- and post-2011 self, would mean an increase in the number of runs scored if he replaced 2012 Astros Right-Fielders.
For Clemens and Oswalt I found 2012 comps for how I think they would perform in 2013. Those comps are:
Then, like Melky, I equalized those Runs Allowed by setting the IP to 140 for both pitchers (I doubt Clemens or Oswalt either would last for more than that during a season at this point). I then took all the Astros 4th and 5th pitchers listed above, found their Runs Allowed, then prorated them to 280 IP (140 x 2). I subtracted the resulting Runs Allowed, and found that the difference between Roy-O/Rocket and the 2012 Astros BOR would be 52 runs. Again fuzzy math, but here's the takeaway: Clemens and Oswalt would have yielded fewer Runs Allowed than the 2012 Astros Back of Rotation Starters.
For the number of wins increased, I added or subtracted the Runs Scored and Runs Allowed differences from the 2012 Astros RS and RA to date, and plugged them into the formula for determining Pythagorean Win Expectation. The result was 68 wins. For a third time: Fuzzy Math. But the important point is: An Astros team with Oswalt, Clemens, and Cabrera would have performed better than a team with the existing Right Fielders and 4th and 5th starters.
The Astros will not contend in 2013, even if they invested $70 million/year on the best free agents available. Their existing talent just is not good enough yet to get them over that hump. But while the club continues its almost-intolerable brand of baseball as it remains focused on a strong future at the expense of the present, the Astros have a desperate need to become more interesting. The "solutions" proposed above do not compromise the long-term plan, while automatically making the Astros one of the most interesting clubs in baseball. This will bring attendance back to Minute Maid Park, increase TV audience, and increase advertising revenue. For those reasons alone, the Astros front office should laugh at the absurdity of it all and take the plunge.