Tejada, Captain Ahab, and Moby

Christian Petersen

A look back at the Astros obsession with an Orioles trade target

Miguel Tejada played for both the Astros and Orioles. Timothy previously wrote about Tejada's career when the Astros played the A's this season. This will be about the Astros and their obsession with trading for Tejada.

We all know the story about Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. Ahab pursued the great white whale with a relentless obsession only to be carried down to the bottom of the sea when he caught him.

For literary license, I'll cast Astros' owner Drayton McLane as Captain Ahab and shortstop Miguel Tejada as the great whale The Astros pursued a trade for the all star hitter as the team continued its pursuit of a World Series. The failure to come up with a great hitter haunted the Astros, as the team fell just short of a playoff birth. As the team continued to spiral farther from contention, the Astros made another desperate attempt at tracking down a Tejada trade. This time the Astros succeeded. The question is whether this apparent success, in the Astros' eyes, really was a failure.

I don't think there is much question that the Astros always liked Tejada, the Orioles' all star shortstop. It may not be fair to call it an obsession, but I think that the Astros' loss of Bagwell and Beltran, as well as the team's weak offense at shortstop left the Astros' brass--maybe McLane, himself--longing for the slugging shortstop and thinking, "If only we had that guy in our lineup!" At mid-season 2005, the pitching heavy Astros were desperate for offense. And there were rumors that the Astros wanted to trade for Tejada. But that wasn't going anywhere, not with the Orioles still holding hope for a playoff spot and Tejada hitting .304 and a .865 OPS. But the Astros still made the playoffs, and ultimately the World Series.

2006 was crucial for McLane and the Astros, as the World Series window seemed to be closing. The Astros had a world class pitching staff, on paper, with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, and Brad Lidge---however, Pettitte and Clemens were at the end of contracts. The Astros started strongly, but the offense came falling to earth, and by mid-season the Astros' playoff hopes were on life support.

Some background about the 2006 mid-season trading deadline from Richard Justice:

I was also told the Astros are frantic to make a trade after Roger Clemens urged McLane to do something. McLane, perhaps overreacting, practically ordered Purpura to do something.

Under pressure to find a big time hitter, Tim Pupura was willing to offer a LOT for Miguel Tejada. By many accounts in the national media, the Astros and Orioles had a deal in place to trade Roy Oswalt for Miguel Tejada, but the Orioles owner pulled back his approval at the last minute.

The Chicago Tribune cited Orioles sources for the Astros' trade offer: Oswalt, Ensberg, and Everett for Tejada. The Orioles probably would have turned around and traded Oswalt for ML-ready prospects. The Tribune says that the Astros told the Orioles that they could spin Oswalt to any team they want--except the Cardinals. The Red Sox reportedly believed that they might acquire Oswalt for Hanson, Lester, and Delcarmen. The Mets thought that they were part of a 3 way deal with the Astros and Orioles, which would send Oswalt to the Mets for Milledge. Billy Wagner said the Mets were a shoo-in for the World Series if that trade had happened. The Red Sox were salivating at an unstoppable rotation with Oswalt, Schilling, and Beckett.

The Tribune article noted:

It's hard to see how the Astros were going to revitalize themselves without their best starter, but perhaps Purpura had a second deal arranged to trade prospects for pitching.

But the 2006 Tejada trade fell through. And the Astros almost made the playoffs in a NL Central that was low on winning teams.

The Astros' major league product continued to spiral downward in 2007, with the loss of Clemens and Pettitte and poorly planned replacements like Jason Jennings and Woody Williams.

Ed Wade took over with instructions to both rebuild and field a competitive major league team in 2008. And the Astros went back to the well again, making another effort at prying Tejada away from the Orioles. The Astros traded 5 young players for Tejada on the eve of the Mitchell Report's release--which would cast suspicion on Tejada. Much of the public controversy involved the timing of the trade, vis a vis, the steroids report. But, really, the questions should have revolved around more basic baseball questions, like whether the trade was consistent with the rebuilding objective. (Now don't get me wrong: there were questions about all of the young players: Patton had a bad shoulder; Scott was a little too old to be a young player; Sarfate had enormous control issues; and Albers had a bullpen/No. 5 pitcher ceiling; Costanza was a long shot prospect.)

You can go here to read what TCB fans were saying at the time. Chron.com's Steve Campbell had a take on the trade that was a bit schizoprhenic. I don't blame him...I think a lot of us had mixed feelings at the time.

Let's look at the cold, hard numbers on the impact of the trade. The total WAR for each team from the players they received (B-Ref version of WAR):

Orioles--Patton 2.8; Scott 8; Sarfate 0.1; Albers 0.9. Total Orioles WAR: 11.8.

Astros--Tejada 3.7. Total Astros WAR: 3.7

(Note: The O's WAR might decline to 10 or so WAR, if fangraphs is used)

Well, that doesn't look so good for the Astros. But it did give the Astros a little excitement in 2008, when the team made a late, unsuccessful run for a playoff spot. Steve Campbell said he would be fine with the trade If "Tejada churns out his typical 25-homer, 100-runs-batted-in season..." And that's the rub. If Tejada had produced at his average WAR over the previous three seasons, the trade would be closer to a draw. But Tejada had begun showing a slippage in his power over 2005-2007. And age caught up with him when he came to the Astros. Tejada continued to hit for average, but his power was practically gone. This wasn't falling off a cliff, but it was sliding down a hill.

Back to the Moby Dick analogy. Did this trade send the Astros down to the bottom of the sea, like Captain Ahab's experience? On the surface, no. A seven WAR loss in a trade is bad, but not disastrous. However, one could make an argument that the Astros' obsession with Tejada made them overlook his decline; and, further, that this trade reflected a neglect of the Astros' urgent need to rebuild. The trade involved youth for a declining hitter. And perhaps the Astros wouldn't be where they are today in the standings if the Astros had pursued more prospects in trades. This trade began a commitment to rebuilding by the Orioles. And they are farther along in winning than the Astros.

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