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Looking towards the Astros future: To buy or not buy? Lance Berkman is the question

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Having completed my NYC/whirl-wind tour of Central Texas vacation, I'm behind on my Astros news.  I don't have a feel on the pulse of how the NRI's are performing, or which players I should actually be worried about in 2010.  (This subject will be discussed in my next post.) 

In the interim, I have been forced to think about big picture issues facing our Houston Astros.  This path has lead to me to revisit the Astros offseason, the potential injury woes for the whole of 2010 and look towards the horizon.  I have done some previous postulating about what the next two offseasons might hold for the Astros, but today I want to look at it from a different angle.

My original goal was to try and determine what will be the dominant storyline for the Astros 2011 Hot Stove.  While asking for a concurrence that Lance Berkman's club option would be it, David and I realized that what we think will be the dominant storyline will likely change as the season evolves.  As a result, we'll chime in month by month to see if the landscape has shifted so much so that Lance Berkman's club option is no longer the storyline.

Today though, we'll stick with the Big Puma.

Perhaps Lance Berkman's club option will remain the topic du jour when we prognosticate about the 2011 Hot Stove, but my guess is that the reasons belying it might change.  For now, I foresee two main issues that make Berkman's club option such a weighty subject:

  1. To pick it up means to invest $15 million in a thirty-four year old player with what seems like a severely degenerating knee.
  2. To not pick it up would signal a break with the Houston tradition of kowtowing to hometown heroes.

As an objective fan of baseball—one who deeply believes in the whole MORP concept—Lance Berkman's club option gives me the heeby-jeebies right now.  Am I excited that swelling in his knee seems to have abated for now? Yes. Do I trust it $15 million so in 2011? No.

Obviously it remains to be seen how much his knee will limit both his performance at the plate and in the field, but the concern is real. The Astros are not in a position to casually pick up Lance Berkman's option if all signs in 2010 do not point towards sustained success for Berkman.

As a subjective fan of the game-one who has been spoiled by the loyalty Drayton McLane, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell displayed to one another-that saddens me.  This is Lance Berkman we're talking about. He's a Texan, who went to Rice.  To me, at times, he feels more authentic than either Bagwell or Biggio because of that. 

It would be a sad day indeed if Lance Berkman ended is career as an Astro not through retirement, but through a $2 million club buyout. My guess is that if I, myself, feel a tension between the rational choice to seriously consider buying Lance Berkman out of his contract and the less rational choice of paying him $15 million dollars to sate both sentimentality and precedent, than the average Astros fan sides more with the latter than the former.

The weight a GM should give to such an issue goes far beyond my pay grade.  I know that the more devout worshippers of sabermetrics might scoff at weighting it in the decision-making process, but—especially in Houston—it doesn't seem absurd.

Because I can't extricate my fandom from the equation, I'll set aside that issue.  This not to say I believe it should be glossed over, just that I can't find my bearings with the subject.  What I can speak to is what options the Astros would have to pursue should they buyout the Puma's option.

Internally, this season might produce worthwhile in house stand-ins: Drew Locke or Kolby Clemens could prove to be above replacement level players and a replacement level price.  My personal comfort level with searching in house for a first baseman is next to zilch, though.  That leaves the free agent market—most likely.  The issue there is that there is not a lot to salivate over on the open market. Perhaps a bargain can be found, but Ed Wade's history with finding bargain position players is that they're usually not the bargains we want.  This is even truer if the Astros don't consider Lance Berkman's $2 million buyout to be an sunk cost.

It's here that I feel it becomes truly apparent that Lance Berkman's buyout will be the dominant storyline next winter.  There are so many layers and angles.  I by no means have done the most thorough examination of them either, which, of course, leaves not just this storyline, but also others, up for discussion.

So what do you think about the decision facing Ed Wade on Lance Berkman at this point in 2010? And, do you think I've overlooked a storyline that will be of greater importance than Lance Berkman?