Back during the 1997-98 offseason, the Astros chose to leave one promising young outfielder from Venezuela unprotected for the upcoming expansion draft to keep another promising young outfielder from Venezuela. The former was Bobby Abreu and the latter was Richard Hidalgo, both of whom were products of Houston’s talent pipeline in the country. Remember from the same system that also produced talents from Venezuela such as Johan Santana, Melvin Mora, and Carlos Guillen in the 1990’s? All of those players contributed a combined 21.2 fWAR as Astros and that figure is generated by only Hidalgo (20.6 fWAR) and Abreu (0.6 fWAR). That’s a depressing conversation for another day.
The decision to keep Hidalgo over Abreu, however, wasn’t necessarily a controversial one at the time. Through 74 games with the Astros (1996-97), Abreu had a .248/.325/.362 slash line with only three home runs and an 88 wRC+. According to reports, there was a shouting match between him and then-general manager Gerry Hunsicker during the 1997 campaign. He was sent down to the minors at various points where he apparently did little to impress the Astros. Case in point: Abreu had 167 major league plate appearances through May 24, 1997. Following that date, he would only have 43 more plate appearances in the big leagues as an Astro. In hindsight, it was clear that his time in Houston was going to be short-lived, especially with Hidalgo making his major league debut that September. The decision makers, including Hunsicker, didn’t seem enamored with Abreu’s potential. Plus, anyone who has supposedly has a shouting match with one of their bosses probably isn’t hanging around for long, especially on a team with a bit of a logjam in the outfield.
The then-Devil Rays would eventually select Abreu in the expansion draft that winter, which was the right thing to do, only to make their own blunder by shipping him to the Phillies for shortstop Kevin Stocker. The Astros were also in the works to revamp their own starting outfield that subsequent offseason as the club would eventually acquire the likes of Moises Alou and Carl Everett to play alongside the returning Derek Bell. The 1998 outfield, which also included Hidalgo, produced a 117 wRC+ as a unit, which was the second-highest mark in the National League. Only the Dodgers with a 119 wRC+ has a more productive outfield as it pertains to offense that season in the Senior Circuit. In his first season with a meaningful role on a major league roster, Hidalgo did post a respectable .303/.355/.474 slash line with seven home runs and a 2.0 fWAR in 234 plate appearances.
Alas, Abreu would do something that probably not many in baseball expected, which was become one of the best outfielders in the game almost immediately. With consistent playing time for the first time in his major league career, the former Astro posted a 135 wRC+ and a 6.5 wins above replacement in 1998. Only eight outfielders that season posted a higher fWAR than Abreu: Barry Bonds (8.5), Albert Belle (7.1), Sammy Sosa (7.1), Andruw Jones (7.0), Brian Jordan (6.9), Alou (6.8), Vladimir Guerrero (6.7), and Ken Griffey Jr. (6.6). Including that breakout season, Abreu would average 5.9 wins above replacement through the 2004 season. The only two outfielders who posted a higher cumulative fWAR than Abreu’s mark of 41.5 through the same time period was Bonds (66.8, of freaking course) and Jones (43.4).
While the Phillies were enjoying what they found with Abreu, the Astros were still figuring out what they had with Hidalgo. Although that 1998 season had its moments, Hidalgo would see his 1999 campaign cut short due to a knee cap surgery in August. But there were encouraging signs with his power and defense, specifically leading the majors with 15 outfield assists before his injury. But it was Hidalgo’s incredible 2000 season — 44 home runs and a 7.3 fWAR — which provided a possible confirmation that the Astros perhaps made the right choice to keep him instead of Abreu. I mean, how can you not watch a home run like this one as a twelve-year old in 2000 like me and think otherwise?
Following the 2000 season, it appeared Hidalgo had turn the corner in his career. The thought was he would make a living hitting home runs over the Crawford Boxes in left field for a long time, which is one reason why the Astros signed Hidalgo to a four-year, $32 million contract that subsequent offseason. Yet, all of that mighty production seemingly dissipated overnight. While his numbers wouldn’t completely crater in 2001 and 2002, Hidalgo would never reach those astronomical heights of his 2000 season again. The 2003 season — 28 home runs and a 6.0 fWAR — provided a glimmer of hope that he could further rebound, but that hope was relatively short-lived. The Astros would eventually trade the outfielder to the Mets during the 2004 season that netted the team pitchers David Weathers and Jeremy Griffiths. Um, who again? Hidalgo would last appear in a major league game for the Rangers during the 2005 season.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is quite easy to state that the Astros chose wrong when picking Hidalgo over Abreu that fateful off-season. Not only did Abreu posted nearly double the amount of wins as Hidalgo from 1998-2004, the former also aged much more gracefully while still maintaining some semblance of productivity in his later seasons.
That single decision in 1997 presents one of the more interesting what-if scenarios in the history of the Astros. Like Hidalgo, it probably would’ve likely been difficult for Abreu to crack the 1998 outfield that had already established players in Alou, Bell, and Everett. The 1999 season is when the difference of Abreu probably would’ve been the most pronounced as Alou would subsequently miss that season with a torn ACL and Hidalgo was injured by early August. The 2000 season represented the best for their respective careers, but the edge slightly goes to Hidalgo by WAR. The same thought applies for the 2003 season as well. But it is the seasons in between and after that make parting ways with Abreu difficult to stomach, even after all of these years. Consistency was ultimately the key difference between the two fellow Venezuelans and their respective careers. The Astros, and Devil Rays to a degree, paid the price while the Phillies had one of the best, and also under appreciated, outfielders for a time under their employ.