"We were faced suddenly with a choice. Either we went public with that dread word rebuilding and used young players on a salary base that was manageable, or we went with long-term contracts for players in their 30's and held the old club together for millions of dollars. We also knew that with expansion coming, we'd have to give up players to the new teams. If we had to protect most of our long-term-contract players, it would leave our good kids vulnerable to being picked off. We decided we'd rather keep the kids. It was a baseball decision, not a financial decision. We had made up our minds to do all this before John announced he wanted to sell the club, in November."
Houston's assistant general manager is another impressive baseball man, former Astro outfielder and first baseman Bob Watson. Watson has a pair of spikes in the Hall of Fame as the man who scored baseball's one-millionth run in 1976 and is now in good position to reach another major league milestone: to become the game's first black general manager. Watson speaks to us with candor. "This is not a game where you sign 33-year-old players to five-year multimillion-dollar contracts," he says. "You sign a young guy who gets to be an MVP in Triple A and then comes to the bigs with great ability and a great attitude."
Watson agrees with Wood that the Astros had held on to memories of '86 for too long. And though he is aware of the doom-and-gloom forecasts concerning the current team, Watson is firmly optimistic about the future of the Astros. "We have great scouting and one of the three best farm systems in the majors," he says. "We have seven of the top 50 high school draft choices this year. We will play exciting, enthusiastic, fast ball. We won't lose 100 games, we won't lose 90 games. We are buying the future. The whole industry will go the way of the Astros. The way other teams are spending, some will eventually go elfoldo. If we keep giving $4-million-a-year long-term contracts to 33-year-old players, we'll be back to 16 teams in the major leagues. The Astros are the team of the future."
We are moved by Watson's upbeat analysis, and we discuss the idea that after we buy the Astro-Screws, we can promote Wood to president and make Watson the general manager, thereby making baseball history with our first decision. At the same time, though, we are becoming a bit anxious about buying a team so bereft of marketable names. Will the fans bear with us? Can we afford to rebuild?
We call Sandy Alderson, the successful general manager of the A's, who suggests to us that the current methods of Houston management should not be viewed as destructive. He tells us, "Under their circumstances—and by their circumstances I don't mean the sale, but where they are competitively and what their chances are in the future—it was a very legitimate strategy to say, 'Look, let's start over.' It's not a new strategy. It's been pursued many times before, and recently by the Orioles, by the White Sox and, in fact, by us, a few years ago. And with the free-agent market the way it is, a new management could rebuild that team overnight."
O.K. That's encouraging. But now we're beginning to wonder, Isn't there something of a Catch-22 here? The more an inexpensive team of talented youths succeeds, the more its payroll expands and expands until the whole delicate structure blows up—and maybe it happens a season or two before the club is actually good enough to win a pennant or a World Series. We don't have to look far to find a relevant case history: that of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 1985 the Pirates were a last-place team with a season attendance of 735,900, worst in the league. To keep the Pirates in town, a group of 13 investors put in $2 million each, backed by a promise of another $20 million from the city's urban redevelopment authority. From there, a stirring ascent began, fueled by a fresh roster of inexpensive but blooming superstars including Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek. Last season Pittsburgh won the National League East for the first time in 11 years and, in doing so, drew more than two million fans for the first time.
But.... In 1989, Bonilla, Bonds and Drabek were paid a total of $1.43 million. In '91, thanks to arbitration, they will be paid $8.05 million. The total Pirate payroll has risen from about $11 million in '89 to roughly $23 million in '91. Because Pittsburgh is a small market with limited local TV and radio fees, even huge attendance and high morale doesn't necessarily produce enough revenue to pay such salaries. And despite their first-place finish, the Pirates' books for '90 show an operating loss of $7 million. We wonder, How does that bode for our Astro-Screws?
We take out a calculator, a current salary list and a crystal ball, and we start to make some rough projections. Let's see, catcher Craig Biggio is the man the Astros' staff has tabbed as their foundation player. In a little over two years in the majors, Biggio has hit .261, with 20 home runs and 52 stolen bases-solid numbers, especially for a catcher. He's making $437,500 this season. Since he's only 25, we're going to assume he'll get better. That would mean that three or four years down the road, Biggio should be comparable, at least offensively, to someone like Benito Santiago, the San Diego Padres' premier backstop. Santiago is making $1.65 million this season but had asked for $2.5 million in arbitration. If current salary trends continue and Biggio develops as we hope, then by '94 Biggio could cost us somewhere around $2.5 to $3 million a year.
Financially, our projections only get worse as our performance on the field gets better. We imagine Opening Day, 1994: A packed Astrodome crowd cheers as the Astro-Screws take the field. But where the fans see a group of gutsy youngsters who challenged for the division title until the final weekend of the '93 season, we can see only dollar signs. Starting pitcher Darryl Kile, the ace of the staff and a 19-game winner, is on the mound, trying to prove that he's worth the $2.5 million contract extension we gave him over the winter. Outfielder Luis Gonzalez, our newest slugging sensation, is miffed because he received only $2 million in arbitration. Even versatile platoon outfielder Karl (Tuffy) Rhodes is making $1 million. And lefthanded closer Al Osuna, who set a team record with 40 saves in '93, is already collecting a neat $3 million. We are dizzy with conflicting emotions. We can win the pennant this year, we really can, but it's going to cost us $25 million in salaries. And for most of these players, free agency looms just around the corner. What then? Forty million dollars? Fifty million? We shudder and put away our crystal ball.