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Road to relevance begins in Houston

11/28/2011

You have to wonder if Thanksgiving bought Ed Wade and Tal Smith a few extra days with their respective titles. Jim Crane took over ownership of the Houston Astros last Monday, and it would've seemed ugly if he had executed his first firings right before a family holiday.

Either way, the deed is now done. The timing doesn't really fit what's happening with the baseball calendar, but hey, Crane wants to put his own hires in place, and that's his prerogative. Andrew Friedman is from Houston, but he is not expected to be a candidate for the Houston job, and it wouldn't be surprising if some would-be candidates turn down the Astros.

There are a lot of industrywide questions about the direction of the organization, about what kind of owner Crane will be, and until that becomes clearer, some folks who have alternatives may choose to wait rather than join the Astros. Here are some other options for the job, from Steve Campbell.

Whoever takes over the organization, however, will inherit a challenging but workable situation. The bottom line is that Houston doesn't have a lot of talent, certainly not at the major league level. The Astros lost 106 games last year and they earned that; only four teams scored fewer runs, only two teams allowed more runs, and just three teams made more errors. And just before the July 31 trade deadline, the Astros traded their two best position players, in Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn.

But while Theo Epstein will spend his first couple of seasons in Chicago fighting his way through the last flames of bad contracts, with Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano, Wade's replacement will come in with a relatively clean slate. Carlos Lee is about to enter the final year of his six-year, $100 million deal, at $18.5 million. Wandy Rodriguez has two guaranteed years left on his deal, for $25.5 million (including a buyout of a 2014 option) -- and beyond that, there are no players under contract for 2013.

The Astros were already facing a rebuilding situation no matter who the general manager was, so Wade did the dirty work of trading Pence and Bourn before their market value completely disintegrated. And while Wade was criticized for not getting enough in return, Houston does have a core of pretty good talent at the lower levels, with Jared Cosart, Jonathan Singleton and others.

As Smith and Wade depart, it's not as if the Astros are teeming with talent. But remember, for many years, Houston was among the small handful of teams that honored the slot recommendations from the commissioner's office, and in recent years, owner Drayton McLane drastically cut the Astros' budget. Wade wasn't given a lot to work with and has had some dead money to work through, and the sudden shift to austerity is the root cause for the disintegration of the franchise.

If the Astros were a construction site, what you'd see now is a plot completely cleaned out, the sledgehammers and the wrecking ball gone and the ugliest work completed. The next foreman -- working under the limits and ambitions set forth by Crane -- will be in position to do a lot of building, rather than tearing down. The construction may take years, especially given the draft-and-signing shackles imposed by the new labor agreement. One really smart executive estimated that the Astros will take 4-7 years to become respectable again, which means that a lot of the images you will see coming out of Houston in the next few years could be those of empty seats.

But there is growth potential with the Astros, in the NL Central, and the raising can start immediately.

Ed Wade's legacy with the Astros is complicated, writes Richard Justice.

Notables

• The Seattle Mariners traded for catcher John Jaso. This is another case of the Tampa Bay Rays always having to stay ahead and proactively bailing financial waters rather than waiting. Jaso was a productive player in 2010, posting a .372 on-base percentage and establishing himself as one of their more efficient baserunners. But Jaso, 28, had a down year in 2011, with an OPS of .651, and the fact is that a year from now he would've been arbitration-eligible.

So the Rays had a choice: Should they wait and gamble that Jaso would rebound, or should they move him now before he became too expensive for them? They have bet that they would be better off reallocating the dollars that would have been needed to keep Jaso. Tampa Bay is expected to announce the signing of Jose Molina any day.

The pitcher the Rays got in the deal has a checkered past, as Marc Topkin writes.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Detroit Tigers have their sights set on Mark Buehrle, writes Lynn Henning.

2. The Chicago White Sox are evaluating Yonder Alonso.

3. In Major League Baseball, experience is wanted, writes John Tomase.

4. The Miami Marlins will host C.J. Wilson today but have no plans to host Prince Fielder, writes Juan Rodriguez.

Other stuff

• A beloved Philadelphia Phillies executive has passed away.

• Jim Kaat talked about his squabble with Calvin Griffith, as Charley Walters writes.

• Vanderbilt is working on an extension for its football coach.

And today will be better than yesterday.