The virtual 1972 Houston Astros (Part 1)

So far in this occasional series, we’ve examined the “what might have been” scenario of the 1930 New York Giants, the 1954 Cleveland Indians, the 1946-1949 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1966 San Francisco Giants and the 1980 Oakland Athletics. The rules of the exercise are pretty simple: We imagine how this particular ball club might plausibly have been meaningfully better than it actually was, not by invoking any transactions it might have made but actually didn’t, but rather just by removing some transactions they actually made but might not have. This time we’ll play this game with the early-1970s Astros.

H. B. “Spec” Richardson was hired as GM of the Houston franchise in late July of 1967. The organization he inherited never had known on-field success: In its five full seasons of competition, it had finished eighth twice and ninth three times, and at the current moment was in 10th place in the 10-team National League. But the fundamental structure that had been put in place by GM Paul Richards in his 1961-65 tenure was quite sound.

Richards had constructed a deep farm system that was starting to yield talent in quantity, and several of the Wizard of Waxahachie’s prized finds were already on the big league roster, producing as young stars: 23-year-old right fielder Rusty Staub and 25-year-old center fielder Jim Wynn each would deliver 28 Win Shares in 1967, and 23-year-old second baseman Joe Morgan was right behind with 26. Houston’s top pitcher, a 30-year-old reclamation project named Mike Cuellar, had blossomed into one of the league’s better starters, and the staff included several highly impressive younger talents in 22-year-old Don Wilson, 20-year-old Larry Dierker and 27-year-old Dave Giusti.

The ball club wasn’t yet competitive overall because neither Richards nor Tal Smith, Richardson’s immediate successor as GM, had been effective at filling the many holes that still surrounded the burgeoning youngsters. But clearly this was no run-of-the-mill 90-game loser Richardson was taking over; it wasn’t a team that required rebuilding, as the key ingredient of exceptional young core talent was already in place. Instead, Richardson’s challenge was to patiently and properly steward the further development of these crown jewels and the strong cohort coming along behind them, which most notably included third baseman-first baseman Doug Rader, catcher-outfielder Bob Watson and pitchers Jim Ray and Tom Griffin.

Well, Richardson would prove unequal to the challenge. That isn’t to say that every move he would make in the several ensuing seasons was wrong. He made a few shrewd trades, and one big thing he got right was to recognize the star potential of Cesar Cedeño (signed in late 1967 at the age of 16) and provide him a centerpiece role. But in a situation in which the watchword was patience, Richardson would display little. Instead of playing to his organization’s strengths, and exercising the discipline to build with his bounty of home-grown talent, Richardson would rely heavily upon the trade market, and all too often he would egregiously overpay for his imported assets.

Thus the talent that might have coalesced into a successful unit would find itself largely scattered to the winds, and the team that might have been blossoming as a contender in the late 1960s and early 1970s actually would improve little beyond middle-of-the-pack status. But had Richardson not been so trigger-happy with his deals, the Houston Astros of along about 1972 might have been an exceptionally impressive ball club.

What might have been: Element No. 1

Oct. 11, 1968: The Astros traded pitcher Dave Giusti and catcher Dave Adlesh to the St. Louis Cardinals for catcher Johnny Edwards and minor league catcher Tommy Smith.

On its face, this deal is incomprehensible. Giusti hadn’t developed into the star the Astros hoped he would, but through 1968 he’d been a dependable workhorse starter, an innings-eater. Such a pitcher is an essential back-half-of-the-rotation element of nearly every winning team, and moreover such pitchers have frequently proven to become quite effective when shifted (often at about the age of 30) to a less physically demanding bullpen role.

But Richardson chose to convert this meaningful talent into Edwards, who was not only a year-and-a-half older than Giusti, but was plainly on the downside of his career. At one time Edwards had been a solid first-string catcher, but in 1966 his bat speed had evaporated, and it had never returned. He was still strong defensively, but at this point Edwards was nothing better than a role player. Yet Richardson surrendered Giusti to get him, and Richardson’s Astros would restore full-time starter status to Edwards, and persist with him there through 1970 (and in platoon-starter status through 1973) despite chronically weak hitting.

Ah! But there’s an explanation for the trade, or so I’ve always heard. It goes like this: Richardson was aware that the San Diego Padres, about to stock their roster later that week in the expansion draft, were eager to grab Giusti. (Indeed, the Padres would draft Giusti from the Cardinals’ roster.) So, goes the reasoning, rather than give Giusti up for nothing, at least this way the Astros got Edwards in return.

But … but … one is left sputtering. In the first place, if you don’t want to lose a player in the draft, you can always, you know, protect him, as, apparently, the Astros protected Edwards. And if they didn’t protect Edwards, and he went undrafted anyway (as apparently they would be anticipating; otherwise why make the trade?), then just what does that demonstrate about the relative value of Edwards versus that of Giusti?

And in the second place, look what the Cardinals did. They made this bargain of a trade to acquire Giusti, and then immediately lost him in the draft. But what did they then do? They put together a package of spare parts and grade-B prospects and re-acquired him from San Diego. The Astros surely could have done something similar. As it was, the Cardinals were willing to surrender the spare-parts-and-prospects package and Edwards in order to get Giusti. I repeat, just what does that demonstrate about the relative value of Edwards versus that of Giusti?

All in all, it was an extremely silly move by Richardson. There were any number of far less costly steps he might have undertaken to shore up his catching corps.

Let’s assume he didn’t let Giusti get away in this manner, or any other, and that Dave Giusti remained with the Astros through 1972.

What might have been: Element No. 2

Dec. 4, 1968: The Astros traded pitcher Mike Cuellar and minor league infielders Enzo Hernandez and Elijah Johnson to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder-first baseman Curt Blefary and minor league outfielder John Mason.

Cuellar had missed six or eight turns in the rotation with various minor injuries in 1968. But his effectiveness remained as strong as it had been in ’67, both in terms of ERA and peripherals. He would be 32 in 1969, and so a decline to some degree could reasonably have been expected, but there was nothing suggesting imminent collapse.

And in Blefary the Astros were acquiring a player who’d already collapsed. At the age of 24 in 1968 Blefary had suddenly suffered a disastrous year with the bat: even within the context of “The Year of the Pitcher,” Blefary’s .200 batting average, eight-doubles-and-39-RBIs-in-451-at-bats rate of production stood out as distinctly lousy. So only if Blefary launched a dramatic comeback would the exchange amount to a break-even. Morever, offense was the only asset Blefary offered; his fielding was so famously bad that his nickname was “Clank,” so unless Blefary launched a dramatic comeback the Astros would be swapping Cuellar for a complete stiff.

Let’s assume Richardson thought better of this gamble, and that Mike Cuellar remained with the Astros through 1972.

What might have been: Element No. 3

Jan. 22, 1969: The Astros traded outfielder-first baseman Rusty Staub to the Montreal Expos for first baseman Donn Clendenon and outfielder Jesus Alou. (Clendenon refused to report to Houston; on April 8, 1969, the Expos sent pitchers Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn and $100,000 cash to the Astros, completing the deal.)

Speaking of incomprehensible deals …

Supposedly the story behind this one is that Staub, the Astros’ player representative, was shipped off because he was playing an enthusiastic role in the awakening MLBPA. Presumably this was the Houston management’s way of “teaching him a lesson,” or “making an example of him” or some such.

If so, it was an impossibly stupid thing to do. First, it was a tortured twist of logic to expect that punitively trading an active union rep would serve to intimidate the remaining players; if anything it would seem more likely to help radicalize them, and in any case Clendenon’s refusal to report immediately illustrated the obsolescence of the “let’s show ‘em who’s boss” mindset.

And second, this trade was a laughably one-sided talent giveaway. Clendenon at his peak had never been as good as the not-yet-25-year-old Staub already was, and moreover Clendenon was 33 and obviously in decline. And for his part Alou was, to put it charitably, a highly marginal regular.

The irony was that Clendenon’s obstinacy yielded a compensatory settlement from Montreal, brokered by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, that was more valuable than Clendenon (though the Astros utterly didn’t understand this, bitterly complaining that they’d been shorted). Nevertheless it didn’t come close to making the trade either a fair talent exchange or a strategically coherent maneuver.

Let’s assume Richardson (and his boss, Judge Roy Hofheinz) hadn’t dreamed up this brilliant idea, and that Rusty Staub remained with the Astros through 1972.

What might have been: Element No. 4

Jun. 23, 1970: The Astros traded pitcher Mike Marshall to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Don Bosch.

This deal didn’t seem significant at the time; it was the sort of marginal transaction that receives little notice. Yet it would prove to be not only significant, but hugely regrettable for the Astros as Marshall blossomed into stardom in Montreal. And it made no sense at the time it was made.

In the first place, the deal represented a premature discard of the 27-year-old screwballer Marshall. It’s true that he’d struggled in four outings with the Astros in June of 1970, but before being called up that season Marshall had been brilliant in Triple-A, compiling a 1.60 ERA with great peripherals in 45 innings. It would seem that he warranted more than a four-game, five-inning big league trial to conclude that he should be scrapped.

And being scrapped is exactly what this was. Marshall’s career to this point had assuredly been up-and-down, but the 28-year-old Bosch’s trials had demonstrably proven that he was less than a major league-quality hitter: in 346 plate appearances with three different organizations, he’d posted a batting average of .164 (and an OPS+ of, get this, 29). Bosch was a good defensive center fielder, but at best he projected as a defensive replacement—and the Astros in 1970, with both Cesar Cedeño and Cesar Geronimo on the roster, were hardly in need of such a niche role player.

So this deal was an impulsive tossing away of Marshall in exchange for nothing useful; Bosch would hit .196 in 25 Triple-A games for the Houston organization in 1970, and never play another inning in the majors.

Let’s assume Richardson had declined this meager offer, and that Mike Marshall remained with the Astros though 1972.

What might have been: Element No. 5

Nov. 29, 1971: The Astros traded second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, pitcher Jack Billingham and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister to the Cincinnati Reds for first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms and infielder-outfielder Jimmy Stewart.

We’ve previously discussed what a downright fleecing of Richardson this was on the part of Reds GM Bob Howsam. So why don’t we just keep this simple: If Richardson hadn’t made the Rusty Staub trade, he’d never have received Jack Billingham as part of the settlement. And if he didn’t have Billingham, he couldn’t possibly have made this particular trade.

That’ll work. Let’s assume that Joe Morgan, Denis Menke and Cesar Geronimo remained with the Astros through 1972.

What might have been: Element No. 6

Dec. 2, 1971: The Astros traded first baseman John Mayberry and minor league third baseman Dave Grangaard to the Kansas City Royals for pitchers Jim York and Lance Clemons.

Drafted in the first round by the Astros in June of 1967, Mayberry had continually been among the handful of “can’t miss” minor league prospects. He wasn’t actually quite as young as the Astros believed him to be; he was passing himself off as having been born in February of 1950, while in truth he’d been born a year earlier. But still he was quite young, and by 1971 he’d produced four consecutive outstanding minor league seasons. In 1968 in Single-A, he’d hit .334 with 22 homers in 353 at-bats, and at the Triple-A level in 1969-70-71 he’d hit .303 with 21 homers in 458 at-bats, .273 with 13 bombs in 231 at-bats, and .324 with 12 in 222.

In both 1970 and ’71, the Astros had given Mayberry halting, intermittent trials in the majors, in which he’d delivered home runs but hit for a poor average. He’d never been left in the lineup for more than a month, and his playing time amounted to a grand total of 328 plate appearances over the two seasons. Yet this brief and choppy experience was enough to convince Richardson to give up on Mayberry in favor of York.

To be sure, the 24-year-old York was an exciting prospect, a flamethrowing reliever who’d enjoyed a strong rookie year in 1971. But Richardson might have been advised to notice this red flag: In September of ’71 a sore arm had limited York to just four outings in which he’d managed three strikeouts against six walks and 10 hits allowed. And even if York’s health would rebound, his realistic ceiling was, say, Dick Radatz, while Mayberry’s realistic ceiling was, say, Willie McCovey. Who would you rather have?

Let’s assume John Mayberry remained with the Astros through 1972.

Next time

Just how good would those Astros have been?

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