Astros forging a new identity
Berkman and Oswalt replace Bagwell, Biggio as faces of team
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- For the better part of 15 years, the Astros had what every team longs for: two homegrown superstars who were natural leaders, model citizens and tremendous example-setters.
That leadership translated into success on the field, and it's hardly surprising that what can now be considered the best era in Astros history also coincides with the careers of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio -- two kids from the Northeast who found their greatest triumphs in Houston.
Four division titles, six playoff appearances, one pennant. The late 1990s and the first part of the current decade was a good time to be an Astro. But the franchise is now in the middle of its longest stretch without a postseason appearance -- three years -- since it missed out on the playoffs from 1987-1996, and clearly, the team has exited one era and begun another.
Are the Astros looking for a new identity? In some ways, yes. The Bagwell-Biggio era also represented a revolving door of several other vitally important players who also defined the decade-plus and are now gone -- Billy Wagner, the fireball closer for the better part of seven years; Brad Ausmus, the main catcher for five of six playoff teams; and Brad Lidge, at one time considered unhittable by every team in the National League Central.
So who are the Astros now? Several years removed from the last time Bagwell and Biggio played together, has this team become ordinary? After all, not every team has to have players cut from the Cal Ripken-Tony Gwynn-Bagwell-Biggio mold, with youngsters turning into franchise icons, and, more important, never leaving.
But look closer. There are two more superstars who were drafted, signed and developed by the Astros and are in the process of establishing their own legacy as two of the best, who also may never play anywhere else but Houston.
So maybe the Bagwell-Biggio era isn't over as much as it has been reincarnated, in the form of a Killer B and a Wizard of O -- Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.
"You don't have to have those exceptional players who spend their entire careers with one team, but it's every team's dream to have that happen," general manager Ed Wade said. "Now you've got Lance, and one would, at this point in time, have to have an expectation that Lance is going to follow that trend and [fulfill] the potential of spending his entire career here. Same goes for Roy."
A different cast of characters, the same general idea. The Astros spend money when and where they can, but to succeed they have to build from within. Two-thirds of their Opening Day starting lineup in 2004 was comprised of players who had never played in the big leagues for any team but the Astros. That dynamic has changed dramatically over five years, but as Wade said, "As long as I'm here, we'll forever be a club that's looking to build within its system."
Berkman and Oswalt are a good starting point. The addition of Hunter Pence appears to be working out as well, and the addition of outside parts -- Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada, et al -- has paid off. But the Astros will have to wait just a bit longer before the top tier of Minor League prospects arrives in the big leagues, and it's going to be two to three years before they receive the payoff from what appears to be a very strong 2008 Draft class.
In simpler terms, the Astros would like to go back to what used to work for them, when they were lauded as the best organization in baseball. Why the best? Mostly because of pitching.
"I remember in 2001, we had Roy, Wade Miller and Carlos Hernandez," Bagwell recalled. "I remember thinking, 'Shoot, we're going to be good for a long time.' But you see how it worked out. Carlos got hurt, Wade got hurt, and now we don't have them. You just don't know.
"We're not going to be a team that's going to be able to go out and sign CC Sabathia or give $85 million to [A.J.] Burnett. We have to do it from within, and then we'll be back in the playoffs."
But what are they right now? For Berkman, perhaps the most recognizable modern-day Astro, that is still to be determined.
"I don't know if this is a cliche, because you hear it all the time," Berkman said, "but I really feel like this is a transitional phase for this team. You had the Bagwell-Biggio era, and now this is sort of an undefined period of time."
The one element that best characterized the Bagwell-Biggio era, according to Berkman, was roster stability.
"That was part of what was so tough for me last year," he said. "That was the first time in my entire career that you're basically dealing with 25 new guys, with the exception of a few."
That was a jolt from his comfort zone. When he first came up, in 1999, and stayed for good beginning in 2000, the club was strong and stable, loaded with homegrown players who mainly knew only one team, mixed in with a few savvy acquisitions from the outside.
"Bagwell, Biggio, Shane Reynolds, Wagner, Lidge, [Octavio] Dotel ... It seemed like there was this group that was together and effective," Berkman said. "It's just a matter of time before we have another group like that, but who it's going to be, and how long it lasts, remains to be seen. We're sorting some things out here."
A few floors up, in the GM's office, the long-term outlook is bright. Wade was believed to have inherited a mess of a farm system when he took over in 2007, but with Chris Johnson knocking on the door at third base and Bud Norris, Sergio Perez and Brad James doing the same on the mound, among others, he wonders if the bleak prognostications of this club were grossly overstated.
"There's more quality here than the organization is currently getting credit for," Wade said. "And I've got no dog in the fight -- they were all here before I got here. The work done here in the past has created quality for years to come."
In other words, the Astros may soon be what they once were. Would that be so bad?
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.