Astros racing against time

The Astros should start shopping Carlos Beltran with the NL Central out of reach and the wild card slipping away.

Originally Published: July 6, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN Insider

Eight. If you're trying to buy dinner in Manhattan, eight (dollars) isn't a big number. But if you're trying to win a division title in the Bronx, eight (games) in early July is a big number indeed. The Yankees are eight games ahead of the Red Sox, and have essentially been awarded the American League East title by all but the most pessimistic Yankees fans (and delusional Red Sox fans).

Carlos Beltran
The Astros are hoping to retain the services of Carlos Beltran.

And rightly so. You simply don't make up eight games in three months, and that goes double when the team you're trying to catch was generally favored to win the World Series.

But if the Red Sox are out of the running, then what about the Astros? They are nine games out of first place after Tuesday night's loss to San Diego ... and, making things worse, they don't trail one team (as the Red Sox do); they trail four. Even if you want to argue that the Astros need not concern themselves with the Reds and Brewers -- after all, both teams have been outscored -- the same certainly can't be said of the first-place Cardinals and the second-place Cubs. All things considered, both the Cards and Cubs have outplayed the Astros by roughly five games this season, and five games is a considerable number. Not as considerable as eight. But considerable nonetheless.

The Astros just aren't going to win the Central. They're too far behind too many good teams.

Since trading for Carlos Beltran, the Astros are just 4-6, and in the standings they've lost two games to the Cubs and three to the Cardinals. Of course, the nice thing about grabbing Beltran early -- as opposed to waiting until the trade "deadline" in late July -- is that you've still got plenty of time to send him to a real contender. The Astros gave up Octavio Dotel and John Buck to get Beltran, and it's not unreasonable to think they could get nearly as much back if they trade him to a contender.

Two weeks ago, oddsmakers considered the Padres the favorites in the Beltran sweepstakes, and I still think they're the best fit. Last week I suggested that the Padres don't have any serious weakness, but that's not really true. The Padres have gotten poor production from both their left fielders (mostly Ryan Klesko and Terrence Long) and their center fielders (Jay Payton). They probably have to simply hope that Klesko finds himself -- aside from somehow hitting just one home run in 172 at-bats, he's actually been himself -- but there's little reason to think that Long or Payton will suddenly transmogrify into good hitters.

I believe the Padres are the best team in the National League West, but by just the thinnest of margins. At this moment, the most likely outcome is that the Padres will not win the West, because there are two other contenders, and there's a better chance that one of them will win. Acquiring Carlos Beltran isn't going to change that, but acquiring Beltran would certainly improve the odds some, and the Padres have plenty of prospects to dangle in a trade offer.

So is Gerry Hunsicker on the phone with Kevin Towers at this very moment? I doubt it, because the Astros do still have one hope, and it's the same hope the Red Sox have: the wild card. The Astros are eight games out of first place, but "only" four games behind the Cubs in the wild-card race (likewise, the Red Sox are three-and-a-half games behind the Rangers or A's in the junior circuit). It's been fashionable in some quarters to suggest that mortgaging the future for a shot at the wild card doesn't make sense because wild-card teams don't have much chance of winning the World Series ... but we know that's not true, don't we? If you're the Astros or the Red Sox, you have to think if you can just get there, you've got as good a chance of winning as anybody.

Four, after all, isn't a big number. The Astros have three weeks to make that number smaller; if they make up some ground against the Cubs, they have to like their chances for a berth in the World Series derby. But if they don't gain ground, or especially if they lose ground, they've got to sell Carlos Beltran to the highest bidder. The Astros' rebuilding process is going to start soon, but how soon depends on what happens over the next few weeks.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. Fireside recently published Rob's latest book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.