Houston Astros: Greatest All-Time Team

Houston Astros

Also known as the Colt 45s

American League (2013-Present)

National League (1962-2012)

National League Champions: 2005

American League Champions: 2017

World Series Champions: 2017

The Houston Buffaloes were the professional baseball in Houston for 73 years. The club was formed in 1888, and while the franchise was stable, the team would jump from one Minor League to another. They were in the Texas League, the South Texas League and the American Association. They did have the dubious distinction of being the first Minor League team to be affiliated with a Major League team when the St. Louis Cardinals, at the behest of Branch Rickey, purchased 18% of the club in 1919, and then majority control in 1920. This was the beginning of the end of the free minors. On the positive side, the affiliation with the Cardinals allowed Houston fans an opportunity to see most of the big stars that would later land in St. Louis. Hall of Famers Chick Hafey, Dizzy Dean and Joe Medwick were included in this pipeline.

By the early 1950s, Houston felt they deserved a Major League team. They put together a group of businessmen, and tried to purchase the St. Louis Cardinals, with the intention of moving the club to Houston in 1952. The Cardinals rebuffed their effort. Houston then created an organization, Houston Sports Authority, to lure an expansion franchise to town. Major League baseball made it clear that they weren’t interested in expansion. In desperation the HSA aligned themselves with other shunned cities, and threatened to form a third Major League. Major League baseball immediately responded, and announced an expansion of four teams in 1960. 

Houston was in line for one of the first expansion franchises, but the owners of the new franchise were required, by baseball bylaws, to acquire the territorial rights from the Houston Buffaloes. Buffaloes owner, former Cardinal Marty Marion, wouldn’t sell. 

Major League Baseball again offered Houton a team in 1961, this time they did purchase the Buffaloes, and the Houston Colt 45s began competing in the National League in 1962. The Colt 45s first few seasons were dominated by the braintrust of the Minor League Houston Buffaloes. 1961 Buffalo Manager Harry Craft was hired to manage the team, Buffalo general manager Spec Richardson was hired as business manager, and then promoted back to general manager. Six players that were on the roster of the Buffaloes in 1961, were also on Houston Colt 45s in 1962. The first three years would be a struggle for the new franchise.

Former Houston Mayor Roy Hofheinz then became the sole owner of the team. He built a brand new stadium, the first indoor baseball stadium in history. Celebrating the movement of NASA to Houston, he changed the name of the team from the Colt 45s to the Astros in 1965, and named his new stadium the Astrodome. 

People today don’t understand what a wonder the Astrodome was to the sports fans of the 1960s, but more significantly how it would affect the way baseball was played in Houston. It quickly became the most friendly park in the Majors for pitchers. Houston came up with hitting stars, such as Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, and Joe Morgan, but couldn’t understand why they couldn’t put up offensive numbers like young players on other teams. 

The Astros struggled in their first 30 years in the great indoors. They did manage a National League West Title in 1980 and 1986, but always seemed to overrate their pitchers, and underrate their hitters. It got so bad that Astro ownership announced their intention of selling the team, and then moving it to Washington D.C. Fortunately for Houston, the other National League owners nixxed the deal, and Texas businessman, Drayton McLane bought the team in 1993. Their fortunes change dramatically soon after.

The team added two major talents to the squad in the years just prior to the change of ownership, and their performance on the field dramatically improved the competitive situation. With Jeff Bagwell at first, and Craig Biggio performing like an All Star at three different positions, the club became one of the best teams in baseball. They would add the third member of the “Killer Bees”, Lance Berkman, in 1999.  From 1997 to 2005 they would win four National League Central Titles, add two Wild Card seasons and participate in the franchise’s first World Series in 2005.

When the “Killer Bees” got old, the team again fell out of contention. By 2010 they were the worst team in baseball. Drayton McLane sold the team to Jim Crane. One of the conditions for the approval of the sale was that Crane would allow the Astros to be moved to the American League. This he agreed to, and Houston would become a member of the American League West in 2013. The Astros would have their worst season ever in 2012, with a record of 55-107, the season before the transfer. 

Major League Baseball initiated the realignment in order to balance the two leagues. With the switch both the American and National Leagues would have 15 teams. This would allow Major League Baseball to have six 5-team divisions.

Crane hired Nolan Ryan as an executive adviser, after the Rangers had released him, in 2014. The Astros went on an extreme youth movement. They began giving significant playing time to young talents such as Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and later Alex Bregman. The team found themselves earning a Wild Card berth in 2015, and then the franchise’s only World Series title in 2017. They’re poised this year to win their third straight American West Championship, and have a third straight 100 win season. They are now one of the most prominent franchises in all of Baseball.

Catcher

Craig Biggio (1988-2007) is going to make the team somewhere. In his time with the Astros he played 1,989 games at second, 428 behind the plate, and 352 games in the outfield. If we put him at second base, it would block Jose Altuve and Joe Morgan from the team. The Astros also have many quality candidates in the outfield, but at catcher there is no obvious choice. Alan Ashby (1979-1989) is probably the best of the lot, or maybe it was Brad Ausmus (1997-1998, 2001-2008). Would you rather have either of these two players on the team instead of Joe Morgan or Jose Altuve? We thought not. Craig Biggio (1988-2007) was a good backstop. He made the National League All Star team in 1991…as a catcher. He could handle the job. We’ll leave the last word about Biggio the catcher to the one and only Yogi Berra; “I always identified with short catchers, they don’t have to stand up as far.” That settles it!

First Base

No controversy here, it’s Jeff Bagwell (1991-2005). 

Second Base

The problem with rating the Astros can best be shown by our candidates at second base. Jose Altuve (2011-Present) is in his 9th season in Houston. He won the American League MVP in 2017 when the franchise won their only World Series Title. He’s the anchor of the best teams Houston has ever had. His competition at second base are two members of the Hall of Fame whose careers are over. We know what Joe Morgan (1963-1971, 1980) and Craig Biggio (1988-2007) have accomplished, but we don’t know what Altuve will accomplish. By the metrics we use, Altuve has already surpassed what Morgan did in Houston, but he is nowhere near what Biggio accomplished in his 20 year run with the team. The only way we take Jose Altuve (2011-Present) is if we move Biggio to another position (catcher or center field).

Third Base

Ken Caminiti’s (1987-1994) overall value was greater than Doug Radar’s (1967-1975). However, only half of Caminiti’s value was with Houston, while 90% of Radar’s was there. Caminiti has a huge asterisk next to his name. His steroid use, combined with his addiction to cocaine and alcohol would eventually kill him at age 41. Radar’s biggest vice was his unusual sense of humor. The formula we use puts Caminiti slightly ahead, but taking the whole package into account, we’ll take Doug Rader (1967-1975), until Alex Bregman (2016-Present) takes over the spot in about 2021.

Shortstop

Dickie Thon (1981-1987) was just emerging as the best shortstop in baseball when he was hit in the face by a Mike Torrez fastball in 1984. The beaning put the brakes to what looked like a Hall of Fame career. He was never again the same player. Thon was philosophical about his comeback; “I couldn’t see the ball very well after I got hit in my left eye. I had to make adjustments, and open up a little bit and see the ball better. It’s tough to do that in the Big Leagues.” It took him a few years, but he did come back to be the regular shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1989-1991. Up until a few years ago, he was still the best shortstop in Astro history. The current occupant Carlos Correa (2015-Present) has now passed him. Still in mid career, but battling injuries, Correa has had only one year that he played in more than 110 games. That season he hit 20 home runs and drove in 96. An All-Star when healthy. 

Left Field

Lance Berkman is going to be in right field. That leaves three outfielders for the last two spots. two were primarily center fielders and the third was another left fielder. By the metrics we use Jose Cruz (1975-1987), the left fielder, Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn (1963-1973) and Cesar Cedeno (1970-1981) are just about even. Cruz has a tiny edge due to the fact he was on both the Astros first two National League West Championship teams. Cedeno was outstanding in the field, the best of the three. Bill James rates Wynn and Cruz about even with the glove.

Center Field

Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn (1963-1973) is really tough to rate because he played in an environment that may have been the toughest in history for an offensive player. His era was the run starved 1960s, and his home park, the Astrodome, was the toughest stadium in baseball for hitters. Cesar Cedeno (1970-1981) didn’t have it much better. Not only did he also play in the Astrodome, but he had to overcome the expectations that he was the next “Willie Mays”. This was an impossible moniker to put on the 19 year old out of the Dominican Republic. He had a solid 12 year run in Houston, but was always considered a bit of a disappointment. Both are deserving of an outfield spot, but only one can be in center field. The other will have to go against Jose Cruz in left. Listing the three of them in the order our formula shows, it’s Cruz, Cedeno, Wynn, but the difference is so small that it could easily be wrong. The Wins Above Replacement is also very close, but puts them in the same order. Hate keeping Jimmy Wynn off the team, but he seems to be the odd man out. 

Right Field

The third member of the “Killer Bees” (along with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell), who led the Astros in the late 1990s and early 2000s was Lance Berkman (1999-2010). Houston has four quality outfielders for three spots. The only sure thing is that Berkman is one of them. Berkman led the National League in RBI in 2002 with 128, drove in over 100 runs five other times. Seven times he finished in the top ten in the MVP vote. He played all three defensive positions with the Astros along with some first base. No way can he dislodge Bagwell at first, so he’s the right fielder. 

Pitchers

Roy Oswalt (2001-2010) is #1. His one 20 win season was in the Astros’ first World Series year in 2005. He was the ace of the staff for 8 years, winning 143 games for the Astros.

That’s one less than the #2 pitcher Joe Niekro (1975-1985), but Niekro’s winning percentage was only .554 while Oswalt’s was .636. Niekro did not rely on the knuckleball as much as his Hall of Fame brother Phil did, but he did have an effective one.

Larry Dierker (1964-1976) has the #3 position. He came up to the Big Leagues straight out of high school at age 17. He became a mainstay on the staff in 1966, when he was still a teenager. His last good year was 1976 when he was 29. Another lesson in the importance of protecting young pitching arms.

The peak J.R. Richard (1971-1980) reached in the late 1970s was higher than any other Astro pitcher, even higher than Mike Scott (1983-1991) or Nolan Ryan (1980-1988). He went 96-65 between 1975-1980. Dale Murphy said when asked about the toughest pitcher he ever faced; “Anybody who played in the late 1970s or early 1980s will probably give you the same answer: J.R. Richard.” On July 14th, 1980 Richard went numb in his right arm and had double vision. He left the game. The Houston doctors couldn’t figure out the cause. Rumors circulated about his lack of commitment. Then during a July 30th rehab workout he collapsed in the outfield. Test showed that he had a stroke. Further tests indicated he had had two others. He would never pitch another Major League Baseball game. J.R. Richard (1971-1980) did enough in his time before the strokes to edge out Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan for the #4 spot.

Manager

By the system we use to grade managers Larry Dierker (1997-2001) leads A.J. Hinch (2015-Present) through the 2018 season 14-12. Led by the “Killer Bees”, Dierker’s Astros won the National League Central Title in 4 of the 5 years he was at the helm. Their overall record in those five seasons was 435-348. They never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. A.J. Hinch (2015-Present) is Houston’s current manager. In his five years the Astros record is better than Dierker’s (455-321). They’ve won at least 100 games in each of the last two years, and appear to be headed for the century mark for the third straight time in 2019. This again raises the question of what to do with current figures. We’re pretty sure that three years from now Hinch will be clearly ahead, but is he there yet? It’s very close, but yes he is.

MVP

The three best players in Houston Astro history are the “Killer Bees”.  Lance Berkman is clearly behind the other two, so that leaves the discussion to center on longtime teammates Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. Craig Biggio made the All Star team at three separate positions (catcher, center field, and second base) during his 20 years in Houston. Note that those are three of the most demanding defensive positions, and he was good at all of them. How many players in baseball history can say that? Honus Wagner is the only one that comes to mind.

Jeff Bagwell’s case is also compelling. If not for the owners lockout in 1994, he might of had a season to rival the best years of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. He won the National League MVP that shortened season. It’s very easy to compare the two. They both played in the same circumstances for 15 years. In those 15 years, Bagwell was the more valuable player in 9 of them and Biggio was ahead in 6. Jeff Bagwell’s peak was higher, but his stint in Houston only lasted 15 years due to injuries. Craig Biggio was an effective performer for 20 years. Both are in the Hall of Fame, as they should be. Ten years from now this discussion may be mute, because Jose Altuve might have passed them both. As of now it’s a dead heat, but we have to choose one of them. The flexibility of Craig Biggio (1988-2007) is hard to measure accurately, but we’ll take the catcher/center fielder/second baseman over the career first baseman.


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