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Boots or Boats?

Houston Chronicle writer Richard Justice tweeted it, John Romano of the St. Pete Times wrote about it, and the scuttlebutt on a rainy day is that Andrew Friedman may or may not be interested in becoming the next General Manager of his hometown Houston Astros. Those thoughts also match an off-record conversation I had with someone familiar with the pending regime change in Houston. My question - why?

I have made no efforts to hide my dual allegiances as a baseball fan that grew up in Houston in the 80's and then moved to Florida a few years before the Tampa Bay area was awarded an expansion franchise. I can still sing the words to "Goooo Goooo Astros" on demand so Friedman moving from the Rays to the Astros would not exactly be a tough thing for me to watch. I just don't understand why he would want to make the move.

Houston and Tampa Bay aren't terribly different in terms of climate, tax benefits, or congested traffic. The franchises, however, could not be more different. Houston has a relatively newer ballpark with many luxuries while the Rays have the eighth oldest stadium in operation (will be seventh once Marlins move this winter). Houston's payroll has been anywhere from two to three times larger than the Devil Rays/Rays payroll throughout the years. The argument that, "he rebuilt the Rays, he could relish the challenge of doing it again with Houston," is a bit of a reach. The Devil Rays needed remodeling while the Astros need to be demolished and built up from scratch.

When Friedman assumed the General Manager role from Chuck Lamar, Baseball America ranked the talent in the organization as the 10th best in baseball. Carl Crawford was already on the major league roster while Scott Kazmir, Jeff Niemann, B.J. Upton, and James Shields were already in the talent pool in the system. The worst contract that Friedman inherited was Aubrey Huff's who was owed $6.9M that season as well as Julio Lugo, who made $4.95M and both of those contracts were moved by mid-season. 

The Astros organization was ranked 26th by Baseball America prior to this season and has had just two players ranked on the Top 101 prospect list put out by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus each of the past two seasons. Compare that to the Rays system that has put five and seven players on that list respectively over the past two seasons. Additionally, the contracts on the Houston payroll are not friendly Four players - Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Brandon Lyon - are owed $47M as a group next season. That total is higher than the current payroll of the Rays. Additionally, the lone shining star on the roster Hunter Pence, is entering his third year of arbitration coming off a season in which he made $6.9M. Pence could eat up another $9M in salary commitments if the new GM does not get Pence to agree to a pre-arbitration deal. That would result in five players earning $55M next season before the Astros can even fill out a depth chart. 

Carlos Lee's contract is $19M and while Friedman has demonstrated an ability to recognize a sunk cost by jettisoning Pat Burrell in 2010, Lee's figure is quite different and no other team in baseball would take on that contract. Brett Myers is due $15 between now and 2013 and is pitching well below that pay rate meaning only a very desperate team would even pick up the phone and inquire about his services. Rodriguez will be 33 this coming January and his deal has another $26.5M on it as well. Even Michael Bourn is already making $4.4M and will enter his arb3 level this off-season that will likely push him over the $6M mark.

Bud Norris, Mark Melancon, Jordan Lyles, and Brett Wallace represent the core of the young talent with Norris and Lyles having the highest ceiling of the group, but that is a very small core and the talent at the upper levels of the farm system is thinner and two of its best prospects are both second base types in Delino DeShields Jr and Jose Altuve. Meanwhile, the Rays were graded as the second best farm system in baseball before the start of this season and should they sign their entire draft class from the past amateur draft, they will likely regain their spot atop the rankings for 2012 by the pundits. 

That lack of talent makes it very tough to build from within the organization in the short-term which shifts the focus to free agency - something Friedman has never really dabbled in due to financial constraints. Even when he has, the results have been less than desirable. $21.5M has been spent on the Designated Hitter role over the past three seasons with below average return on the whole. Friedman's best acquisitions are arguably working with the scouting department to target minor league free agents and trades as he has been able to sign and or trade for Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman, Grant Balfour, and Joaquin Benoit. Three of those four were minor league free agents and the fourth was acquire in a waiver deal that cost the team Seth McClung.

Friedman would have to hope that run of luck with trolling the wires could continue in Houston since the current 40 man roster is lacking of many movable assets. He and the front office made it clear in 2008 when the team surprised everyone with early success that they were a year ahead of schedule in a five year plan and that the success that season even took them by surprise. Any General Manager assuming the reigns in Houston would be looking at more of a seven year plan given the need to tear down most of the team to its foundation and to start from scratch.

Friedman did an impressive remodeling of the Tampa Bay franchise, but that was done with a lot of help from a very talented scouting group and the unwavering support of the senior leadership of the team. Jim Crane is set to take over the Astros but comes into the situation with some debt and the sub .500 teams that often dominate the first few years of a five to seven year plan do not bring in the kind of gate that allow teams to be both competitive and judicial with their bills as fans have seen with the Dodgers this season.

Friedman has excelled at his job with the Rays due in part to the process in place. The success of the franchise in recent years is a collaborative effort and one only has to listen or read the humble quotes from leadership anytime success is celebrated to see that it is a team effort. Should Friedman decide to accept the challenge in Houston, I am confident he will do well, but his current situation would be a dream job for another person to step into such as current Director of Baseball Operations Dan Feinstein or Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, and former Astros GM, Gerry Hunsicker.  After all, the largest 2012 salary commitment on the team next season is James Shields at $7.0M and Ben Zobrist at $4.6M (assuming B.J. Upton is traded) and the team would likely be welcoming talent such as Robinson Chirinos, Brandon Guyer, Desmond Jennings, Alex Cobb, and potentially Alex Torres with uber-prospect Matt Moore waiting in the wings. 

The results Friedman would hope to achieve with a five to seven year plan in Houston are essentially here in Tampa Bay by the end of this season. Is that enough of a draw to stop him from going home and accepting the gargantuan challenge of rebuilding the home team from its foundation? That remains to be seen.