What Ever Happened to the 2005 Houston Astros?
By Bill Gilbert
In the last week, Eric Bruntlett was released by the Washington Nationals, Jason Lane was released by the Florida Marlins, Adam Everett was designated for assignment by the Detroit Tigers and Mike Lamb was designated for assignment by the Marlins. All four were members of the 2005 Houston Astros team that won the National League pennant. This raises a question about how the Astros failed to sustain the success that was achieved in 2005.
Headliners on the 2005 Astros were lifetime Astros, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, and veteran American League pitchers, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte who were signed away from the Yankees , as free agents. However, the heart of the team consisted of a contingent of players signed and developed by the Astros who were moving into their prime years, pitchers Roy Oswalt (28), Brad Lidge (28) Chad Qualls (27) and Mike Gallo (28), infielders Morgan Ensberg (30), Chris Burke (25) and Bruntlett (27) and outfielders Lance Berkman (29) and Lane (28).
The demise of the team was due to several factors. Pettitte and Clemens went back to the Yankees after the 2006 season, Bagwell retired after 2005 when he was no longer able to play with his arthritic shoulder, and a fading Biggio hung on through 2007. The scouting and development system failed to produce adequate replacements. However, the biggest reason was the failure of most of the home grown players to sustain their early promise.
Oswalt and Berkman were already well established in 2005 and continued to play well until experiencing some decline in 2009. Lidge had a poor year in 2006 and has been inconsistent since then except for a big year with the Phillies in 2008. Qualls is pitching inconsistently in relief with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Gallo hasn’t been in the major leagues since 2006.
Burke and Bruntlett were utility players but both made game-winning plays in the 2005 post-season. Neither hit well enough to be major league regulars. Burke is now playing in the Cincinnati Reds minor league system and Bruntlett played in the 2008 and 2009 World Series with the Phillies before dropping into the minor leagues.
The big dilemma is what happened to Ensberg and Lane. Teammates on USC’s College World Series Champions in 1998, they both had, by far, their best years in 2005 but never came close to matching this success. Former Astros General Manager, Gerry Hunsicker, once said that he thought Ensberg and Lane would be as good as Berkman. In 2005, Ensberg was better than Berkman. Ensberg, the team MVP, batted .287 with 36 home runs in 2005 and finished 4th in the voting for National League MVP. He fell off to 23 home runs in 2006 and 8 in 2007 and was out of baseball in 2009. Lane led all National League right fielders with 26 home runs in 2005 but never hit more than 15 in any other season. He last played in the majors in 2007 but hung around in the minors until his release last week.
Ensberg’s demise may have been at least partially due to a shoulder injury sustained while diving for a foul ball in 2006. However, my recollection is that what hurt both of them was the loss of aggressiveness in their approach at the plate. They took too many pitches for strikes and had difficulty getting into good hitters counts.
The short-lived success of the Astros is a good example of the difficulty of a mid-market team to remain among the elite. It can quickly fall apart due to factors such as injuries, age and an unexpected decline in performance. All played a part in what one sportswriter described as a “descent into irrelevance”. In the case of the Astros, the most notable factor was the failure of players in their prime years to produce.