Since their team won the NL pennant in 2005, Astros fans have had reason to feel frustrated. A roster that has included the likes of Lance Berkman, Wandy Rodriguez, Roy Oswalt and future Hall-of-Famer Craig Biggio has averaged just under 79 wins per year since that World Series appearance.
This unimpressive stretch of play has led some fans to argue that club should give up on its hopes of contending over the next few seasons and focus on re-stocking its minor-league system. However, as MLBTR's Tim Dierkes pointed out in his Offseason Outlook piece last October, this is a team that "could contend with the right free agent additions." In the wide-open NL Central, the Astros seem to be perpetually just a player away from a playoff berth. Even in 2006, when the club finished 82-80, they still finished just 1.5 games behind the eventual World Series-champion Cardinals.
This winter has provided the same mixed message from Houston, following its 74-88 record in 2009. Owner Drayton McLane spoke about the importance of developing young talent in an interview with The Houston Chronicle's Richard Justice last June, but the Astros' offseason moves (trading for reliever Matt Lindstrom and signing free agents Brett Myers, Brandon Lyon and Pedro Feliz) make it seem like Houston is once again reloading rather than rebuilding.
If the Astros ever did commit to a rebuild, however, the most obvious candidates for a deal would be their three biggest contracts: Berkman, Oswalt and Carlos Lee. Houston has $2MM buyouts on Berkman's contract in 2011 and Oswalt's contract in 2012, but most people agree that these two iconic Astros seem destined to retire with the franchise.
That leaves Lee, who is owed $18.5MM per season through 2012. The outfielder has performed well in his three years in Houston (.305/.354/.524) but may be showing signs of a decline. His 26 homers and .831 OPS last season were his lowest totals in each category since 2002 and 2005, respectively. MLB.com's Brian McTaggart says that between Lee's big contract, poor defense (a -4.6 UZR/150 according to Fangraphs), full no-trade clause and a desire to stay in Texas due to his ranch business, Lee is "about as untradeable as they come."
Let's speculate, for a moment, that Lee could be persuaded (probably through a cash bonus) to leave the ranch behind and agree to a deal. Houston would almost surely have to eat at least half of Lee's remaining contract in any trade, but for a big-market AL team that could afford to pick up the other half, Lee would be an intriguing DH option.
Perhaps the best fit is Chicago. Much has been written about Ozzie Guillen's DH-by-committee plan for the upcoming season, and the White Sox seem committed enough to the idea to pass on signing Jim Thome. But if the Sox find themselves in a pennant race and their platoon of designated hitting options (Omar Vizquel? Really?) isn't working out, then they could make a play for an everyday DH. Lee would fit that bill and, since he spent the first six seasons of his career with the White Sox, might be amenable to waive his no-trade clause to return to a familiar location.
This scenario is, admittedly, a longshot. It's much more likely that, no matter if the Astros choose to keep aiming for contention or commit to a proper rebuilding process, Lee will be a constant in the Astros' outfield. You could say that Lee is Houston's answer to Vernon Wells — an unwieldly contract that is too big to trade and also takes up enough of the payroll to hamstring the team from making other moves.