The Houston Astros have finally realized something that people have known for years. By releasing Brandon Backe on Monday, the Astros have acknowledged that Backe is not a major league pitcher. Backe started out as a reliever with the Devil Rays in 2002, and was then turned into a starter by the Astros after they acquired him in 2004. Backe never really had any fantastic seasons by any measure, although he may have impressed those in the Astros organizations in his first year there by posting a 4.30 ERA in 67 IP, along with a decent enough 4.63 FIP. However, injuries would ruin both any chance at getting playing time as well as, seemingly, his stuff. Here's the injury log for Backe courtesy of his SBNation Player Page.
|07/27/05||Strained rib muscle, 15-day DL.|
|09/03/05||Missed 34 games (strained rib muscle).|
|03/01/06||Re-signed by the Houston Astros to a one-year contract.|
|04/13/06||Right elbow injury, day-to-day.|
|04/14/06||Right elbow injury, 15-day DL.|
|06/07/06||Transferred from the 15-day DL to the 60-day DL (right elbow injury).|
|07/22/06||Missed 89 games (right elbow injury).|
|08/19/06||Right ulnar collateral ligament, 15-day DL.|
|10/02/06||Missed the last 40 games of the regular season (right ulnar collateral ligament).|
|12/09/06||Re-signed by the Houston Astros to a one-year contract.|
|03/28/07||Right elbow injury, 15-day DL.|
|08/31/07||Missed 134 games (right elbow injury).|
|01/11/08||Re-signed by the Houston Astros to a one-year contract.|
|01/20/09||Re-signed by the Houston Astros to a one-year contract.|
|03/23/09||Rib injury, 15-day DL.|
|05/27/09||Missed 45 games (rib injury).|
|06/27/09||Designated for assignment by the Houston Astros.|
So, clearly, the time between 2005 and 2007 was rough for Brandon. However, that doesn't excuse the Astros' management for keeping him around for above the minimum contract in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Backe's skills had clearly declined since 2005, likely as a result of his injuries. From 2005-2009, Backe put in two full seasons (2005 and 2008) and limited action in 2006, 2007, and 2009. Backe never came close to either his 4.30 ERA or 4.63 FIP from 2004.
Backe's K/9 dipped a lot in his shortened '06 and '07 seasons, and while it recovered in '08 and '09, he still threw too many walks to last as a starting pitcher. The walks combined with the HR spike in 2008 (a full season) and in his very short stint in 2009 led to the Astros to finally cut ties with him. Still, Backe's last year as a minimum contract player was 2006. I can understand keeping Backe around in 2007 at 545K, but then the Astros inexplicably decided to avoid arbitration with Backe in 2008 and signed him for 800K, despite the sharp K/9 drop resulting in a basically 1 K/BB. As a replacement level player, the Astros should have non-tendered Backe, especially given all the injuries to Backe's arm over the 2005-2007 seasons.
Giving a player a 800K contract is not going to kill a franchise, by any means. However, repeated mistakes will certainly be enough to keep a franchise from making the playoffs or even competing. The Astros, for some unexplainable reason, avoided arbitration with Backe again by agreeing to a contract worth 1.55M for the 2009 season. Although Backe's strikeout numbers did improve greatly, his walks increased as well, and his HR numbers spiked, creating his worst year by FIP. For a player that never posted a K/BB above 2, who has an extensive history of injuries, and had posted roughly a whole win below replacement the season before, anything above the league minimum is almost certainly a mistake. The Astros did finally cut ties, but not without being on the hook for roughly another million dollars before the season is over. Whether GM Ed Wade or owner Drayton McLane is responsible for holding on for this long, it is a mistake that cannot be allowed to happen in the business of professional baseball.