Houston, we have a problem

Unfortunately, that problem for the Tri-City ValleyCats may be Houston itself.

(And we interrupt the regular programming of Mets posts  for this post about the New York-Penn League team nearest my home.)

The ValleyCats have had three winning season in their eight full years in the New York-Penn League, all them as a Houston Astros affiliate. They haven’t finished above .500 since 2006, the last time they made the league playoffs. They’re off to a rough start this season, posting a 9-13 record so far, including a three-game streak to end June where they failed to score a run.

Yes, I realize this is a developmental league we’re talking about, short-season at that. It is at about the fifth level down from The Show.

Still, none of that has hurt at the gate for the ball team in Troy, N.Y. Judging by the team’s attendance figures, losing hasn’t created cobwebs at the turnstiles. Tri-City, established in 2002, has broken its own attendance record in each of the last six years, and is currently ranked in the top half of the league in terms of average attendance.

I remember covering the Hudson Valley Renegades as a full-time sportswriter more than a decade ago, and that team drew fewer average fans to their playoff games than to their regular-season games. The reason, at least in my mind? The playoffs occurred after Labor Day, when the kids were back in school and the fickle local fans were no longer looking for summer entertainment (summer having unofficially ended by then). I’m certain that would be the same case in any New York-Penn League town.

Which leads me this next point: The ValleyCats’ on-field woes hasn’t — in the least — hurt the off-field product of entertainment for the fans. The Tri-City fan presentation is top-notch. In fact, it is a shame they’re not drawing more — we went to two Sunday twilight games in the first two weeks of the season, and the stands were half-filled, at best. The Tri-City package hits just the right mix of fan and kid-friendly fun, without being overbearing (meanwhile, I felt Hudson Valley was a little bit too much, at least the last time I went several years ago to the NY-Penn League team in Fishkill. Any team that promotes the marriage of two of its four (count ’em, four) mascots is a bit much, no?)

(And, yes, I realize Tri-City seemingly has about a half-dozen mascots of its own, all but two of them either related to sponsors or those goofy on-field races in between innings that I secretly love. But I feel Tri-City still hits the right mix.)

(I’m not anti-mascot, by the way. I have two Mr. Met T-shirts, after all.)

Still, we’d all like to see a winner, as the saying goes. Or at least a better brand of baseball.

So, it’s the parent franchise of Houston that we’re here to talk about. Vic Christopher, assistant GM extraordinaire for the ValleyCats, recently noted in his blog that 24% of the Astros’ roster are former ValleyCats (that’s six players on a 25-man roster).

That’s great for Tri-City. Not so much for Houston.

The New York -Penn League is not typically known for producing a ton of eventual MLB players, at least when compared with the upper minor leagues. That’s an obvious statement, of course, but one that needs pointing out of a short-season developmental league. Basically, it’s a league where recent draft pick signees from the early June amateur draft can get their first taste of the pros. Most of these guys will never make the majors, though they will provide the necessary organizational depth for each Major League team as it develops its relatively few blue-chip-but-still-rough-around-the-edges prospects — the vaunted few to make it to The Show.

That’s the bargain New York-Penn Leaguers make, and their managers and other off-field personnel will tell you the same thing.

In fact, nothing says that all of the Astros’ top prospects will play an inning in Troy. Some start out in the rookie leagues, some in the higher Class A leagues like the South Atlantic or California leagues. It’s not unusual for any team’s prospect to skip over the New York-Penn League in one way or another.

But the thing about Tri-City, and perhaps why they’re having trouble on the field (if certainly not at the gate or with the fan product), is the simple fact that it’s a Houston farm team in New York State.

It may the farthest NY-Penn team from its home base in this circuit. Of the New York-Penn’s 14 teams, all but two of their parent franchises are located east of the Mississippi (that’s St. Louis and Houston) and eight of the MLB parent clubs are located north of the Mason-Dixon Line (Baltimore, Washington, Florida, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and Houston). So geographic distance between the parent club and its farm team is an issue for Tri-City.

Also at issue is Houston’s recent relative poor farm system. Baseball America ranked Houston’s organizational talent last out of the 30 Major League franchises entering 2009. Add in the obvious question: Why would the team care about the prospects it sends to far-off Troy? Yes, they’ve had 18 players make it to the majors in its 8-year history, most notably Ben Zobrist, who plays not for the Astros but the Rays.

Yes, granted, it’s a tough league to escape from. Because it’s a lower-level Class A league, most of these guys may never make it to the majors. More than a decade ago, I covered a game the Renegades played against the New York Mets’ New York-Penn team (then from Pittsfield) at Shea Stadium, taking place right before a regularly scheduled Mets game. A scrappy middle infielder for Hudson Valley told me afterward that playing at Shea would be the highlight of his and a lot of other guys’ careers, because they knew the chances of making it to The Show were slim from this level.

Most of the players that get sent to the NY-Penn League to start their careers are fairly long-shots, and that goes for the managers, coaches and umpires.

Still, everyone likes a good team on the field, and it’s a shame Houston can’t complement the excellent off-field product at Troy with a decent club. But in the end, is it all about geography — why would Houston care?

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