In defense of the Astros’ reconstruction one more time.
Okay, they’ve become a punch line. A-Rod makes more money than all 25 Astros. That one was beaten to death in Spring Training, and ESPN breathlessly recycled it last week. Sports radio’s Nitwit Nation has latched onto it as a theme. Hey, it’s not just these goofballs. Plenty of baseball writers seem pretty darn happy that the Astros are losing. These are the guys who won’t read Moneyball, think Billy Beane is anti-American and believe a ThinkPad is something used to cover a barstool.
And all that’s fine. If they’re right, then they’ll have the last laugh. We’ll all know it, too. In the end, the standings will tell us whether Astros owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow know what they’re doing. That’s the beauty of sports. We don’t have to analyze a quarterly sales report. Only the won-loss record matters.
But it won’t be this season. The Astros aren’t trying to lose games in 2013. But they are attempting to build a franchise. Between now and the end of this season, we’ll have the first indication if their plan is working and how long it’ll take to get the club back to the postseason.
From the moment Crane bought the club 18 months ago, he has been clear that he’s willing to exchange some short-term pain to construct something that will last. In other words, the Astros are doing the right thing. They’re using the Rays and A’s and Rangers and others as their blueprint. They’ve decided that winning 75 games isn’t a lot better than winning 65. Rather than take one single shortcut, they’ve decided to strip their roster down to its barest bones and start over.
They’ve acquired some veterans—Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel and Chris Carter—to help bridge the gap to the younger guys and also to set the right tone in terms of professionalism, work ethic, etc. They’ve hired a manager, Bo Porter, who is smart, energetic and willing to utilize whatever data his front office provides. He’s busting his tail to win every game, and he believes the Astros are going to end up winning far more of them than most people believe. Would 70-92 be a successful season?
If you’ve lived in Houston the last decade, you’re probably a lot more supportive of this blueprint than fans and experts around the country. All those people see is the $25-million payroll and the 2-6 record and the record-setting strikeout pace. They don’t understand all that happened to get the franchise to this point. They also don’t understand that it makes absolutely no sense to splurge on a free agent when the club still isn’t going to be good enough to make the postseason.
Here’s a little history. Between 1997 and 2005, the Astros made the playoffs six times in a nine-year stretch. They did it with one of the best general managers in the game in Gerry Hunsicker. They did it with a pair of future Hall of Famers—Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio—running the clubhouse.
They did it with a farm system that produced Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge and others. Hunsicker made shrewd trades (Carlos Beltran) and smart free-agent signings (Jeff Kent). When Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte gave the Astros a hometown discount in December 2003, the pieces were in place to win a championship.
The Astros won their first postseason series in 2004 and took the Cardinals to Game 7 of the NLCS. In 2005, they won their first National League championship but were swept out of the playoffs. They couldn’t have known it at the time—they were in contention until the 161st game of the season in 2006—but the franchise was about to fall apart. For one thing, their farm system was in terrible shape, and no franchise, not the Red Sox or Yankees, certainly not the Astros, can be successful without a productive farm system.
They responded to this problem by acquiring old guys, hoping to patchwork the roster for one more run. If an old guy walked down the street, the Astros gave him a shot: Pudge Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Pedro Feliz, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Kaz Matsui, Bill Hall. And the Astros got worse.
By the time Ed Wade was hired as general manager in 2007, the Astros were a mess. His assignment was impossible:
- Rebuild the farm system.
- Lower the payroll.
- Keep the Major League team competitive.
Branch Rickey back from the grave couldn’t have accomplished those three things. Nevertheless, Wade left a nice legacy in getting the minor league system turned around and creating a presence in the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. Much of the talent the Astros now have in their Minor League system—George Springer, Delino DeShields, Jr., Jonathan Singleton, Ross Seaton, Jarred Cosart—was acquired by Wade. Wade did similar work with the Phillies and was fired before seeing it pay off with five straight division championships. When the Astros become good again, Wade’s players almost certainly will be a factor.
In 15 months on the job, Luhnow has constructed a baseball operation with the hiring of plenty of analysts in addition to scouts, instructors and the like. Now his job is to keep acquiring talent. The Astros have the No. 1 pick in the First-Year Player Draft for the second straight year. They need to get that pick right, but they need the kind of good, deep drafts Luhnow had with the Cardinals.
In the end, that’s the only way to have and sustain success. This season is another step along the way. The Astros badly want to win games, but they also want to their fans to understand the bigger picture and how much fun the years ahead can be. Competitive people hate losing, but the worst thing the Astros could do at this point is not stay the course.