The Houston Astros are a bad baseball team. Historically bad, even. From ESPN’s top baseball guys like Peter Gammons and Buster Olney to the average fan on the street, there’s been a large amount of disdain for the way Astros owner Jim Crane is doing business. Houston has a payroll of $27.3 million, the lowest since the Marlins in 2008. Bud Norris is the highest paid player at $3 million and there are a handful of other MLB players that make just about what the entire Houston club does. This is, however, a necessary evil. You can’t be shortsighted if you want to turn around a bad team and don’t have a $2 billion club worth to do it with.
The lack of “trying” to compete this season is what most of the criticism centers around, and the argument doesn’t hold water if you look at it from the club’s perspective. The Astros are not going to the playoffs this season. They could have signed the biggest free agent on the market this off-season and they still wouldn’t sniff October baseball…. so what’s the point?
Why spend $33 million on someone like Kyle Lohse to go from 60 wins to 64 wins (he was worth 4.3 wins to the Cards in 2013 according to WAR) in 2013? Lohse was #11 on mlbtraderumors.com’s top 50 free agents in 2013 and signing him would have been an absolute waste of money equal to the bad Astros deals of the past that put them in the position they are now (Kazuo Matsui, Woody Williams) . The Astros signed Carlos Lee to a $100 million contract in 2007 and haven’t sniffed the playoffs since he put pen to paper. You don’t spend your entire budget on a team that has no chance at the playoffs — you save, rebuild from the ground up and when you’re within striking distance you pull the trigger to get that guy that might give you that little bit extra. The jump from 87 to 92 wins is why you sign a big free agent, not to try cracking 70 wins. Being relevant in the playoff chase boosts attendance, not signing a FA like Dan Haren to a bad team.
The Astros wanted to get younger and cheaper and they’ve gotten there. They traded Hunter Pence and got back Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart who are both top 5 prospects in the organization and Singleton was recently ranked a top 30 prospect in all of baseball. That bad season last year netted the #1 overall pick in the draft in Carlos Correa who might be the next best major league shortstop, pushing ESPN’s Keith Law to name the Astros the #4 farm system in MLB — the highest I’ve ever seen it.
The Rays have seen tremendous success recently and it’s not because they went out and signed huge free agents. The Rays built a #1 farm system and then let some affordable free agents compliment a team that had the talent to get them to that next level. The Astros have gone from a 70-win team with one of the worst organizational prospects in baseball to a team that is loaded with young talent and no payroll committed to any over-the-hill, under-performing players. That’s an incoming General Manager’s dream.
The path may be rocky for the Astros and their fans, but sticking with the team as they turn over a new leaf from mismanagement to playoff contention will make it so much better when they’re giving the rest of the AL West a run for their money with a cheaper, younger and more exciting team. And in the mean time, why not snap up some cheaper Astros tickets before the bandwagon fills up again and love your team in person?