So much has been made about the “bright” future of the Astros. Despite all of the new and promising changes, very little has been done to explain why the Astros’ organization is in the position they are in today, why they have had two back-to-back one-hundred loss seasons and what will be or is being done to change it.
Let’s start by looking how the organization got into this position in the first place. The Astros’ were one of the winningest franchises in baseball from the mid-90’s to the mid-2000’s. During this time, fans were treated to many successful seasons. After finishing second in their division in 1994 (in a strike year), 1995, and 1996, the Astros won consecutive division titles in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In the 1998 season, the Astros set a team record with 102 victories. They also made it to the NLCS in 2004 and finally to baseball’s promised land – the World Series – in 2005. Despite all of this success, it did not come without sacrifice, and this is where the “casual fan” definition comes into play.
The casual fan sees all of the big market teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and others with their free agent spending frenzies and get angry when the Astros are not doing the same. The Houston market simply cannot and will not be able to sustain or be a profitable organization by trying to do as the larger market teams do. Despite this, fans have quickly seemed to have forgotten Drayton McLane’s “win now” attitude that lasted for an entire decade. Do the names Randy Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent, Moises Alou, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde or Michael Bourn mean anything to you? Well, they should, because they were all players that McLane signed or traded for and these players did not come without cost.
Each time a player is acquired via trade or a free agent signing, especially big names, the loss of Minor League prospects or draft picks is inevitable. The Astros did this over a ten year period, while also failing to sign draft picks and tendering bad contracts to players such as Richard Hidalgo, Morgan Ensberg, Kazuo Matsui and Carlos Lee, just to name a few. All of these problems snowballed and suddenly the Astros had the worst farm system in baseball.
Now, let’s change gears from the past and why our team is currently in a state of disarray and let’s talk about why and how it is in the process of being fixed. In recent years, fan favorites (and aging veterans) such as Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were traded. Some fans did not understand why and were upset with these trades. Upon further review, these trades were great for the organization. The Oswalt deal landed J.A. Happ (since sent to Toronto), Anthony Gose, who was immediately flipped for 1B prospect, Brett Wallace, and SS Jonathan Villar, who currently ranks somewhere in the top 4 in the Astros’ system depending on the source. In the Berkman deal, the Astros landed Mark Melancon, who was so effective while in Houston that he was traded for current shortstop, Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland who ranks around 9th in the Astros’ system.
Soon after, the younger and more productive Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn were traded and fans absolutely could not understand why. I wish I had a nickel for every time a “casual” fan expressed their concerns and malcontent with the Astros’ for these moves. The most-often cited reason is, “Every time a player gets good, they trade them” or simply, “They didn’t want to pay him.” This is far from the truth, because for years the Astros’ were toting the massive contracts of many players. Well, here’s why it truly happened – look at the return that we got for them – particularly Pence. The Astros netted arguably the two best prospects in the Phillies organization. The two primary players, Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart immediately jumped to 1st and 2nd on the Astros’ Minor League depth chart. The Player to be Named Later, Domingo Santana, is also doing quite a job at the Minor League level and currently ranked around 7th on the Astros’ Minor League depth chart. Four players were acquired in the Bourn trade — Jordan Schafer, who since has been sent back to Atlanta, Paul Clemens (ranked around 5th prospect in the Astros’ Minor Leagues), Brett Oberholtzer (ranked around 8th) and Juan Abreu (ranked around 17th). If your math adds up like mine does, those two players netted the Astros six of their current top twenty prospects. That is a good return for players (specifically Bourn) who would have surely been gone via free agency after this 2012 season.
After multiple unsuccessful drafts, the Astros drafted and inked OF George Springer who has already hit four home runs in four consecutive at-bats at the Minor League level. This year’s draft was very promising with the additions of #1 overall pick, Carlos Correa, who has the player comps of superstars Troy Tulowitzki and Alex Rodriguez, flamethrower Lance McCullers Jr., who was the steal of the draft, third baseman Rio Ruiz and outfielder Brett Phillips, among others. Coupled with 2010 first rounder, DeLino (Lino) DeShields Jr., and current Major League All-Star, Jose Altuve and young starting pitching in the form of Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, the Astros have a solid nucleus to build around, as well as a farm system that has improved exponentially.
With the upcoming 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Astros will have the opportunity to once again grab Mark Appel, who was projected by many to be taken with the 1st overall pick in last year’s draft. Instead, he slipped to #8 to the Pirates and opted not to sign. Appel will be a four-year college player and older than many of the Astros’ recent picks, therefore should, in theory, require less seasoning and make the jump to the Major Leagues faster than their younger draftees such as McCullers. This is a good thing, because the team has focused so heavily on drafting the very young players that the players in upcoming drafts (if older/more advanced) will be able to hit the Major Leagues around the same time as those younger players drafted in earlier years.
In the not-so-distant future, we could be looking at a rotation featuring McCullers, Cosart and Appel (in no particular order) as our number one, two and three starters with guys like Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell or other possible free agent pickups rounding out the rotation. We could see a lineup featuring some combination of Jose Altuve or Lino DeShields at the top, with Correa, Singleton and Springer in the 3, 4 and 5 holes. Hopefully further progress will be made by Jason Castro and JD Martinez, and Jonathan Villar, Rio Ruiz and Brett Phillips are able to eventually produce at the Major League level and help fill in the rest of the lineup. Despite his recent progress, I look for Brett Wallace to be squeezed out of Houston by the budding talent in the Minor Leagues.
This rotation and lineup both scream youth and inexperience, which can be both good and bad. The real test of the Astros’ new management and ownership will come around the 2015 mark when these players have reached the Major Leagues and then comes the decision and pressure whether to take the route of the Royals and Pirates, who are known for having great farm systems, only to let those players walk or be traded when it comes contract time. On the converse, we see teams like the Nationals and Rangers who have drafted and built fantastic farm systems, but unlike the Royals or Pirates, have secured their franchise cornerstones by offering them long contracts. These teams have also had success in exploring the free agent market and locking up big names for big money in moves which have come with big success. The Astros’ future seems bright, but trades or free agent signings (in moderation) along with player development and more successful drafts will be necessary to make the stride from a cellar-dwelling 100-loss team to a World Series contender.
What I hope has been conveyed in this article is that times are bad, real bad. However, now is not the time to give up on your beloved team. The Astros’, while barren at the Major League level, are well on their way to rebuilding their franchise and image in a manner that will sustain more than a single ten year run. Jeff Luhnow and those in command are working to make the Astros’ a perennial powerhouse, which will start (and already has) with a lot of losses, heartache and despair. This is not an overnight process, but in the end will yield the fruits of victory and satisfaction for years to come that will hopefully make their present state be a forgotten thing of the past.