The Best Part of Being the Worst

On Friday night, the Astros of Houston, Texas did what they do best, which is, of course, lose. With that loss, the Astros (44-91) were eliminated from all playoff contention – elongating their playoff drought to seven straight years.

The 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Seattle Mariners at home in front of 13,869 fans was sad. Even sadder? The number of fans at Minute Maid Park meant that the stadium was only 33% full. The saddest part? That miniscule percentage is still higher than the Astros winning percentage, which is at 32%.

It’s not as if a result like that wasn’t to be expected, however. All season the Astros have lost and lost, and lost again. Their 6-19 July was one of the worst months on club record. The Astros are last in Major League Baseball in almost every sortable team statistic, with a .981 fielding percentage and 4.85 ERA, no one else even comes close to being as atrocious as the Astros. Also, at 44-91, they threaten to best (or worst?) their club record of 55-107, set last season.

But back to the gloom: their leading hitter, Jason Castro, bats .278 and their best pitcher, Luke Harrell, sits at 6-15 with a 5.81 ERA on the year. In fact, no one on the club has more than two saves and on their official homepage, if you click on team leaders in “ERA” the server spits back “No qualifiers found.” Ouch.

You get it, the Astros are essentially terrible. So why is there so much hope around Houston?

One name: Jeff Luhnow. He’s the General Manager of the Astros and is as transparent as a glass window with Houston fans.

Much like the Tampa Bay Rays and their ex-Wall Street, ex-Goldman Sachs employees in their front office, Houston wants to prepare, plan, and out-think every other team in the Majors.

They began in November of 2011 when Jim Crane, an air freight company founder and local businessman, purchased the team and took a stipend from MLB to move the team to the AL West in the 2013 season. In a 25-page plan when Crane bought the team, Luhnow detailed his plan: blow-up everything, trade for a solid corps of prospects, and expand overseas operations.

Boy did he ever blow up the team. In 2012 they had the 27th ranked payroll in MLB at $61 million. They had six players making seven figures. They traded every single one. This season the Astros have the lowest payroll since the 2008 Marlins, at $26 million. How stingy is their payroll? Their highest paid player isn’t even on their roster. Wandy Rodriguez, who they traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates last season, gets his salary picked up by Houston, which is $5 million.

Flexible payroll doesn’t always equal success as well. Remember when the Miami Marlins were supposed to be a great ball club after acquiring all that talent circa 2011 and then held a public-raging inciting firesale? Jeffrey Loria, owner of the Marlins, fooled the entire Miami-area in order to get a new stadium.

But, Luhnow’s philosophy is brilliant if prospects equivocate into stars. They could be sub-par, spend some money and have okay draft position; or they could take a few AWFUL seasons and get great draft position. So the Astros are horrible on purpose. Luhnow’s hoping they’ll stick with him to watch his mathematics pay nice, clean dividends.

When Crane acquired Houston in 2011 the farm system ranked 26th of all 30 MLB teams, but in 2013 – two years into the Luhnow plan – they were ranked fifth. Of course many teams have been as astronomically awful (and sustained that) as the Astros before. The Pirates haven’t finished above .500 since 1992 when Bonds left and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays lost 91+ games for ten straight seasons. Those teams got bad and lost for years. But the question is, can Luhnow disarm the Warrior of Losing that he equipped?

Signs point to yes.

He’s the first General Manager to publicly declare the futility of his team, refusing to claim that they were trying to be competitive when they clearly were not. He’s being honest with his fanbase, which is a good first maneuver.

Even though the world of baseball prospects is a hypothetical conundrum with as many “Can’t-Miss misses” as “Can’t-play superstars” there seems to be something about Luhnow that’s special. A comforting fact for Houston: Luhnow presided over the St. Louis Cardinals farm system from 2006-2011 and they entered the 2013 season with the number one overall system in the Bigs. Most of the players in the minors for the Cards were acquired by Luhnow.

Even though minor league win-loss records are relatively inconsequential, it means a lot that the Astros’ affiliates are 88-60 this year combined. Just a pair of seasons ago, their minor league teams had the worst record combined of any organization. Luhnow produced immediate results. Like in 2012, he rid the Astros of the most useless commodity a MLB team can have: a good closer on a bad team. He traded Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and pitching prospect Kyle Weiland. Lowrie hit .244 and played solid defense for the ‘Stros whereas Melancon had a 6.20 ERA for the Sox.

Then he shipped Carlos Lee and his gargantuan $18.5 million salary to Miami for 3B prospect Matt Dominguez, who’s a former first-round pick that never filled out at the dish. That is, until 2013 where Dominguez, getting regular Big League cuts, has 19 homeruns and nearly 70 RBI.

To follow the roster moves Luhnow has made in the last two-plus years, here’s a quote from Grantland contributor, Rany Jazayerli:

“David Carpenter, J.A. Happ, and Brandon Lyon were sent to the Toronto Blue Jays for placeholders Ben Francisco and Francisco Cordero, and five prospects. Brett Myers (and cash) was traded to the Chicago White Sox for three prospects. Wandy Rodriguez, one of the team’s most valuable commodities (he’s a very consistent no. 3 starter, and was under contract for another year), was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for three prospects. Chris Johnson was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two prospects.”

This season they continued as they sent Bud Norris, only considered an “Ace” by a team such as Houston, to Baltimore for OF L.J. Hoes, LHP Josh Hader, and a competitive balance draft pick. Hader was a sleeper for the Orioles farm system this season according to baseball’s prospect expert, Keith Law.

With only one quality Major League player on their roster, 5-foot-5 Second baseman Jose Altuvé, the Houston Astros will continue to stockpile picks and prospects and, according to their plan, pursue big free agents in the winter of 2014.

Right now, they couldn’t beat a high school Varsity team. In three years, they could beat any team in the world.

 

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