The Astros Revamp “Rebuilding”
Right now the Astros are losing a lot of games. But they’re doing everything else right. In fact, they’re even running their business well, earning record profits last season. There is a plan in place. The Astros are rebuilding. But what does that really mean? First, lets move beyond some bad habits organizations have that relate to “rebuilding,” which have caused it to become regarded as a dirty word.
Theoretically, rebuilding just means sacrificing present mediocrity for future strength. That’s a trade that it seems even the casual fan would be willing to make. The problem is that the term gets used in so many different situations where an organization is either not committed to rebuilding, is just using the term loosely as a PR mechanism, or is simply incompetent.
When the Marlins run a tight budget as they skim revenue sharing money into their pockets behind the mask of “rebuilding,” or when the Royals execute bad plan after bad plan in a cycle of perpetual misery, it’s easy to see why rebuilding has become equated with flat out sucking.
Meanwhile, the Padres are a small market team that has recently stagnated around the middle of the pack, only good enough to continue fooling themselves into thinking they are just shy of a postseason birth. This means they never really invest in the players needed to complete the process of turning their “rebuild” into a “win now.” But it also prevents them from blowing the damn thing up and starting over. The additional Wild Card slot in each league has expanded the group of teams susceptible to this trap, while the uncertainty of the play-in game has made it more dangerous. This indecision characterizes the later phases of what was supposed to be a rebuild, and the plan ends up failing because it isn’t adhered to.
The Astros however, have a well developed strategy and the franchise seems to understand that they must commit their entire organization toward their renaissance. This is what has the potential to make Houston’s rebuild like no other we have seen before. Let’s take a look at what a rebuild is supposed to be, while charting Houston’s progress.
Phase 1 – The Dump
You start by backing up the wrecking ball. Most clubs rebuild because they suffer from some combination of the following: “we stink,” “we’re broke,” “we’re old.” Certain steps preceding the dump are more passive, such as letting good role players walk, and significantly cutting back on free agent signings. But when this phase shifts into high gear, it’s about trading for prospects, which means that the dump necessarily coincides with the second phase of the rebuild; “Stockpiling.”
But first, here are some key events from the Houston’s “dump” phase.
2006 – Jeff Bagwell retires, Roger Clemens & Andy Pettite file for free agency.
2007 – Craig Biggio retires.
2010 – Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman traded.
2011 – Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence traded
2012 – Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers traded. Club sold to Jim Crane. Moved to the American League West.
2013 – Jed Lowrie, Bud Norris traded.
Phase 2 – Stockpiling
Sometimes teams chicken out after the dump, largely because fans can be shortsighted and start howling because they don’t understand the reasons behind the moves the club is making. But if teams fear alienating their fan base by losing in the near term, they aren’t thinking critically enough. A franchise that communicates their plan and then executes it will maintain a degree of support the whole way. I think the Astros are an example of this openness.
This aversion to proper communication means that teams have generally followed through on the “get cheap young talent” portion of the plan. But few teams have committed so fully to the “lose a bunch of games” part like the Astros have. And to better illustrate what all that losing has the potential to earn an organization, let’s examine a couple of recent trends and some changes within the economic structure of Major League Baseball that the Astros have leveraged in order to thrive while stockpiling.
First, with PEDs largely out of the picture, players are once again declining drastically in the second halves of their careers. This makes it harder to grab talent off the open market. Second, with the influx of TV money into the game, teams are resigning young players with greater ease, thereby depleting the supply of age attractive free agents with peak years ahead of them. Anybody with a cursory understanding of economics, will have noted we’ve swiftly covered both the supply and demand sides of the value equation. The increased value of controllable talent has made premium prospects much harder to trade for, especially if you plan on using aging veterans (which have decreased in value) as trade chips. Thus, rebuilding clubs must increasingly rely on the draft, and signing Caribbean teenagers in order to build large caches of young talent.
But rules governing how much teams can spend in the draft and abroad have also made things easier for losing teams. The worse you play, the higher you pick in the draft, and the larger your pool of bonus cash becomes. With what amounts to a slotting system in place, the Astros are able to get number one talent for an affordable price. In 2012 Houston used their larger pool of draft money to get a bargain at number one with Carlos Correa, and parlay the extra cash into Lance McCullers in the compensation round. The limitations of the pool also prevented the Pirates from spending enough to sign Mark Appel in 2012. The next year the Astros snapped him up for a fair price, paying about a million dollars under slot for the Stanford righty.
Here is a list of players the Astros have stockpiled via trade, draft and international signings.
2010 – Jonathan Villar, Brett Wallace
2011 – Brett Oberholtzer, Jon Singleton (AAA), Jarred Cosart, Domingo Santana (AA)
2012 – Robbie Grossman, Matt Dominguez
2013 – Chris Carter, Brad Peacock, Max Stassi, L. J. Hoes, Josh Hader (A), Dexter Fowler
2008 – Jason Castro (10th overall)
2010 – Delino DeShields (8th), Mike Foltynewicz (19th)
2011 – George Springer (11th)
2012 – Carlos Correa (1st), Lance McCullers (41st)
2013 – Mark Appel (1st)
Phase 3 – Afterburners, Engage!
Houston is now well positioned in terms of talent. All that will be left to do once they cultivate that talent into a young core will be to then push the club over the top by spending some intelligent money. But a lot of teams blow it here.
GM’s have all the freedom in the world to do smart stuff that doesn’t cost their club much money. But the reason some organizations get into rebuild mode in the first place is because of an unwillingness to spend at any time, including when it counts. These clubs continually run up against the wall on the home stretch because they never had the intention of completing the cycle.
Other teams just don’t know when or how to spend. Maybe Seattle is a good example. Before they dropped $240MM on a great player in Robinson Cano, they really only managed to promote a few pieces of their big league core. They also didn’t acquire quite as many impact position players as they needed to during stockpiling, which means they lack the depth of minor league talent to justify pulling the trigger.
But the Astros are smarter. They hire great baseball minds like former Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein (Director of Pro Scouting) regardless of what cobwebbed convention dictates. This decision was so progressive it was even lightly mocked by the usually forward thinking internet set, as Grant Brisbee quipped that the new market inefficiency might be “wordsmithing.”
It’s funny, when people talk about the “new” market inefficiency, what they are really talking about usually amounts to just doing things correctly. But the reason they don’t talk about it in that context is that what constitutes correct changes based on the circumstances the game is in at any given time. It also changes based on what state an organization happens to be in. What makes the Astros special is that they understand themselves in relation to the landscape of baseball and are smart enough to turn that into action. Come to think of it, that’s why the Cardinals are where they are today. I also think this is why the success the Astros are having in rebuilding is not being talked about that much outside of prospect circles. Because just doing things correctly simply doesn’t seem that revolutionary to us, but as we’ve seen in examining the spotty track record of rebuilding efforts over the years, it actually is.