<
>
Insider

Astros betting on patience

2/5/2013
Jeff Luhnow has stripped the Houston Astros' roster down. The question is how much time he has to build it up. Bob Levey/Getty Images

All of the baseball moons and stars have aligned for a memorable 2013 season for the Houston Astros, in the way that the '62 Mets and the 2003 Detroit Tigers are remembered. To rival talent evaluators, there is no question that Houston will struggle for victories.

"What you question is, how bad can they be?" said an NL official.

Whether the management strategy of the Astros is adept and will lead to good things is really a separate issue that won't be answered for many years. As new general manager Jeff Luhnow has completely rebuilt the organization by applying his vision, the Astros have set themselves up to pick at the top of the draft for consecutive years, which is how Tampa Bay and Washington landed the likes of David Price, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. This may well pay off in four or five or six years, although there are former Pirates and Kansas City officials who will testify that collecting prospects doesn't necessarily guarantee success.

But for now, the Astros have redefined what it means to strip down a major league team. Consider the fate of Houston's opening day lineup from just 10 months ago:

Five of the nine starters from 2012 have been traded, along with others. Jed Lowrie, who was set to make $2.4 million for this season -- and be one of the highest-paid Houston players -- was swapped to Oakland for, yes, prospects.

As it stands, these will be the highest-paid Houston players this season:

Bud Norris $3 million

Carlos Pena $2.9 million

Jose Veras $2 million

Wesley Wright $1.025 million

Once the Astros finish signing all of their players who aren't eligible for arbitration, their payroll will be something in the range of $25 million, which is about what Zack Greinke will make.

Houston has some young players who can get better, so it's possible the Astros will exceed the 55 victories they accumulated last season. But it's also possible Houston could lose more, given its untimely shift from the NL Central -- one of baseball's weakest divisions -- to the powerhouse AL West, with the defending champion Athletics, the Rangers and the Angels.

The Astros will have a shot at some history mired in infamy. Per Elias, they could become only the second team in history to lose at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons -- the '62-'65 Mets were the first. The record for most losses in a three-year period is 340, by the '62-'64 Mets, which is almost certainly out of reach for Houston; the Astros would have to lose 127 games, and unless you happened to be part of the Cleveland Spiders back in the day, that's just about impossible. "There's a baseline that's you really can't go below [in victories] because of the nature of baseball," said one NL official Monday night.

We saw that last year with the Astros, who collapsed in July and August before stabilizing somewhat down the stretch. After opening 22-23, Houston traded most of its veterans, and the Astros lost 72 of the next 92 games. But then Houston won 13 of the final 25 games on its schedule, taking series from the Phillies, Pirates, Cubs and Brewers.
Teams have traded masses of veteran players before, but, in most cases, the clubs will keep a couple of prominent older guys. The San Diego Padres held a fire sale in '92 and '93, but hung on to Tony Gwynn and Andy Benes.

I know from feedback on Twitter that a lot of Houston fans are OK with the current strategy and are willing to wait. But the inherent risk in what the Astros are doing is that many in a generation of would-be Houston fans might be turned off, never to return. And those ex-Pirates and ex-Royals employees will tell you, from firsthand experience, that within two or three years, the patient Astros fans are going to want to see progress. There is a bill of expectation that will start to come due in 2015.

Oakland's strategy

Oakland had been stalking Jed Lowrie for months, believing in his talent, and now he becomes one more movable part on a roster of incredible flexibility. Over the past 20 years, the use of the disabled list has increased, and more and more, teams are constructing sturdy safety nets within their organizations -- and the Athletics are arguably the deepest team in the American League, even if many fans don't know the names. They have four every-day outfielders for three spots, in Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp and Chris Young, and they added Lowrie with the intent of playing him regularly in the lineup while bouncing around all four spots in the infield. Tampa Bay has valued flexibility in this way in the past four or five years, placing a high value on players such as Ben Zobrist.

The Angels might have a more dynamic lineup than the Athletics, and the Rangers have more experience. But Oakland has added Lowrie, Young and John Jaso to a roster that was good enough to win the AL West last season. The lineup could look like this on a given day:

DH Crisp

C Jaso

LF Cespedes

RF Reddick

1B Brandon Moss

3B Lowrie

CF Young

2B Scott Sizemore

SS Hiroyuki Nakajima

Remember, Oakland led the majors in homers for a significant portion of last season, and the Athletics have speed and some high on-base percentage. And they are well-equipped -- maybe better than any other AL team -- to absorb injuries, which is something that was a problem for Oakland at times in the past decade.

The Athletics traded a power bat, writes Susan Slusser. Chris Carter probably is best-suited to be a designated hitter and might strike out a lot, but the guy has some big-time power.

Notables

• An interesting proposal might be made to the Rays, to allow them to look for -- but not move to -- a new home. The marriage equivalent of this would be for one spouse to charge the other for looking around.

• As Jerry Crasnick reported, Brandon Webb is retiring.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Mets won't give up their first-round pick to sign Michael Bourn, writes Andy Martino.

2. Max Scherzer avoided arbitration.

3. Scott Rolen has a tough decision to make, writes Paul Daugherty.

4. The battle for the second-base job in Kansas City will be interesting, says Ned Yost.

5. David Freese remains unsigned.

6. The Pirates are close to signing Jonathan Sanchez, writes Rob Biertempfel.

7. Chris Johnson is excited to have the chance to play for the Braves.

Other stuff

• There is sad news about one of the women who was an inspiration for a character in "A League of Their Own."

• For Curt Schilling, the issue of playing with gay teammates generates a big shrug.

• The Royals went with a measured theme this year, writes Bob Dutton.

• The Rockies have added development supervisors. This is what the managers were once asked to do.

• In the aftermath of the Super Bowl blackout, Larry Stone writes about a baseball blackout that happened in Baltimore.

• David Murphy has an early look at the Phillies' rotation.

• Paul Hoynes examines the infield of the Indians.

• Sandy Alderson is building the Mets methodically, writes Tyler Kepner.

• John Tomase doesn't think the Red Sox missed out by not getting Mark Teixeira.

• MLB investigators met with the Miami New Times. Derek Jeter won't address the charges until Alex Rodriguez does. The Yankees won't tell everyone where Rodriguez is working out.

• The judges have been selected to hear the Barry Bonds appeal.

And today will be better than yesterday.