Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Astros' season highlights incentive to tank
By Buster Olney
Erik Bedard is making a little more than $1 million and is Houston's highest-paid player.
Let’s make one thing very clear at the start of this conversation about what is so wrong about the Houston Astros: It’s all but impossible to find someone who believes they will struggle in the years ahead.
"They’re going to be good," said a rival official, "because they’re getting access to the best talent and [GM Jeff] Luhnow is a really smart guy."
In the minds of many rival evaluators -- many -- the Astros are playing baseball’s current system to perfection.
So the problem with what the Astros have done really isn’t about the Astros. The problem is the system, which can reward calculated failure, and this should be a serious concern for Major League Baseball. Everybody has seen what Houston has done, and as one GM said before the season started, with a hint of jealousy, "They’re doing it exactly right."
By losing. A lot. Because that’s the best way to exploit the current system.
The payoff will start to show in two or three years, as all of those top draft picks begin reaching the big leagues, and some team officials note that already, some clubs appear to be angling to follow the Astros’ example.
By losing. A lot. Because that’s the best way to exploit the current system.
"The NBA figured out that you can’t have that," said another evaluator. "That’s why they put in the lottery system, so you’re not rewarding teams for losing."
With Major League Baseball, the evaluator noted, "there is clear incentive to lose."
This didn’t sneak up on anybody; it was written here before the year began that the Astros appeared to be designed for failure. Next summer, they will become the first team in the history of baseball to have the No. 1 overall pick for three consecutive seasons, and officials with other teams expect they could contend for that spot again next year.
They got what they paid for. They began the year with a projected payroll of a little more than $20 million, with a small handful of players with more than a year of major league experience. One by one, most of them have been removed from the roster. Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel were cut because of performance; Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright and Justin Maxwell were flipped for draft considerations or prospects. What remains is a roster almost completely stripped down, with only one player making more than $1 million -- Erik Bedard, at $1.15 million.
Rival scouts, players and coaches have talked about how hard they think the Astros’ players compete. But some of the best talent has remained in the minor leagues through their brutal regular season.
George Springer is the Astros’ most developed prospect, at age 24, and he reached Triple-A this year, and finished with a .425 on-base percentage. He is, in the minds of at least some rival evaluators, ready to play in the big leagues, and at the very least, he’s better than a lot of players on the team’s major league roster.
But the Astros didn’t promote him. Nor did they promote one of their most developed pitching prospects, Asher Wojciechowski, who had 21 starts in Triple-A.
A lot of teams will hold prospects in the minors, for the sake of the service-time clock. But the Astros have been non-competitive, and haven’t spent the necessary dollars to field a representative product.
And, look, there’s something wrong with that. Because fans are paying major league prices to watch major league competition, to watch organizations that are theoretically doing everything within their power to win that day -- because a fan who pays $30 or $40 for a game is there to watch that day’s competition. That fan is not buying a ticket because he knows Houston is positioned to pick NC State's Carlos Rodon in next June's draft. There needs to be some basic level of integrity to the product, which MLB recognizes in spring training, when it nudges teams to start lineups comprised of at least four or five recognizable regulars.
Earlier this year, the Astros vehemently denied a report that they are making a massive profit this year. No team has ever opened its books to reporters -- which is the prerogative of any private business -- but rival executives say that given the various revenue streams available to all clubs, it’s indisputable that the Astros are taking in a lot more money than they are spending in player payroll.
They could have spent more, in an effort to be more competitive; they chose to not do so.
The Astros were blown out 12-0 by Texas on Monday, and have lost 10 straight games, with a run differential of minus-45. To repeat: The Astros have been crushed by an average of 4.5 runs per game in the midst of the pennant race. This is not an outlier. This is their season. Houston is now the first team since the 1962 to 1965 Mets to lose at least 106 games in three (or more) consecutive seasons.
What should scare Major League Baseball is that the Astros are admired for this dogged, disciplined strategy.
Think of MLB’s current draft rules as a casino: Because of how Houston has played this, everybody knows how to get to the vault of future prospect riches.
It’s the responsibility of MLB to protect the integrity of its product, and it would be devastating for the sport if four or five or six teams systematically stripped down their rosters and payrolls and endeavored to follow Houston’s path to success.
And with MLB's new draft rules -- which tie draft budget to draft position and force you to forfeit a first-round pick outside the top 10 for signing free agents who receive qualifying offers -- we're seeing more and more teams with incentive to tank. Frankly, you can't blame any team for wanting to finish in the bottom 10, which means there are roughly a dozen teams with good reason to lose as much as possible this September, and that's a major problem.
• It’s bad enough for the Orioles that their hope for the 2013 playoffs died in Tampa Bay, but their 2014 chances may have taken a big hit, too, given the gruesome injury suffered by Manny Machado. He is a transcendent talent, particularly with his defensive play, and now his journey to greatness figures to be on hold. The cameras panned the Orioles’ dugout after Machado fell to the ground, and nobody seemed to be saying anything; the other players just stared silently. Brian Roberts expressed the feelings of a lot of players with his words in this Brittany Ghiroli piece.
After Machado got hurt, dozens of rival players took to Twitter to send their best wishes to the young infielder, who is very well-liked and respected within the sport.
• CC Sabathia’s season is over. Sabathia may bounce back, but keep in mind that he has thrown the most pitches in baseball since 2001 (43,390), and his average fastball velocity has steadily decreased since joining the Yankees in 2009. It was 93.9 mph that year, and was 91.0 this season.
The decision on whether he will have surgery will be made in the next two months. Basically, the situation comes down to this: It really makes no difference, in the Mets’ big picture, if he has surgery now or in December, because he would be back for the start of 2015 either way. So he has a window of opportunity to go through a throwing program and see if he can work through it. If he doesn’t feel right, he’ll have the surgery.
• The Diamondbacks have a shortstop dilemma, Nick Piecoro writes. I wonder if the Diamondbacks and Yankees might be a fit for a deal involving Didi Gregorius in the offseason, as New York prepares for the end of Derek Jeter’s career.
• If you are looking for a statistical barometer for success, then this year, you couldn’t do much better than opponents’ batting average: Ten of the 11 teams at the top in this category have either clinched a playoff spot or are at the top of the AL wild-card race.