How you view the near-unprecedented teardown of the Houston Astros depends largely on how you view the sport of baseball as a whole. If you’re in it for the long haul, for the joy of seeing teams attempting to build dynasties from within and using their resources effectively, you probably appreciate the commitment to the vision. If you’re a fan who doesn’t enjoy spending your hard-earned dollars to go watch a bunch of players you’ve never heard of (“Look, kids, Marwin Gonzalez!”) lose over 100 games for the third season in a row, then you probably find it to be an abomination.
It’s safe to say that the majority of FanGraphs readers fall under the first category, though there’s a certain validity to both sides. But all that really matters is how ownership feels about it, because while Jim Crane’s commitment to letting Jeff Luhnow blow things up and start from scratch has been admirable so far, there’s only so many 0.0 television ratings a businessman can suffer. That’s especially true as attendance has continued to shrink — down from just over three million in 2007 to half that in 2013, ahead of only three other clubs — and as reports surfaced in December that MLBPA head Tony Clark was “monitoring” the Houston situation, given that the club’s $549,603 average per player was the lowest the sport had seen since the 1999 Royals, who paid out $534,460 per player while losing 97 games. (Luhnow disputes the accuracy of that report, but the fact that Houston’s payroll was particularly low is unavoidable.)
While it’d be beyond foolhardy to deviate from the plan now, and while the continued television mess is a huge limitation for the team, we heard multiple times last fall that the Astros planned to spend to improve the big league team in 2014, with Luhnow insisting the result would be better on the field. It would have been difficult not to, anyway, because additional cost-cutting moves during the season led to an end-of-season roster which had only $1.437 million committed to Jose Altuve in 2014, along with an arbitration case for Jason Castro and $5.5m to Pittsburgh to cover Wandy Rodriguez.
When we started hearing things like “the payroll could be between $50-60 million next year” and that they might actually be in on Shin-Soo Choo, I took the time in early November to imagine all the fun they could have this winter with that flexibility, starting from essentially payroll-zero to spend $50 million or more. The Astros didn’t follow any of my tongue-in-cheek plans — I guess we won’t be seeing an outfield of Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Nate McLouth any time soon — nor did they go down the more realistic path I laid out.
But they did take some steps to improving, making one big trade and signing several major league free agents. As Wendy Thurm wrote earlier today, the Opening Day payroll appears to be around $49 million, ahead of the Marlins but still a good $20 million behind the next-stingiest team, Pittsburgh. Still, it’s in the range that was promised months ago, and it’s a step forward. Did the road Houston took this winter make sense?
The answer to that question really depends on what you’re expecting to get out of this season for the Astros. They are, still, unavoidably a bad team. Even if they improved by 20 games this year — a massive leap — they’d still have 91 losses. In a division with two clear contenders, an Angels team that still has Mike Trout, and a Seattle club that, for all its flaws, did add Robinson Cano, there’s almost no way 2014 doesn’t end with a fourth-straight last-place finish.
But if the goal here is merely to say they’ve found rock bottom, turned the corner, seen the light, however you want to put it, all without damaging the bright future they have, then this winter has been a pretty successful one in Houston. Take, for example, the three categories of deals they made.
This move was so good that it made Dave Cameron’s list of the 10 best transactions of the offseason, even ahead of the Dodgers taking a one-year gamble on Dan Haren, which was universally loved. In order to upgrade from one 28-year-old outfielder to another, the cost was a still-talented young arm who has shown very little improvement in parts of three seasons in the big leagues. Put another way: last year’s Houston rotation was one of the worst in the bigs, and Lyles was below-average even only among Astros starters. He may yet improve; he may not, although Colorado isn’t the best place for him to find out. In return, Houston picked up a solid two-to-three win player who can get on base, do some damage when he’s there, and add a little power. Fowler is not without flaws; he’s also clearly better than Barnes, by multiple wins, and at 29 next season, may yet have some trade value if the team chooses to flip him.
Feldman is not exciting, even though he’s taking up nearly a quarter of the club payroll. Williams is less exciting. But then, the baseline isn’t “exciting.” It’s not “playoffs.” For this team, it’s merely “getting better,” and in order to add at least something to that awful rotation, the options were limited. Houston wasn’t going to give up a draft pick for an Ervin Santana or an Ubaldo Jimenez, nor should they have, even if any of those guys wanted to come to Houston. They weren’t going to trade for David Price or entice Tim Hudson to spend his final years in last place. They weren’t going to convince Bronson Arroyo to take his brand of flyballery to Houston, and again, in last place.
That means that what’s left are the mild upgrades, and Feldman and Williams certainly count as that. Feldman, when healthy, has consistently put up seasonal FIP numbers of around 4.00, and xFIP slightly less than that, though BABIP fluctuations has made the ERA not always align. $10 million annually sounds high; then again, that barely buys two wins these days, we can’t know how much extra the Astros needed to kick in to convince even a mildly-useful player to come. Williams may or may not end up in the bullpen, and may or may not continue on the pace that made him worth about 1 WAR in 351 innings for the Angels. For $2.1m, it’s practically free to find out, and again, WAR only works when the guys you’re replacing are even up to being the R.
3) Added Matt Albers (1/$2.45m with club option), Chad Qualls (2/$6m with club option), Jesse Crain (1/$3.25m), Anthony Bass (trade from San Diego), and Darin Downs (waivers) to reinforce the bullpen.
The bullpen was like the rotation, but worse: By ERA, by FIP, by xFIP, by BB/9, by HR/9, by WAR, by whatever metric you choose to use, the 23 Houston relievers, from Wesley Wright down to two cameos from Lyles, were the worst group in baseball. They were actually worse than that; even though WAR is an imperfect stat for relievers for several reasons, it’s still a laugh to at least point out that no group of relievers in the history of baseball in our database ever managed a WAR quite so bad as -5.4. (Again, don’t take that too seriously, if only because WAR is a counting stat, and past teams with superior and/or old-school rotations who pitched deeper into games wouldn’t have had the opportunities to compile that bullpen number.)
However it is you want to put it, the bullpen was atrocious, and Crane and Luhnow both placed it on their list of priorities this winter, though “making it less terrible” isn’t the same thing as “spending big,” because we should know by now that awful teams don’t need to spend on their bullpens. And so while you might snark a bit at some of these names, know that last year’s names were Hector Ambriz and Paul Clemens and Chia-Jen Lo and Jose Cisnero. Crain, remember, was so good in his three years in Chicago (176/65 K/BB, 2.10 ERA) that Tampa Bay traded for him knowing full well he had a shoulder injury. Albers seems unlikely to keep up his BABIP magic, but has thrown at least 60 innings in each of the last five years, with a FIP below 4.24 in four of them. That would have made him practically an All-Star candidate on this team.
Of course, those that are thinking of the 2010-2012 Chad Qualls are snarfing their milk right now. But that’s a little unfair. In 2009, he had a bad knee injury. Apparently he changed his mechanics to relieve stress on that knee. It was only in 2013 that he went back to his old delivery, to great results. Take a look at some of his per-pitch stats in 2010-2012 and then last season:
Category Frequency Velocity Whiff% GB% Years 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 2010-2012 2013 Sinker 65% 62% 92.5 94 6% 7% 63% 71% Slider 34% 38% 87 87 14% 19% 39% 55% Change 1% 0% 84 4% 75%
In terms of movement, he gained an inch of horizontal movement on the sinker, and his slider got tighter. Both pitches gained velocity, and both pitches were much more effective in 2013. This echoes what Qualls says in the piece above, too. Despite being a sinker/slider guy, Qualls also didn’t show a big platoon split on his pitches. Against lefties last year, his slider got *more* whiffs (22%) even as it lost the grounders (36%). The sinker still did its thing (66% grounders v LHB).
It’s still not going to be a good bullpen. It’s still not going to be a good team, at least not until George Springer and Carlos Correa and Mark Appel and friends get going. But if the goal this winter was to:
1) Be a better team, if even only somewhat
2) Show the fans and the union that more money could be spent
3) Provide some sort of veteran base for the coming prospects
4) Buy future talent by signing potentially tradeable assets now, and
5) Not sacrifice anyone you’d miss in the future
…then it’s hard to say that the Astros misfired this winter, especially if you buy into the PR value of saying they reportedly “just missed” on Jose Abreu and supposedly offered north of $100 million for Masahiro Tanaka. It’s still going to be a long season in Houston, one filled with far more losses than wins. But finally, after all these years, it seems like the bottom has been reached, and now it’s uphill towards the goal. It’s doubtful that any of the players acquired this winter are going to be on the next Houston team that reaches the playoffs. But in their own way, whether it’s through future trades or giving potential free agents a slightly better impression of the team or helping a young pitcher blow just one less big league game, they’ll have helped play a part in that. That’s money well spent.
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