Houston Astros show how to rebuild the right way

It’s been a long way down for the Houston Astros, and it’s still going to be a long road back up to the top, but the rebuilding process is being done properly, and that should be a silver lining to fans who prepare to suffer through what may be the most excruciating season yet.

Watching the Astros field a Triple-A team over the last two years while simultaneously losing draft picks to free agent signings and making poor choice with the picks they did retain left seemingly no hope of competing any time soon. As recently as two years ago, the Astros farm system not only ranked as the worst in major league baseball, but among the most barren in recent memory. There was simply no help on the way for a team that needed it badly.

They still need it badly, but thanks to a rebuilding process that was begun by former GM Ed Wade (one of the few things he did right) and continued by new GM Jeff Luhnow, there will be help coming this time.

The problem with many teams when they try to rebuild is that they don’t do it all the way. For a major league organization, a rebuilding process, should that prove to be the right decision, is not something that can be done halfway. The organization must be all-in.

This is what the Astros have done. The result is going to be a lean year in their first go-round in the American League West, but the hope is that the end result will be a competitive team.

Rebuilding, in this case (and most), means trading veteran assets as they get expensive for young, cheap talent in the form of prospects. Prospects, by nature, are unpredictable. We don’t know how any of them are going to turn out. But the fault here, if this rebuilding process doesn’t result in a competitive team, will be fall at the hands of the scouting department that gave the recommendations as to which prospects to acquire, not at the philosophy itself.

The Astros have broken things all the way down. The mistake many teams make is to trade some valuable assets, like the Astros did with Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, but then hold onto other assets to keep from having to field a completely uncompetitive teams, like the Astros did not do when they traded Carlos Lee and Wandy Rodriguez this past season.

Things got pretty dicey toward the end of 2012 for the Astros, and holding onto a player like Rodriguez would have given them a reliable starter to lead a young rotation in the 2013 season, but they resisted temptation and traded the left-handed pitcher to the Pittsburgh Pirates for prospects Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman and Rudy Owens.

What good would Rodriguez do them this year? Perhaps his presence keeps them from being a 100-loss team, only to see them lose 98 games instead. I’d rather have Grossman, who could be a nice number two hitter to slide in behind Delino Deshields Jr. by the 2014 season. It will mean taking some heat during a rough season this year, but it was the right decision.

The biggest issue with the entire Astros organization just a few years ago was a complete lack of talent, from top to bottom. Even with players like Bourn, Pence and Rodriguez, they were not competitive, and there was nothing internally to add to them. The only choice was to blow the whole thing up and start over.

And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

The influx of talent that has entered the Astros farm system—both through trades and through better drafting—has given them one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. Not necessarily one of the best, especially in terms of major league-ready impact talent, but one of the deepest.

That depth has come primarily though trades. Jonathan Singleton, acquired in 2011 from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade, gives them a legitimate centerpiece around which they can build, even despite his 50-game suspension for marijuana. Owens and Brett Oberholtzer, acquired in separate trades, should be usable major league lefties. Jarred Cosart, who came over from the Phillies with Singleton, could be a mid-rotation starter or a late-inning reliever.

The real impact talent, however, has come from the draft. DeShields, a 2010 first-rounder had a great 2012 season, embracing his role as a leadoff hitter and doing a better job working counts and getting on base, and as a result stealing 101 bases between two levels. George Springer, the team’s 2011 first-rounder, should be the team’s center fielder of the future and took full advantage of the California League in his first full season. He swings and misses a little too much, but he’s got one of the best power/speed combinations in the minors.

Lastly, with the first overall pick in 2012, the Astros selected Carlos Correa out of Puerto Rico; he will have more to say about the Astros rebuilding process than any other player. A rebuilding organization can’t overcome a bust with the top overall pick, but all indications point towards Correa becoming the Astros shortstop of the future.

The Astros have also done a good job acquiring some interesting lower-tier prospects in smaller trades that could result in role players, key pieces, or even a potential starter or two:

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

—Sending third baseman Chris Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks brought back Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss. Borchering is a former first rounder who had been pushed over to first base thanks to organizational crowding at third in the Diamondbacks system, but the Astros were willing to try him back at the hot corner after acquiring him last season. He has big time power but serious contact issues. Krauss is a 25-year-old corner outfielder who has put up good numbers in the minors but is generally underwhelming in terms of tools. Still, he has a good track record of production, takes a walk and hits for power. He should see time in the majors this season.

Domingo Santana was the player to be named later in the Pence trade, but has always had big upside. At the time of the trade, we had only seen glimpses of that on the field, but the California League sure cured that in a hurry. Santana hit .203/.385/.536 last season in Lexington, with 23 home runs. He’ll have to prove himself in a more neutral ballpark, but it’s a good start.

Matt Dominguez should be the Astros starting third baseman in 2013 after coming over in the Carlos Lee trade last season. He’s limited offensively, but one of the highlights of the Astros season could be getting to watch Dominguez play defense. His glove alone should provide decent value, especially for an aging veteran like Lee, who was doing the Astros no good whatsoever.

For the Astros, there’s a chance this could all fall flat. Singleton could continue to have off-the-field troubles and Correa could stall out developmentally, as just two potential examples. With prospects, anything can happen. But what’s important, at least at this point, is that they’ve gone about things the right way philosophically, and that the talent is there. The Astros started down the rebuilding path, and they took the path all the way to the bottom of the hill, which is where they are now.

The good news is that there’s no place to go but up.


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Jim
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Jim

I wish Dan O’Dowd would listen to paragraph 4.  The Rockies are only half in and will be that way until 3 million people quit buying tickets.

Oh well, good luck Astros!

Atari
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Atari

People forget too about the salary relief. Do you want to pay Wandy Rodriguez 10M and Carlos Lee 18.5M for such a a bad team? Pocket that savings, reinvest in young talent, or when your team is competitive that money is there for the extra arm/bat that will push you into the playoffs and beyond.

Plus, I trust Luhnow completely. This year will be rough again but in 2-3 years things will be much more promising.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Domingo Santana’s batting average was .302, not .203.  I’m not sure what I would make of the Adam Dunn of the California League….

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
Rebuilding the right way would suggest rebuilding to win a world championship.  The only studies I’m aware of that covers this are by BP and THT.  Both found that offense does nothing to improve a team’s chances in the playoffs, it was all about defense (pitching and fielding) once you enter the playoffs.  Houston, per this article, has focused mostly on offense in their rebuild.  The only pitchers mentioned are ones who are either “usable” or “mid-rotation”. BP’s study goes further and found that high K/9 pitching staffs have been a key to going deeper into the playoffs.  I see… Read more »
Marver
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Marver

What the Astros are doing beats the hell out of what the Padres are doing: pretending not to rebuild while always rebuilding.

PLM
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PLM
@obsessive—Not sure what BP article you are referring to, but the one I know of (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=18414) says the opposite of what you claim: elite pitchers are not critically important to post-season success.  Or at least not as much as one would expect.  Also, you reference drafts from 5-15 years ago as evidence of lack of focus on pitching in the current rebuilding effort.  That was well before the current front office was in place and hence, not relevant. Finally, there is no real evidence that mediocre offensive teams win World Series.  Your Giants last year had the second best (park… Read more »
lesterb
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lesterb

obsessivegiantscompulsive you are an idiot!

Confused
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Confused

Check out this article:

http://www.fangraphs.com/community/index.php/is-rebuilding-worth-it/

According to this, Houston should not be applauded for embarking on a long rebuilding process.  Teams in the worst of conditions still did better increasing their major league payrolls rather than tearing them down.  A true rebuild is more of a 7+ year process, which is much longer than fans should be satisfied with.

TheHoustonian
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TheHoustonian

@obsessivegiantscompulsive “Their best strikeout pitchers are Norris and Happ, both already in their prime years.”

Not only that, but Happ plays for Toronto! Whatever will the Astros do!?

Also, are you seriously gauging their rebuilding effort by looking at K rates of their major league staff? You’re kidding, right? If so, good one. If not, bad one.

rxbrgr
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rxbrgr

Just a correction on your stats: Domingo Santana hit .302, not .203. Correcting this will help people have a lot better hope for him.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
Sorry, I forgot that not everyone has read this great book, but Baseball Prospectus wrote a great book a number of years ago titled, “Baseball Between the Numbers” and there is a chapter titled, “Why Billy Beane’s Sh*t Doesn’t Work in the Playoffs”. BP found in their study of dozens of metrics that there were three statistically significant metrics that helped teams go deep into the playoffs.  First was a high strikeout rate staff.  So if you want to call me an idiot for quoting and relying on BP’s analysis, that’s fine.  But if I’m rebuilding, I’m rebuilding to maximize… Read more »
Andy S
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Andy S

I think the finger of blame is far more on Tim Purpura than Ed Wade. Glad to see it’s finally being done right though!

Ashitaka
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Ashitaka

Uh, this sentence is misleading:

“Watching the Astros field a Triple-A team over the last two years while simultaneously losing draft picks to free agent signings and making poor choice with the picks they did retain left seemingly no hope of competing any time soon.”

The last TWO years? The last two years the Astros didn’t lose draft picks and certainly didn’t squander the ones they had. You’re thinking of the 2006-2007 period.

Shorething
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Shorething

The Astros have not been picking pitchers with there number one pick, but they have hardly missed out on picking up some outstanding pitching prospects. Also, pithcers have the least relieablity, as to making it to the majors. They are also more prone to injury.

If you exclude the draft, players traded have brought on a lot of talent, and many left handed pitchers. IMHO, the Astros are doing superb in their rebuilding process, and should be competative within two or three years.

Sean Manaea
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Sean Manaea

You guys want awesome frontline starters?  Wait till you draft me with your #1 pick in the next draft.

Gary Nightwagon
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Gary Nightwagon
Haha. If you’re going to comment on the success/failure of a team’s rebuild, you might want to look at more than the team’s 2012 baseballreference page. Your suggestion that the Astros aren’t rebuilding “the right way” because they are focusing more on hitting than pitching implies that they are consciously neglecting pitching and there’s no evidence to definitely suggest that’s what they’re doing. Teams don’t give up front of the rotation arms for the spares the team was unloading and there aren’t Strasburgs in every draft. They’ve done nothing but take advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given with trades… Read more »
kab21
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kab21

I’m not sure that I can give the Astros any kudos for doing something that they should have done 5 years ago.

chongo
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chongo

As a long suffering ‘Stros fan, I don’t wanna wait 3 more years to be competitive in the AL West.  Someone please explain why Oakland happened last year and why we can’t do that?

Jason
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Jason
@obsessive…. I haven’t read “Baseball between the numbers”, but I agree in the idea that pitching/defense makes a WS caliber team. However, value is value and offensive prospects tend to be more stable than pitching prospects. Once the Astros get to a point that they have a surplus of major league talent, they can use that value to trade for arms in the upper minor leagues or majors. Not saying that they should avoid pitching in the draft, but I am of the grain of thought that they should always get the best player available and not go for organizational… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
Here’s one of my points that I want to emphasize here:  the draft is really really hard.  I know that’s obvious on the face of it, but people don’t really understand the magnitude of how hard it is.  As much as a slamdunk you would think the first pick is, the success rate of finding a franchise transforming player there is much lower than most would think, under a coin flip.  It just gets worse from there. My point here is that as much as they may think they know who is the best player available, they don’t really know,… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
Clearly I’m falling on deaf ears.  But what you don’t get is that while I’m a Giants fan, I’m also a baseball geek.  I’ll end with the example I’ve given to Giants fans (believe it or not, they reacted to me the same way people here have, I’ve been saying this for 4-5 years now, and there are still some of them calling Sabean a moron, even after two world championships; I’m still vilified at that board) to explain my logic.  I give it with good heart and maybe you’ll understand more fully what I’m getting at. Pitching is more… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive

Clarification on the above: the strategy works if not that many other teams are following it.  Obviously, there are only so many good pitchers to go around.  Obviously the key is to get them first before the other teams do.

AstrosBill
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AstrosBill
Just to address the comments about the Astros pitching depth. The Astros have done some good things to acquire pitching as well. This author focused far to much time to the offensive player acquired in the trades. Jarred Cosart is our top rated pitcher in the minors and is ranked #76 in the top 100 prospects in baseball. We have some other pitchers working their way through the system quickly like Lance McCullers and Asher Wojciechowski (Hope they have a uniform wide enough for his name). At the same time, we have some young arms at the NL level. With… Read more »
James Avery
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James Avery

Could it be said that if you have excesses in offense, you can trade for defense?
If pitchers are such an unknown and with their payroll so low, wouldn’t the best idea be to buy pitchers once the offense positions are complete, and use your excess draft stock as trade bait?

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
Not to be a downer, AstrosBill, but look at any Top 100 list from the past 10 years, pick out some pitchers in the 70-80 range, and see how well they have turned out.  I’ve seen enough that I would bet that most of them fizzle out.  I can easily name a recent Giants prospect who fizzled out in that range, Tim Alderson.  Cosart will need to continue to develop and rise up the rankings. McCullers and Asher W. look like good prospects, so hopefully they rise higher in the rankings, but for now, they are not there. Hopefully there… Read more »
AstrosBill
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AstrosBill

I’m with you “O”. Cosart does have some work to do, but he has a lot of tools to work with. He’s a got a chance. The problem is that the Astros need him sooner than later. I’m hoping that they don’t rush him.

I think the emphasis is on players and right now hitters are more prevelant. The Astros picked up several arms in the trades and then a lot of bats in the draft. It’s going to even out I think. I hope they go get the best pitcher they can in the draft this next year.

CSN
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CSN
Personally, I think it’s bunk to suggest there is any real evidence of an emphasis on hitting over pitching in recent Astros drafts. In the last three years, there is a perfectly even split of hitters and pitchers taken in the first 3 rounds of the draft. Expanded to the first 5 rounds over the last three years, it’s still an even split between hitters and pitchers selected by the Astros. And while it is sadly true that the Astros have not developed a true ace in quite some time, for the forseeable future the Astros will certainly have plenty… Read more »
CSN
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CSN

Oh, it’s also worth noting that even though the article did not mention much in the way of pitching acquired by the Astros during this rebuilding phase, they have in fact acquired, among others, Kevin Comer and Joe Musgrove. Both were first round supplemental picks out of high school in the 2011 draft.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
OK, CSN, here is where I’m coming from.  I did a study of the draft and came up with odds of finding a good player by where you are in the draft.  Roughly 45% chance of finding someone good in first five picks overall (best for 1st, natch).  Roughly 20% 6-20, 10% 21-30, 4% 31-90, and it is under 2% 91-100. So from my perspective, the supplemental first round pick has roughly 4% chance of being a good player, whereas a first round pick (and the Astros get very good because of the losing) is either 45% or 20% (I… Read more »
CSN
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CSN

OK, I think you may wish to look again at what I wrote, obsessivegiantscompulsive.

While you may adhere, rightly or wrongly, to the notion the proper way to rebuild is to focus on pitching, I did not make a judgment about it nor was it the focus of my objection. What I called bunk was your claim there is some sort of emphasis on hitting over pitching in recent drafts and/or trades by the Astros and I still don’t believe you to have made your case regarding emphasis.

I don’t think you a downer, I just disagreed with your claim.

Ray
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Ray

Obsessivegiantscompulsive and all others,

Thanks for the insight – loved reading the comments from you guys. I feel a little better about my Astros.

Keep posting

PLM
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PLM
obsessive—Please stop typing.  No one came here to read a novel.  You might want to start by educating yourself on what happened in Houston.  They got an entirely new front office with a new GM who could not be much different that the old one.  Dozens of articles have been written about it.  So how is their past drafting history an “organizational problem”? As for your claim that, “I never said that mediocre offensive teams wins World Series – I had to re-read what I wrote a number of times, but it is clearly not in there” Actually, you said… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
PLM, you need to re-read.  The studies found that it don’t matter whether you have a good offense or mediocre offense in the playoffs, it is pitching and fielding that wins championships.  I don’t know how much more plainer I can be. My point relates to your statement.  Here is what you wrote “Finally, there is no real evidence that mediocre offensive teams win World Series.”  Again, that is not anything I stated.  What I said is that it don’t matter what type of offense you have, you win regardless of the offense.  Quite different statements, which you then twisted… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive

CSN, understood, just wanted to put out my viewpoint.  Thanks for not being more civil in your response, greatly appreciated.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
Do me the favor of reading that chapter in BP’s BBTN on Billy Beane’s sh*t.  Kindle only $10.44, paperback, $12.66 Amazon.  You’ll thank me later. Once you read all that, and just ignore what I wrote above, if you still don’t understand why I’m making a big deal of this, that’s fine, at least I tried.  I just wanted to open some eyes to some great info and thought that this was a good place to try, as I sympathize with your situation, the Giants have been in it before. I doubt teams follow what fans say – if that… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
OK, I decided to look into Luhnow since, as you rightly noted, I don’t know much of anything about him or the Astros.  I have to say that I’m very impressed with is background.  I’ve liked what the Cards have done with the drafting in recent years and he was the architect of that.  I also like that he was a former McKinsey consultant, they have a nice analytical bent that should prosper in a baseball team.  I also like that he personally established the Cards baseball academy in the DR and scouts Venezuela too.  That is a key thing… Read more »
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