The Astros Way?

added 2/23/2006 by Scott Barzilla

Some people are up in arms about ESPN’s latest power rankings surrounding the Astros. What’s particularly interesting is how they justify the drop in rankings. Here are the sage words from your sports leader, “Here's hoping the World Baseball Classic fuels The Rocket's competitive juices enough to return to the Astros for a five-month season.” As someone pointed out, being sixteenth means they expect the Astros to finish in the neighborhood of the .500 mark. This means that Roger Clemens’ departure will cost the team eight games in the standings. Hmmmm……..

Of course, it’s a slow news week when we start busting out the ESPN rankings, but they made me take pause and look at the Tim Purpura era. If you look at the last two off-seasons you can start to discern a trend. The Astros have done little and they get hammered in the press, airwaves, and bulletin boards for it. The good folks at ESPN love giving them a hard time. They are often mystified when they wake up in September with the Astros being right there in the hunt. As Purpura’s second off-season winds to a close, we can begin to take stock in the general manager he will be.

In my book, The State of Baseball Management, I took a look at the five most successful and five least successful franchises between 1993 and 2003. The premise of the book was to determine whether teams won and lost because of the differences between payrolls or the differences in management. Not coincidentally, my understanding of the issue has changed in the intervening years. What I noticed when doing the research is that the five teams on top (including the Astros) had a discernable plan (although arguable in the Astros case) and the bottom five teams didn’t. The unsuccessful teams played follow the leader and so do the prognosticators at ESPN.

The bias is subtle, but it’s there. Success for those covering the game is measured by activity. What did your team do in the off-season do to improve? What we see is that teams like the Dodgers, Blue Jays, Rangers, and Mets vault up the rankings because of moves they made. None of us would be that surprised if none of those teams made the playoffs, but that won’t stop the sycophants at ESPN from blowing smoke up their collective posterior.

If you look at the opinion of the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves you see a completely different story. Both teams didn’t fill “obvious holes” even though the two teams had opportunities to do so. Sure, the Braves brought in Edgar Renteria and the Astros brought in Preston Wilson, but who are they trying to kid? It’s odd, but you think we would catch on when the two teams face off as many times as they have in the NLDS. Maybe the “follow the leader” game isn’t the best way to go about it.

Culture

Culture just happens to be one of the buzzwords in business these days. Individuals have a culture. Families have a culture. Groups have a culture. And yes, organizations have a culture. In baseball, this is disguised as “the Yankee way”, “the Oriole way”, or “the Dodger way.” Those organizations had a grip on the baseball world in the past largely because they were able to forge their own identity and way of doing things. The Orioles certainly didn’t do it the Yankee way and the Athletics of today certainly have their own system.

It may be odd to say, but most clubs don’t have a discernable culture. Tim Purpura is beginning to the forge a new culture for the Astros. It doesn’t happen overnight and there certainly have been some fumbles along the way. Yet, when we look back on his career to date we really shouldn’t be surprised.

Purpura got his start and his spent most of his time in player development. He has spent the majority of his years toiling with the minor leaguers forging an identity for the player development department. His predecessor squelched his efforts for the most part by letting key prospects rot on the vine. Jason Lane is 29 years old and he has been a regular for only one year in the big leagues. Daryle Ward spent too long in the minors as well. When he met with our SABR group, Purpura talked at length about what happens to a player that toils at the highest level of the minors or on a big league bench for too long. I have a hard time seeing Gerry Hunsicker making the same observation.

Trust in the Youth

I have a hard time questioning Gerry Hunsicker’s effectiveness because he did steward the ship for most of the playoff appearances and many of his moves were instrumental. Yet, after watching the 2005 season and 2006 off-season you can see the club slowly move in the direction of youth. The culture is beginning to permeate through the whole organization. It profoundly affects the way the organization thinks about the issues it faces. That’s what culture is all about.

Your star pitcher appears to be retiring. What do you do? You have a hole in the middle of the lineup. What do you do? The answers to those questions appear to be the same: you trust the young players in your organization. Yes, the Astros acquired Preston Wilson, but it is clear they expect people like Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg, and Jason Lane to be a part of the solution. Those are all homegrown guys. The answer to the Clemens question is more decisively young. Purpura seems to be saying we will find two pitchers between the likes of Astacio, Rodriguez, Hernandez, Nieve, Buchholz, and Hirsh. I suspect he’s right on that count.

Those are not the answers that the good folks at ESPN want to hear. It is a lot more interesting and compelling when they can talk about the new free agent or trade coming to your town. Who is this Jason Hirsh anyway? Do you mean I have to actually do research? What the follow the leader crowd doesn’t realize is that these young players have two things going for them: they are cheap and they have upside.

Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and sign a player like Preston Wilson. The Astros have a dearth of outfielders in the system (at least at the upper levels) and left field was an issue last season. When a team signs a stopgap veteran to fill a spot it makes the general manager look good because he has fewer “holes” on the club, but it also siphons money off of the payroll. I suspect one of the many reasons why the Astros haven’t been able to keep some of their young stars over the years has been the drain from these middle class veterans. These contracts add up. When you combine three or four million here, a million there, and two million there you get enough for one big contract.

This becomes important when it comes time to talk long-term extension with players like Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, and Morgan Ensberg. Whether or not you have enough money for all of them depends partially on whether you have bled the payroll with mediocre veterans. Purpura has shown he is not completely ready to jettison the middle class fat (Orlando Palmeiro), but he has done better than his predecessor. So, if you see a press conference involving one of those three players above next off-season you can look back on Purpura’s decision not to sign a veteran pitcher or another middle class bench player. The young pups will save you money and they just might surprise you.

When the Astros find themselves in the playoff hunt in September and one of those young guns is a part of the magic the folks at ESPN will gush. Yet, it’s doubtful they will ever make the connection to their predictions in February. Culture should be stronger than what Jim Bowden, Peter Gammons, or any of us say in December, January, or February when there is a flurry of activity and everyone wants a piece of the excitement. If Purpura sticks to his guns we will have more fun in October than if he follows the posterior of another lemming.