The Other Side Of Houston's 'Missteps'

added 8/7/2014 by Ben DuBose

Remember the good old days of agreeing to disagree? It feels like a few folks need a reminder that it's possible to fundamentally disagree without the other side being incompetent or conspiratorial. In his "Are Astros Trying To Leave Houston?" column, Bob Hulsey cited several controversial decisions by the Astros as the foundation for his (admittedly very speculative) piece.

I won't go into the logistics of the Astros potentially leaving Houston, since that's obviously Bob's idle conjecture and something that, quite simply, is not going to happen. But it's the tone of Bob's accusations that are reminiscent of so many others, both within Houston media and fans, who seem unwilling to even consider the merits of an argument's other side.

Let's examine Bob's alleged Astro "missteps" on a case-by-case basis:

  • The 2017 timeline. The year 2017 is not a binding mandate from owner Jim Crane or GM Jeff Luhnow, so I'm not sure why some are so laser-focused on it. It was simply a best guess by a writer for Sports Illustrated, whose main interest is selling a magazine with a catchy cover.

    The mandate in Houston is simply to make the best baseball decisions the club can make for a long-term goal of being a regular championship contender. Maybe the first year of contention is 2015, maybe it's 2016, maybe it's 2017 or 2018. That remains to be seen, but the exact timetable is not the point. It's about building a consistent winner over the long haul.

    If a high-school prospect who may not be ready until 2018 appears to be a substantially better prospect than a college player who could arrive in 2016, the Astros would and should take the high-schooler. All things being equal, of course, the club would prefer a more-ready prospect, but it shouldn't be hard to grasp that the top priority is to select whoever they feel is best equipped to have a successful long-term MLB career. The timeline is secondary.

  • Not signing Brady Aiken. See aforementioned priorities. If the Aiken medical evaluation process led to concern over his pitching elbow, is there not a case to be made that the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 could have more long-term value?

    Yes, it's unfortunate the Astros did not sign a player they liked enough to draft first overall and heap gushing reviews upon. But it's not Houston's fault the MLB draft system does not call for extensive pre-draft medicals (the NFL and NBA laugh at this), and it's not Houston's fault that the financial room the club has for other draft picks like Jacob Nix is so directly tied to whether the team signs Aiken. Don't hate the team, hate the system.

  • Trading Jarred Cosart. This is 2014, not 1984, so I was a bit startled to see anyone using a pitcher's "winning record" in any sort of serious context. Fact is, Cosart has a 4.51 ERA - roughly average for an MLB starting pitcher - and his peripherals (1.45 WHIP) are even worse.

    Meanwhile, the Astros do have an abundance of comparable starting pitching. Brett Oberholtzer, who has a 4.17 ERA and 1.38 WHIP, has moved back and forth between Houston and Oklahoma City this season because the club did not have a consistent spot for him in the rotation. After the Cosart trade, a full-time spot is there.

    Additionally, the notion of trading Cosart for prospects is a disingenuous one that ignores the fact that one of those "prospects" is ready to play today. That's Jake Marisnick, who went 2-for-4 in Sunday's win with an RBI and a run scored along with playing strong defense in center field.

    (Editor's note: Yes, that's Jake Marisnick playing today who is 3-for-20 (.150) through Wednesday since joining the Astros and is batting .175 in 177 major league at bats (.432 OPS) so that might just qualify him as still a "prospect" since it cannot be hoped that there is no upside here.)

    As the Astros approached the deadline, they seemed to have a surplus of mediocre starting pitching (what Cosart was) and a shortage of competent outfielders, especially after injuries to Dexter Fowler and George Springer. The Cosart trade allowed the Astros to deal part of their surplus to address the shortage. Logically, it shouldn't be hard to grasp.

  • Raising ticket prices. The Astros hadn't raised season-ticket prices since 2008, which means they haven't even been able to address standard inflation costs. They needed to, in prior years, but couldn't with a laughable on-field product. In 2014, the Astros (47-67 through Wednesday) are no longer the worst team in baseball.

    They have several foundation pieces like Springer and Jon Singleton on the big league roster, and have stated plans to spend more aggressively in the upcoming free agency period. And fans are noticing - the Astros have the highest year-on-year attendance bump of any AL team.

    (Editor's note: The Astros per-game attendance this year is 22,205. As recently as 2009, the per-game attendance was 31,124 - and that was when most Houstonians could simply watch the game on tv if they didn't want to visit in person. It's a question of whether the timing of a price hike was right when it prompted reactions like this one and this one.)

    It's simple supply and demand. The on-field product is improving and fans have noticed by going to games in larger numbers. The front office plans to spend aggressively in the offseason and needs a bigger revenue stream to support those acquisitions. Prices had largely stayed flat since 2008. It wasn't hard to predict or conceptualize that a hike was coming.

  • Cosart's place on the 2015 season-ticket brochure cover. Luhnow's baseball operations staff does not clue in sales and marketing on each and every trade discussion they engage in. If they did, the leaks would be out of control.

    It's a simple and obvious disconnect between two completely different functions of an organization. The sales staff needed a brochure out on August 1 to start campaigning for renewals. They chose a player they felt fans might be familiar with. It is not Luhnow's responsibility, nor should it be, to keep them in the loop. It's an inherent situational risk that comes with any promotional material handled in any sport near the respective trade deadlines.

  • The TV situation. In case anyone hasn't heard, this isn't a phenomenon exclusive to Houston. The Dodgers launched a new network, SportsNet LA, that has been unable to strike deals with any major cable distributors besides parent company Time Warner (the equivalent of Comcast to CSN Houston). The CSN Houston venture simply came at a bad time when cable providers were more willing to wage war against the rising costs of sports networks.

    It sucks for the Astros that it hasn't worked out, but it isn't hard to understand what Drayton McLane (and Jim Crane, when he inherited the proposal) were thinking. They saw teams they directly compete with striking massive new deals for their TV rights, and they wanted a similar revenue stream for competitive purposes. Unfortunately, the Astros came in a year or two too late on the back side of the boom, and everything is tentatively tied up in bankruptcy and litigation.

    Can some disagree with those conclusions? Absolutely! But that's the whole point. These are difficult topics without easy answers. The Astros aren't incompetent or tone deaf, and they're not engaging in a conspiracy to leave town. They're just trying to make the best decisions they can to overcome a bad situation. And as tired as we all are of losing, the script isn't going to be flipped overnight.

    It's going to happen in stages, such as the team waking up on August 7, 2014 with four less wins than their entire total for 2013. The trend line remains pointed in the right direction. In the meantime, a bit more patience seems more appropriate than wild accusations.

    (Editor's note: Guest columns are always welcome. If you want to submit anything Astro-centric, or even baseball-centric of approximately 10 paragraphs or longer, send yours in .txt, .doc or .docx format to Columns are subject to minor editing.)