added 9/28/2014 by Bob Hulsey
In citing their plan to rebuild the Astros, Jim Crane and his people have said they wanted to model themselves after the Oakland A's, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. Let's forget for a moment that none of those regimes have ever won a Worlds Championship, let's examine what each of the three franchises have done with their success.
Can you name the "face" of the Oakland ballclub? By default and possibly by design, it has to be General Manager and Moneyball pioneer Billy Beane. That's because everyone else is completely expendable and not meant to be there for long. It isn't that the A's haven't had some great players come through town. It's that Oakland won't do any long term deals to pay players for their prime years. Oakland was at the forefront of selling off stars in their prime for multiple prospects who would then be dealt just before their agents could show up with the Brinks truck.
Now that free agency compensation rules have changed and most teams see their top prospects as gold bars rather than trade deadline bargaining chips, Beane's job has become more difficult. He can still churn out those 80-90 win teams but they've generally been overmatched at playoff time (they are 1-7 in playoff series during Beane's tenure). Part of the reason, of course, is that economics keep the A's among the poorest teams in baseball. Beane has to adjust his payroll accordingly. He deserves credit for his accomplishments and yet they prove it will only get you so far against the rich teams in the American League just as his A's fell short this summer against the free-spending Angels from Anaheim.
Another low-budget team, the Rays, was catapulted by several years of high draft positions to add star players like B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and David Price. They had a string of six straight winning seasons (five with 90 wins or more) which was snapped this season. They did roll up the truck to sign Longoria for a long-term deal but otherwise have had a similar approach to the A's - complete with dealing Price this summer fearing his free agency market would be out of their payroll range.
It looks like the surprise 2008 season when they reached the World Series after going 10 years of 90+ losses will be their high water mark as they gradually slide back into irrelevancy. Hope comes from a treasure trove of high draft picks from 2011 and the acquisition of Wil Myers as their next big star but you can see the desperation as they try to milk second-tier free agents out of their declining years as a way to stay afloat. Asking a lot of James Loney and David DeJesus smells like desperation to me.
The Rangers, of course, are a familiar story. They veered from the Moneyball script by adding top-dollar free agents such as Yu Darvish and adding big-money contracts like Prince Fielder while transitioning away from aging stars like Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz.
Our Arlington neighbors ran off five straight winning seasons and reached two World Series (both losses) before crash landing this season. Yet they seem to provide a steady stream of young talent that just needs time and opportunity to disprove the early impressions of this year. I dare say the 2014 Rangers showcased more future talent than the 2014 Astros have.
The difference between the Rangers and the other two examples is that they have the market and the money to acquire top talent. They don't have to constantly trade stars for prospects as Beane's Athletics do or sign second-tier free agents as the Rays do because of floundering markets and poor attendance.
The Astros' market has declined significantly in the past few years and may take a long time to recover because of the CSN disaster combined with an unwatchable three seasons of terrible baseball.
Perhaps modestly, the Astros don't mention the St. Louis Cardinals as one of their model franchises even though that's where Crane got his general manager whose deftness in drafting players was supposed to be the edge the Astros would have over the competition.
The Cardinals have had surprising success but they've also depended on aging vets like Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran to get them to the Series, perhaps more than all the young guys Jeff Luhnow drafted for them.
So what do the Astros have that might make anyone think they could be 2017 World Champions as Sports Illustrated raved this summer and the Astros front office did nothing to deflect?
Hard to see. They have second base covered. With Carlos Correa, they will have shortstop covered. If George Springer stays healthy and decides to sign the long-term deal the Astros want him to take, he could be a part of the equation. So could Jon Singleton if he can eventually be a .240-.250 hitter with power.
Chris Carter might still be around. Honestly, he strikes out way too much to be given a long leash but the front office thinks 30 homers is a fair trade for all those whiffs. I don't agree. Best case scenario, there are only 4-5 players in the organization now that one can forecast could be World Champion components in 2017. A lot of maybes, yes. But extremely few "sure things".
As far as pitchers, there's nobody in the organization that is a sure thing for 2017. Scott Feldman will be too old by then and he's no ace anyway. Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh only have one successful season under their belts. We'll want to see what they do for an encore before making them rotation certainties beyond next year. Mark Appel will probably be with the Astros then but just how good is he going to be if he still hasn't mastered the minors to this point?
The minors are dotted with solid arms but good minor league pitchers today seem to have the shelf life of mayflies. The concept there is to put together a lot of quantity and hope they meld into a critical mass of affordable quality pitching. It's a great theory - one that 29 other teams also try to accomplish.
The "win cheap" Moneyball method seems to work in terms of making a franchise competitive. It looks like a bad model to win a World Series if a franchise isn't willing to spend big on star players to get them over the hump. That's the real question with Crane. Is he willing to spend when it is time to spend or is he just happy to have the majors' tiniest payroll and pretend he'll spend big at some future date that conveniently never arrives?
It's too early to say with certainty but the niggling over Brady Aiken and Jacob Nix is a bad sign. They lost two of their top draft picks this year for a piddling (in baseball terms, not the real world the rest of us live in) $1.5 million. If the whole premise in the Luhnow regime is that they are superior drafters, they should have confidence in the people they draft to risk a little extra money. Either Crane wouldn't allow them to spend it or the Astros thought they could negotiate in bad faith. Neither leaves a good impression on future free agents.
So if you're ready to buy 2017 World Series tickets, caveat emptor. The teams they are patterning have no Worlds Championship rings and the players they have acquired thus far don't add up to anything close to a title. That all could change with some top dollar free agents but isn't that the sort of thing the Moneyball types scoff at and claim leads teams to ruin rather than ticker tape parades?
Maybe we can ask this year's Dodgers and Angels before they conduct their Freeway Series this October. The question about whether the Astros can win it all in 2017 might be rephrased "What's in Crane's wallet and is he willing to pry it open?"