A few years ago, when Astros fans were suffering through a downturn of fortunes, a league change and an ownership change, new Astros owner Jim Crane and new GM Jeff Luhnow opted to tear the franchise down to the A-frame and start over. We were told this was the "smart" way to rebuild because franchises won with high draft choices and to ensure they had top draft choices, the Astros gave their fans three years of embarrassingly bad baseball.
The Cubs built a champion.
(c) Washington Post
Jose Altuve and Jason Castro remarkably survived but everything else had to go-go-go. Not to worry, fans were told. The Astros were building for a championship and, when the time was right, Crane and his cronies would spend to put the Astros on top.
As the 2017 season approaches, Astros fans are still waiting to win a division. Meanwhile, the woebegone Chicago Cubs, who were the second-worst team in baseball back in 2012 when Crane took over, are celebrating their first world's title since 1908.
The Astros' model was to acquire young cheap talent that would mature together to form the nucleus of a dynasty. The Cubs, to their credit, have done what the Astros have only promised.
Houston took the early lead in that race when they used the 2012 draft to take SS Carlos Correa and P Lance McCullers. Drafting sixth, the Cubs took Albert Almora who has played a marginal role so far. The Cubs also traded for slugger Anthony Rizzo that year.
In 2013, the Cubs traded for current ace Jake Arrieta. The Astros used the first pick overall for P Mark Appel whom they have since traded for closer Ken Giles. With the next pick, the Cubs selected Kris Bryant who won this year's NL MVP award.
In 2014, the Cubs signed Cuban free agent Jorge Soler, traded for SS Addison Russell and drafted outfielder Kyle Schwarber. The Astros drafted and then did not sign P Brady Aiken but followed up with selecting 1B A.J. Reed in the second round.
Before the 2015 season, the Astros and Cubs made a trade. Chicago acquired OF Dexter Fowler. The Astros acquired IF Luis Valbuena and P Dan Straily. Houston made it into the playoffs as an 86-win wild card. The Cubs made it into the playoffs as a 97-win wild card.
The Astros drafted IF Alex Bregman with the compensation pick obtained by not signing Aiken and high-schooler Kyle Tucker with their own selection. These were, hopefully, the last of Houston's high first-round selections for awhile.
The Cubs went all-in for 2016 and signed free agents Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Jon Lester. They were rewarded with the championship the North Side had waited a century for. The Astros added Doug Fister and later signed Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel but largely stood pat and missed the playoffs.
So which one built the coveted "young nucleus" to use for future championships? The Cubs have (with ages in parentheses) Russell (23), Schwarber (24), Javier Baez (24), Bryant (25), Soler (25), Rizzo (27) and Heyward (27). Replenishing pitching depth will be critical in future years.
The Astros have a nucleus that includes Correa (22), Bregman (23), McCullers (23), Giles (26), Altuve (27) and Springer (27). The Astros also have a group of first-year players for whom the jury is still out including David Paulino (23), Jandel Gustave (24), Teoscar Hernandez (24), Joe Musgrove (24), Reed (24), Michael Feliz (24), Tony Kemp (25), Brady Rodgers (26), Tyler White (26) and Chris Devenski (26).
Houston just cut loose four free agents - Castro, Fister, Valbuena and Colby Rasmus and quickly replaced them with veterans Nori Aoki, Brian McCann, Charlie Morton and Josh Reddick. Reddick is the youngest, at age 30.
With arbitration cases still to come, the projected Astros payroll for 2017 is currently $98 million. The Cubs are coming off a payroll of $176 million and project so far to be $153 million. Would Crane be willing to spend the additional $50-$70 million to get into the same championship neighborhood as the Cubs? Don't count on it.
The Astros are in dire need of quality starting pitching, hoping to either see a bounceback from Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh or a major step up from the likes of McCullers, Musgrove and more.
The Cubs have a deeper and stronger nucleus without the need of a first overall draft choice while the Astros have a deeper bench of possibilities but fewer certain producers. While Luhnow's plan can't be viewed as a failure, the Cubs have proven that shrewd moves in all areas is the smarter rebuilding plan.
- Bob Hulsey