A clarification, not a review, of “Astroball”

Books, MLB, Uncategorized

Luhnow

Some – not all, but some – of Astroball by Ben Reiter came about because of the author’s half-joking prediction in 2014 that the then-worst team in baseball if not one of the worst teams in baseball history, the Houston Astros, would ride their rocket scientists, mathematicians, corporate veterans and Ivy League college graduates who permeate their front office to baseball dominance and a World Series win in 2017.

The story would be interesting but not so easily salable had that freak guess not happened to come true.

But it did.

To his credit, Reiter acknowledges the lightning bolt nature of that prediction/guess/divine intervention– whatever you want to call it – coming to fruition. However, the remainder of the book serves as a love letter to the architect of the Astros’ rise, general manager Jeff Luhnow, to the degree that even his wrongs turned out to be not so wrong; even his mistakes contained a method behind the perceived madness; and any glaring gaffe stemming from arrogance, ignorance or coldblooded inhumanity could be mitigated and explained away.

As the Astros and Reiter bask in the afterglow of the achievement of their ultimate vision, it’s ironic that the relentless criticisms of the organization that had receded into the background rose again with the near simultaneous release of the book and, within 20 days, the club’s acquisition of closer Roberto Osuna who was only available from the Toronto Blue Jays because he was under suspension by Major League Baseball for an alleged domestic violence incident for which he was arrested with the case still pending in Toronto.

In one shot, the Astros regained their reputation for putting performance above people; for indicating that profit takes precedence over right and wrong.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade for Osuna, the handwringing on Twitter and outright criticism by columnists and radio hosts made it seem as if the Astros had never exhibited this type of borderline sociopathic tendencies in the past when it is precisely how they behaved to get so far, so fast. The World Series title and the narrative of how it was achieved gave them an “it worked” safety net.

Suddenly, the intriguing stories of Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Carlos Beltran and Sig Mejdal – for the most part, positive portrayals of generally likable people – were jolted back to the ambiguity of some of the Astros’ clever, manipulative and underhanded tactics used to achieve their ends.

What cannot be denied and was shown again with the Osuna trade is the Astros did and do treat human beings as cattle whose survival is based on nothing more than their current usefulness; that any pretense of acceptable and unacceptable behavior hinges on cost and usefulness. The book’s attempt to humanize Luhnow and his staff in contrast with the manner they run the team was immediately sabotaged by acquiring Osuna.

The big questions about “Astroball” should not center around what’s in the book, but what’s not in the book.

Those who are either not invested in the concept of the Astros’ new way of doing things being the wave of the future or did not walk into the movie when it was half over and remember exactly what happened during the reconstruction will wonder about the following:

  • How is the name Andrew Friedman mentioned once for his role as president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers and not as Astros owner Jim Crane’s first choice to be the Astros GM – with Luhnow the second choice?
  • How is it possible that the name Jon Singleton, who received $10 million for nothing, is nowhere in the text?
  • Why were the circumstances under which manager Bo Porter was fired completely ignored and treated as part of a planned process?
  • Why was the rushed trade for Carlos Gomez a shrugged off mistake with one sentence dedicated to it?

One man’s reasonable explanation is another’s farcical alibi. Depending on one’s perspective and agenda, both can appear true.

The drafting of Brady Aiken and subsequent attempt to lowball him following an agreed-upon contract was adapted to show how brilliantly conniving Luhnow was for offering the precise bonus amount to benefit the club in the subsequent draft should Aiken reject the offer as they knew he would – in fact, there’s an attempt to make Luhnow look benevolent for how Aiken was treated.

The release of J.D. Martinez is an admitted mistake…but then-manager Porter was blamed because he only gave Martinez 18 spring training at-bats the year Martinez arrived touting a new swing as if Porter was not being told what to do and had any choice in the matter as to who played.

“He (Porter) also couldn’t fail to provide someone like J.D. Martinez enough at-bats for the organization to make an informed decision about him.” (Astroball, page 143)

Are they seriously saying that Porter did not have it hammered into his head what the front office wanted and which players were to be given a closer look; that he was not an implementer of front office mandate with little-to-no actual say-so?

The above quote is one of many in the book that provide a between-the-lines elucidation of what the entire goal of the book is: to tie all the loose ends from that 2014 prediction to the prediction coming to pass, objective truth be damned.

Porter’s firing, rather than being due to the clear insubordination and an attempt to go over Luhnow’s head to Crane regarding how the team was being run, was mystically transformed into a preplanned decision.

Porter and numerous veteran players had an issue with former first overall draft pick Mark Appel being brought to Minute Maid Park for a bullpen session with pitching coach Brent Strom to see if they could fix what ailed him. (They couldn’t.) It was then that Porter and Luhnow were at an impasse and Luhnow was right to fire him. But part of the “process”? After Porter’s hiring when Luhnow made the preposterous statement that he might manage the team for two decades? How does that work? How is this explained away other than it being ignored?

It’s these and many other subtle and not-so subtle twisting of reality that call the entire book and its contents into question on a scale of ludicrousness and goal-setting to cast the Astros in the best possible light, all stemming from that silly prediction from 2014 when it was an act comparable to casually throwing a basketball over one’s shoulder with eyes closed and somehow hitting nothing but net.

One cannot discuss “Astroball” (the figurative New Testament for the reliance on statistics in baseball) without mentioning the Old Testament, “Moneyball”.

“Moneyball” gets a passing mention as the text that kicked open the door for baseball outsiders with ideas that were once considered radical and antagonistic to baseball’s ingrained conventional orthodoxy, but the two stories are intertwined like conjoined twins for whom separation would mean unavoidable death.

Reiter takes clear steps to avoid the same mistakes Michael Lewis made in “Moneyball”. Instead of it being an overt baseball civil war where the storyline was old vs. new and Billy Beane sought to eliminate the antiquated, Luhnow is portrayed as integrating the old guard and formulating strategies to quantify their assessments.

Whereas “Moneyball” took the MLB draft and turned Beane into a “card counter”, Astroball acknowledges nuance and luck in the draft.

While ““Moneyball”” treats the postseason as an uncontrollable crapshoot, “Astroball” implies the same thing without trying to eliminate any responsibility for continually losing as the Athletics have done repeatedly.

Astroball does its best to inclusive, albeit in a borderline condescending way, while “Moneyball” sought to toss anyone not on the train under it and then, for good measure, backed over them to make sure they were dead.

To that end, Astroball is somehow more disingenuous than “Moneyball”. “Moneyball” is how the old-schoolers are truly viewed in the new-age, sabermetric circles while their extinction is pursued opaquely in Astroball, making it easier for them to carry it out.

Those invested in the story being considered true will not give an honest review, nor will they ask the questions as to why certain facts were omitted even if they know the answers.

With that, the narrative of the Astros and their rise under Luhnow and Crane presented in Astroball is complete and a vast portion of readers and observers will believe every single word of it just as they did with “Moneyball”. They get their validation. And it’s irrelevant whether that validation was the entire point, as it clearly was.

Discarding facts from the past aside, the Osuna acquisition drops an inconvenient bomb right in the middle of their glorification. It’s that wart that shows who the Astros really are. If they just admitted it, they would deserve grudging respect. They claim to care about a player’s conduct and give hedging statements as to “zero tolerance” with that “zero” only existing when he’s an Astros employee. In short, they don’t care about Osuna’s alleged domestic assault just as they didn’t care about Aiken; they didn’t care about Porter; they didn’t care about Martinez; they didn’t care about any of the people who were callously discarded because they did not fit into the tightening circle of those who believe what they believe or will agree to subvert their own preferences as a matter of survival in a world they neither know nor understand.

For those who have a general idea of what is truly happening in baseball front offices and do not take these tall tales at face value, the book is entertaining enough in a televised biopic sort of way as long the creative nonfictional aspect is placed into its proper context. That context goes right back to the 2014 “prediction” that would have been largely ignored had it not happened to come true.

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Crane’s Astros expectations: positive vibes or implied threats?

MLB

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects his club to make the playoffs this year.

Well, he thinks they can make the playoffs.

It’s a goal.

Or he believes they’ll make the playoffs this year.

Perhaps it would be better stated to say they’d better make the playoffs this year.

He didn’t say “or else” but it’s clearly implied. Crane’s growing impatience and ambiguous statements as to what he thinks the Astros are going to accomplish this season are having a blatant influence in his front office expediting their veteran acquisitions to try and get better in a hurry in 2015. The hurry that Crane is in might not correspond to what his hand-picked front office led by general manager Jeff Luhnow had in mind when he started the teardown to an expansion-level entity and that, along with the variety of missteps that Luhnow has made in his time as GM, could lead to major structural changes if the team doesn’t show enough improvement to suit Crane.

Going from 72 wins to 82 wins would constitute a marked improvement. It’s unlikely in the American League West. Combine that with Crane’s clear edict to make a playoff run and this team is in trouble before spring training starts. His expectations are not reasonable even with their acquisitions and moderate improvements. And that’s the problem that the organization faces in trying to placate the owner and sell a media and fan base on believing the unbelievable. Faith is one thing, delusion is another. Right now, the owner is deluded.

Even staunch supporters of the front office are looking at this winter with confusion as to what the plan is and whether it’s changed. Surrendering two of their top ten minor league prospects – Michael Foltynewicz and Rio Ruiz – as part of the package to land Evan Gattis was puzzling and indicative that the speed with which the team is trying to get better doesn’t coincide with what the stat guys in the front office would have preferred.

That seems to stem from ownership edict.

While Crane might understand that winning in baseball or sports in general is not a simple matter of improving one’s farm system with high draft picks, by trading veterans for other teams’ top prospects, and acquiring useful veteran players when the time is right, that realization is in conflict with the hammering he’s taken since he bought the team. After three years of telling the fans to wait with the justification for their patience being prospect handbooks and nods of approval in the stat-centric faction of the media, it’s still not enough to yield on-field results greater than going from 107 losses in 2012 to 90 in 2014.

Yes, they’re younger. Yes, they’re cheaper. But are they ready to contend as Crane is openly stating he wants them to? And how much is their front office’s plan being damaged by the none-too-subtle influence from the owner that he wants noticeable results sooner than they would otherwise have had if they’d stayed the course and not made these questionable deals like trading for Gattis and Luis Valbuena and signing Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Jed Lowrie?

The problem with diving headfirst into the management style of Luhnow with his coldblooded adherence to numbers and clumsy handling of any issue that requires a touch of humanity is that there was always that chance that it wouldn’t be one smooth rise from dreadful to dreaded.

Can they achieve the heights that Crane expects this season? If everything goes exactly right and every single move they made works perfectly, then they can hover around the fringes of contention as they’re currently constructed. In today’s game, the “fringes of contention” doesn’t mean what it did 20 years ago when that meant a team that won 88 to 93 games might not make the playoffs. The term today means that the team might win 81 games and have a chance in late September to steal a Wild Card spot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the definition of a prototypical “playoff contender.”

It’s easy to say that if Crane was going to go so far against the grain of what was conventional in baseball that he had to fully commit to it for a full five years. But as the extremely wealthy people who own sports franchises quickly learn, their critics are not intimidated by their wealth and success as those who they’re doing business with are; they don’t bow to the dollar as politicians do; and they don’t care if a person has made billions by creating, building or investing. That can lead to shellshock and reactive maneuvering, which is what appears to be happening with the Astros as they pivot into what the owner expects will be a contender when that likelihood is moderate at best.

Their margin for error is nonexistent and, given what the owner wants, so is that of Luhnow and his staff. If this doesn’t work, then it’s clear that the owner is going to make changes. They might be nuanced to a more conventional baseball approach with an sprinkling of people who are not running their teams by the numbers and a stripping of Luhnow’s nearly all-encompassing power. Or it could be drastic with an influx of people who are old-school baseball people led by someone whose hiring as a powerful baseball voice in his organization will automatically take the heat off the owner: Nolan Ryan.

To think that this team will be a playoff contender in the American League West and pronounce that to the public is an owner putting his front office into a terrible position in which they’ll be blamed if it doesn’t work. But maybe that’s what he wants. Maybe he’d like to make a change and doesn’t want to take the blame for a strategy that didn’t work. So he’ll make this demand in the face of all realism and then make the changes with the justification that he currently doesn’t have. He doesn’t want to take the blame even though, in the end, he’s the one who’s responsible because he’s the one who gave Luhnow the green light to do what he did at the start, then forced his hand to alter the template before it was wise to do so.

Rethinking the GM, Part III—American League West

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Click on these links to read part I and part II.

Texas Rangers

Jon Daniels is a popular and well-respected GM today but that wasn’t the case when he took over for John Hart in October of 2005 and one of the first big trades he made sent Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young to the Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. That will go down as one of the worst trades in the history of the sport.

If he was able to rebound from that and craft the Rangers into an annual contender with a reasonable payroll and deep farm system while dealing with the alpha-male presence of Nolan Ryan and navigating his way through the financial woes of former owner Tom Hicks, then he’s got something on the ball.

Daniels got the GM job very young at 28 and clearly wasn’t ready for it, but grew into the job and is not a stat guy or scouting guy, but uses every outlet at his disposal and is also able to do the dirty work mentioned earlier to consolidate his power.

Oakland Athletics

Just ignore Moneyball for a moment when thinking about Billy Beane. Look at his body of work without the accolades, best-selling book and ridiculous move to accompany the star status Beane’s cultivated and persona Beane has created and look at his work objectively. Is he a good GM who worked his way up through the ranks from scouting to assistant GM to GM to part owner? Yes. Would he be as lusted after without that ridiculous bit of creative non-fiction known as Moneyball? No.

It can be argued that Moneyball has done an exponential amount of damage in comparison to the good it did in introducing the world at large to statistics that they would not otherwise have realized existed. Due to Moneyball, everyone thinks they can study a spreadsheet, calculate some numbers and suddenly run a big league baseball team. One of the under-reported aspects of Moneyball is that Beane played in the Major Leagues with a nondescript career as a journeyman when he was talented enough to be a superstar. It’s part of the narrative that made the Beane story so fascinating, but now that he’s become this totem many of his worshippers probably aren’t even aware that he played at all.

Beane had a perfect storm when he took over as GM. There had been a brief Sports Illustrated profile of him and his transition for player to scout and he was known in MLB circles as an up-and-comer, but the Athletics were so bad and so consistently bad for several years due to financial constraints that Beane was able to implement the strategies of statistics into his player procurement. It worked because no one else was doing it or paying big money for players who didn’t just get on base, but had undervalued attributes.

Beane’s “genius” has been a media creation. He’s been smart, he’s been lucky and he’s also been unlucky. He’s crafted the image of the brilliantly cold corporate titan when it’s not true. He’s a former player who entered the front office, took advantage of the opportunities presented to him and has been successful. A large part of that is due to the circular nature of Moneyball giving him the freedom and leeway to make bad trades and have half-a-decade of futility in which he blamed everyone but the man in the mirror and still kept his job.

Los Angeles Angels

Jerry Dipoto has two issues that are tarnishing his reputation as a GM. One, people don’t remember that it was Dipoto, functioning as the interim GM of the Diamondbacks after Josh Byrnes was fired in 2010, who made two trades that have paid significant dividends to the current Diamondbacks by acquiring Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs for Dan Haren and getting Daniel Hudson for Edwin Jackson. Two, he’s overseeing an Angels team that has played better recently but is still in rampant disarray with overpaid, underperforming players; a manager who has had his own power within the organization mitigated by the hiring of Dipoto; and is trying to rebuild the farm system in his own way with scouts he knows and a new school sensibility while the owner wants a championship now and the manager has a contract to 2018. It’s highly doubtful that Dipoto wanted to commit so much money and so many years to the likes of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

Dipoto was a journeyman relief pitcher who scouted and worked in many front offices with varying philosophies before getting the Angels job and is a qualified baseball man. It’s difficult to know what he’s wanted to do with the Angels and what’s been forced upon him. If the situation really comes apart, he might be cleared out with the rest of the Angels hierarchy and have to wait to get another opportunity due to the damage done to his reputation with what’s happening with the Angels.

Seattle Mariners

The ice is cracking under the feet of Jack Zduriencik and if he is eventually dismissed he will be a cautionary tale that no one will listen to when anointing the next “genius” by giving credit for that which he had nothing to do with. After the fact, if you ask Zduriencik what his biggest regret is, it’s likely to be that the Mariners had such a luck-filled rise from 101 losses the year before he arrived to 85 wins in his first year on the job. It accelerated the process spurring the trade for Cliff Lee and drastically raised the expectations.

Unsurprisingly the expectations were not met; much of Zduriencik’s subsequent moves have gone wrong and if he is indeed fired, the next GM will likely benefit from the farm system seeds Zduriencik planted. That brings me to the next point: there are GMs who are better-served as assistants, farm directors, scouts, and other lower-level positions in an organization. It may not be as flashy, but is no less important and for all the talk of “GM prospects,” it must be examined whether or not the person will be able to do all aspects of the job as an overseer rather than as an underling.

Houston Astros

Jeff Luhnow is not only getting a pass for the horrific Astros club he’s put together—that is on a level with an expansion team—but for the Cardinals fertile farm system that is continually producing players. The draft is a communal effort and not one person deserves or should receive all of the credit in the same manner that a GM shouldn’t get the blame if drafts go poorly. Luhnow didn’t work his way up in baseball and was a private businessman when Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt hired him. This infuriated the old-school people in the Cardinals organization namely Walt Jocketty, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan and created factions between the stat people and the scouting people that eventually resulted in Jocketty’s firing. Luhnow also lost the power struggle to LaRussa in the months prior to leaving the Cardinals to take over the Astros. If nothing else, it was the experience in trying to transition into a baseball front office that has shaped Luhnow’s building of his Astros staff and construction of the roster from the top down as he’s got people who are going to do things in the stat-based way and are told before they’re hired how it’s going to be or they’re not going to get the job.

Of course the portrayal of Luhnow as the newest/latest “genius” and musings as to when (not if) he’ll be the subject of the new Moneyball are absurd. In four years he could be in the same position as Zduriencik or he could be Andrew Friedman. Know this: Astros owner Jim Crane is not going to accept failure and if the Luhnow project doesn’t work all the trust and belief that Crane has put into the Luhnow experiment will be quickly forgotten if the team doesn’t show concrete results on the field.

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The Astros Blueprint Begins To Fade

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For the Astros, all of a sudden the blueprint isn’t as simple as plugging a bunch of numbers into the machine and achieving the desired result. With the resignation of CEO George Postolos there’s speculation that the Astros “united front” of rebuilding by detonating the entire organization isn’t as united as it was portrayed to be. There’s also talk that Nolan Ryan now has an opening with the Astros to be the team president since the Rangers have mitigated his CEO role and he was unhappy about it.

To put an end to the speculation on both ends, Postolos is not a baseball guy. He’s a business guy who assisted Astros owner Jim Crane in getting the franchise. Losing him is irrelevant.

Ryan has ties to the Astros fans from his days pitching for them, but think about it logically: He would be leaving the Rangers because his say-so was supposedly undermined by the promotion of GM Jon Daniels to head of baseball operations and Ryan is now seen as a figurehead, but going to the Astros and working for GM Jeff Luhnow and placating the fans who are angry at the team being so supernaturally terrible would be the epitome of a figurehead move. Luhnow certainly wouldn’t listen to Ryan’s old-school baseball theories and the stat people in the front office would roll their eyes at him when he was out of the room. It wouldn’t be a lateral move, but a step down into the “old man” status he so clearly loathes. In actuality, the one place aside from public relations in which Ryan could help the Astros is on the mound. Since he could throw 90-mph years after his retirement, there’s a pretty good chance that he could still throw in the 80s even at age 66 and would have the pitching savvy to do better than what the Astros are currently tossing out there.

Dismissing the departure of Postolos and the talk of hiring Ryan, the Astros are coming to the inevitable conclusion that the fans being onboard with this expansion-style rebuild was fleeting. They’re not going to pay to see a product that is so blatantly and intentionally not of Major League quality, nor are they going to sit happily while the owner scoffs at the fans wanting him to spend more money to at least make the team cosmetically better. It’s easy to draw up the plan for a teardown and reconstruction without accounting for the blowback from such a decision. There’s support for what Luhnow and Crane are doing and that support will not waver in places like the halls of Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law’s house, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to do whatever they want with the fans merrily going along with it sans complaints. Ryan might quiet them briefly if he was hired, but how long would that last while his suggestions were being ignored and Crane was trotting him out as a human shield to protect him from fan and media vitriol? Fans don’t go to the park to see the team president do his presidenting. Most probably didn’t know who Postolos was and while they’d know Ryan, that wouldn’t perfume the stink that these Astros are generating.

The key for Crane is twofold: 1) can he stand the constant attacks he’ll be under as the team gets worse before it gets better? And 2) Can Luhnow find the talent to make the club viable again?

On the first front, Crane is probably not accustomed to people talking to or about him the way they currently are. Rich, successful businessmen aren’t pleased about criticism and when it’s an alpha-male Texan where any small concession is seen as a sign of weakness and can cost money and clients, it’s magnified.

Regarding Luhnow, because the Astros are going to have so many high draft picks and are pouring most of their resources into development, it will be hard not to get better and show signs of significant improvement eventually. Whether that will yield the results that are expected in a replication of the Rays or the new “genius” in the Moneyball sense remains to be seen and it’s not guaranteed to happen. Already there should be concerns that their hand-picked manager Bo Porter is starting to look overmatched and was rightfully mocked because he didn’t know a fundamental rule of the game last week against the Angels. To make matters worse, his coaches didn’t point out to him that what he was doing was illegal either. That he got away with it only made it look worse.

There are similarities between another Texas team that was purchased by a brash rich man who didn’t want to hear what didn’t work in the past as Jerry Jones bought the floundering Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989. Jones said some stupid things as Crane has, but he also had the foresight and guts to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson to put him in charge of the entire on-field operation. Of course it helped that Troy Aikman was sitting there as the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and that Johnson was a ruthless wizard with moving up and down the NFL draftboard and dispatching those who couldn’t or wouldn’t help him achieve his goals as rapidly as possible. But the key for those Cowboys was the Herschel Walker trade in which Johnson fleeced the Vikings for a bounty of draft picks that he used to put a Super Bowl team together in four years.

Jeff Luhnow is not Jimmy Johnson in terms of personality nor intensity, can’t trade up and down the MLB draftboard, and he doesn’t have a Herschel Walker equivalent on his roster to trade. Porter is not Johnson in terms of on-field strategic skill and in threatening and pushing his coaches and players to get it done or else.

Unless there’s some past business animosity between the two, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones has called Crane as Al Davis used to call Jones during the Cowboys’ 1-15 season in Jones/Johnson’s first season running the team and told him to keep his chin up. By “chin up” I don’t mean Jones is suggesting to Crane to have the ill-advised, multiple plastic surgeries Jones has had as he’s aged, but to keep his chin up in response to the raking he’s getting for the atrociousness of his team. Not only does Crane need to keep his chin up, but it had better be able to take a punch as well because they’re starting in earnest now and won’t stop until there’s a marked improvement in the on-field product. And that’s a long way away.

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The Astros Reality Is Beginning To Sink In

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We’ve come a long way in a month. On opening night in Texas, the Astros beat up on the Rangers 8-2. Following the preseason prognostications as to how bad the Astros would be (I had them at 45-117), that one game inspired an absurd belief that they wouldn’t be all that bad. There were orgasmic reactions to GM Jeff Lunow’s in-game interview on ESPN with the response being, “He has a plan!!! He…has…a…plaaaannnnnnn, ohhhhhhh!!!!”

Owner Jim Crane made some arrogant and obnoxious statements in a Wall Street Journal article that went largely unreported and uncriticized (except for me); he was lauded for providing every player with an I-Pad like his players were a group of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers given a “frightening new information machine.” Luhnow made an absurd projection that manager Bo Porter might be managing the club for decades. On and on.

From the time Luhnow was hired, the media has squealed in pre-teen girl delight as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert at the new metrics permeating the organization from top to bottom. They’re a pure stat guy club complete with the bizarre titles (Sig Mejdal—Director of Decision Sciences); multitudes being hired from various stat guy sources (Baseball Prospectus); a mutually beneficial “interview” of Keith Law for a position in the front office in which the ESPN “expert” made a great show of “choosing” to stay at ESPN when a job may not have even been offered; and the new, unapologetic manner in which the Astros are shunning any and all old-school techniques preferred by veteran baseball people.

There won’t be any inter-organizational squabbles and questioning of Luhnow’s credentials as there were while he was with the Cardinals and Tony LaRussa played sharp-elbowed politics to mitigate Luhnow’s influence and win the turf war. He’s in charge. It’s his baby and, admirably, he’s doing it his way and hiring people who will implement his vision.

In the end, it’ll work or it won’t. If it does, it will have more to do with the team accumulating years and years of high draft picks because they were so historically awful than because of any undervalued finds on the part of the front office. That’s just reality. It was so with the Rays, will be so with the Astros and is a fact that those looking to anoint the next “genius” will conveniently brush to the side when embarking on an archaeological dig for reasons to twist the narrative in their preferred direction—exactly like Moneyball.

Now the mainstream media—especially those who are unabashed stat guys who defend Bill James’s most ludicrous statements regarding Joe Paterno and think Billy Beane’s bowel movements are objects of worship—are not only catching on as to how bad the 2013 Astros will be, but are speculating as to whether they can rival the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets in terms of historic awfulness. The Astros are this bad with a few useful veterans on their roster. Imagine what they’ll look like in August once they’ve dealt away Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras and maybe even Jose Altuve. They’ll have a legitimate chance to reach the depths of the Cleveland Spiders of 1899. And I’m not kidding.

The media can present the contextualized explanations as to what the Astros are doing (“What’s the difference between winning 40 games and 60 games?”) and they’ll kindasorta be right. It doesn’t make much difference. But to the fans of the club who’ll have to endure this and listen to the mantra of “trust us, we’re smart” from Crane, et al., it’s going to get tiresome quickly as they’re being abused. Crane is going to need a thick skin to get through the amount of cow refuse he’ll have flung at him as the season moves along. As a loud and brash Texan, he talks like he’s ready to withstand the criticism, but when it starts coming from those who were supportive as part of their own personal agenda and they leap from the plummeting rocketship in self preservation, we’ll see if he lashes out or stays the course. I have a hunch that it will be both. Then there will really be some good stuff to write about as Crane is saying derogatory things to critics/fans because his team is so dreadfully, embarrassingly bad. He’s used to people kissing his ass and they’ll be kicking it instead. That adds up to an explosive response that will come sooner rather than later.

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Loria’s Marlins Mistake

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Instead of the accusation that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria made the change, let’s say that the Marlins President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest or, preferably, GM Michael Hill called down to manager Mike Redmond and told him to switch the pitchers in the day/night doubleheader against the Twins and had Jose Fernandez pitch the opener rather than Ricky Nolasco. Would there be this huge uproar over Loria’s “interference?”

Loria denies that he did this, but given the allegations from Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle that Loria lied to their faces and his history of using the gray areas of business to justify his flexibility with the truth, believing him is impossible.

The angry reactions for this, however, are over-the-top. In the above-linked piece, Jeff Passan writes that Loria is guilty of “overstepping boundaries no other owner in baseball would dare.” How he would Passan know this? Is it out of the realm of possibility that owners across baseball are letting their opinions be known and that the employees are well-advised to, as Passan also put it in reference to Loria and manager Mike Redmond, “listen to the man who signs his paycheck?”

What happened to the front office running the team and having a pliable manager who does what he’s told as an implementer of the organizational plan? Whether or not the organizational plan meets the approval of the media and fans is irrelevant. Loria is the owner as he’s more than willing to say and act upon. He did it again in this case.

As for the potential undermining of Redmond, the threat of losing his job, and the unhappiness of the players, what was expected? Just as history has shown that Loria is willing to do anything at any time with gutting trades, lies, bloviating that would’ve embarrassed George Steinbrenner, financial shenanigans that Frank McCourt would feel are excessive, and arrogance that would lead Jim Crane to cringe, he’s also willing to fire managers and has no issue ignoring the feelings of players.

Redmond is in his first major league managing job and any job involving managing/coaching for the Marlins is rapidly turning into being hired by the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to coach the team: a no-lose/no-blame situation. If good things happen, they were unexpected and a byproduct of the good work done by the manager; if bad things happen, they were a result of the endless dysfunction and impossibility of the circumstances. Redmond has a three-year contract and his salary is unknown, but given that it’s the Marlins, that he’s a rookie and they’re still paying former manager Ozzie Guillen the final three years of his four-year, $10 million contract, Redmond’s salary can’t be more than $1.5 million for the duration of the deal. For Loria, if he decides to make a change at some point for any reason, that’s a business expense he’s ready to absorb.

Respect of the players? How much respect was Redmond going to have from the start? The Marlins veterans know what’s happening and will go along to get along, waiting to be traded or allowed to leave as free agents; the young players have no power whatsoever to disrespect the manager, so it’s similar to Redmond still managing in the minor leagues: do what you’re told, keep your mouth shut or you won’t play.

Regarding the supposed “standard protocol” that Passan references when it comes to Nolasco having the option of which game he’ll pitch, it’s not in the basic agreement nor is it a gentleman’s agreement that Loria is beholden to adhere to. It’s a courtesy and Loria ignored it. Nolasco is in the last year of his contract and is going to be traded sooner rather than later. Why should the Marlins care what he thinks about anything?

In retrospect, what Loria should have done was to have Beinfest or Hill tell Redmond of the change. Speaking of protocol, the smart protocol for Loria would have been to use intermediaries to get what he wanted done. This would have insulated him and provided plausible deniability for his orders. It would’ve been known, but not known and the deluge of criticism mitigated.

Either way, what’s the difference? He’s the owner. He can do what he wants. And he’s proven that to be exactly what he’s going to do.

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Accepting the Marlins Inevitable Reality (It Was Clear from the Get-go)

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In today’s New York Times, Tyler Kepner writes about the empty seats in Marlins Park; about the gutting of the franchise; and the possibly bright future the Marlins have because of all the prospects they accumulated in trades of veterans.

We can go into the lack of attendance and perceived wrongdoing of owner Jeffrey Loria, but what he does is in the same ballpark (pardon the dual entendre) of what the Astros are currently doing, but the Astros are receiving widespread praise for putting together a big league club that is a big league club in name only. Weeks ago, I gave Astros owner Jim Crane a written lashing for his arrogant statements that if fans want the team to spend money, they should write him a check among other, “I’m a big shot, you’re not” alpha male nonsense, but no one else did. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is a stat guy centerfold and little criticism is heading the way of their front office in spite of their on-field atrocity.

The political machinations that got Marlins Park built, predominately at the expense of Floridians, is still being sorted out with allegations, accusations and SEC investigations. Does anyone really believe that the investigation will amount to much, if any penalties for the likes of Loria or the powerbrokers who facilitated him getting his new park and not paying for it? Loria fits every small bit of chicanery into the flexible rules under which he operates. Similar to the Astros within-the-rules stripping of their payroll to the bare minimum and putting a team on the field that on most days is non-competitive against legitimate Major League teams, there’s no rule saying Loria can’t sign free agents and trade them a year later; that he can’t fire his manager Ozzie Guillen one year into a four year contract; that he can’t take the benefits from the new park, pocket the profits and flip a chubby middle finger at anyone who dares question him.

The Marlins were a disappointment in 2012. Loria was right to fire Guillen for the poor job he did on the field and the ridiculous statement he made early in the season praising Fidel Castro. He had options rather than gutting the club (again) by retooling with a different manager and a tweak here and there to give it another shot in 2013. But it wouldn’t have made a difference with the fans if the Marlins were contending in 2013 with a manager who didn’t alienate a vast portion of the fans they hoped to attract. It wasn’t and isn’t going to work in Miami because the fans aren’t interested.

The Marlins attendance improved dramatically last season in comparison to 2011. During that year, their usual numbers were between 10,000 and 20,000. It was an annual problem. When there were higher attendance figures, it stemmed from ancillary attractions like the Mets and Dodgers fans who’ve relocated to Florida and wanted to watch their teams. One the one hand, it’s not fair to question the reasons the fans are coming—their money is just as green regardless which club they’re rooting for—but on the other, the Marlins can look at the increase in attendance and realize that it’s fleeting and say, “Yeah, but they didn’t come to see us,” and act accordingly.

In 2012, the attendance was better than it was when they played in Sun Life Stadium, a football facility. With the new park, they regularly drew crowds of nearly 30,000 and finished twelfth in the National League in attendance. That’s counting the second half after they’d conceded the season and traded Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Before 2012, they were annually at the bottom in attendance going back 15 years. In 1997, when they spent a ton of money and won the World Series, they were fifth in the National League in attendance, but it’s petered out and whether the team was good or not, the fans don’t have the passion. Since then, it’s gone rapidly downhill and even after they won another World Series in 2003, there wasn’t the usual accompanying attendance spike. The Marlins have stayed anchored to the bottom of the ocean of attendance.

And that’s the point. The Miami fans are not fickle, hammering home the point that the new park shouldn’t have been built in the first place. If someone stood up and told Loria to take his threats and his team and move if that’s what he had to do, none of the other stuff—the park, the investigation, the free agents, the trades, the faux anguish—would’ve happened. If he received a new park in San Antonio, Oregon, North Carolina or anywhere, the overwhelming probability is that he would’ve moved and done the exact same thing that he does in Miami—bought people’s favor, made promises and then utilized flexible statements and semantics to justify the gutting of the team and defend against accusations of ruthless profiteering. He’s a combination of a politician and a classically brutal businessman. He may want to have a team that wins, but when he sees that it’s not going to happen, all bets are off. It’s admirable in its way if you know what you’re dealing with going in.

Amid all the head shaking and abuse raining down on Loria, it all goes back to the initial mistake: giving in to his threats to move the club and Florida allowing him to get his park without paying for it. No one should be surprised, chagrined, or angry at the Marlins method of doing business. The system was rife for abuse and Loria abused it. There was no other way this could’ve ended and if the traded players Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, et al, didn’t see it coming; if the people who could’ve stopped the park from being built didn’t make a greater effort to do so; if MLB is allowing clubs like the Marlins and Astros to do whatever they want in their own best interests, then it’s on them for allowing it to happen. Lamenting it after the fact as if the money spent on the park would’ve been better-used for charitable causes is ludicrous. The Monday morning quarterbacking is done so in the same vein as the original decision to let the Marlins build the park. It was done for expediency and self-interest. The park wasn’t for the fans nor was it to “save” baseball in Miami because baseball in Miami can’t be saved. They don’t care whether it’s there or not.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part I

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We’re about a week away from a Jeff Luhnow bowel movement being encased in a climate controlled, clear reinforced plastic viewing chamber to be marveled at and admired 50, 100, 200 years from now in Cooperstown as if it was the work of a genius and not a bran muffin and coffee he had for breakfast on a particular morning in April of 2013.

For now, the adoration lavished on the Astros GM is limited to orgasmic sighs, lusty Twitter comments, and Hardball Talk postings about the I-Pads all the Astros’ players were given, beatific grins at the catchphrase in the clubhouse (“Process”), Baseball America columns discussing the number of Luhnow draft picks that opened the season on a big league roster, and the method in which Luhnow is rebuilding the Astros as if they’re an expansion team.

Of course it’s nonsense. With the free hand Luhnow’s been given by Astros owner Jim Crane, he’s in an enviable position on multiple fronts. First, the owner isn’t expecting results immediately and is letting the GM do whatever he wants in every aspect of the organization. Second, the media is rolling around and contorting itself into a pretzel to allow Luhnow a wide swath of absolution in spite of formulating a 2013 club that is going to be among the worst in the history of the sport. Third, his resume is being taken so drastically out of context that it won’t be long before he’s given credit for the Cardinals busting through from the team that constantly lost in the playoffs under Walt Jocketty/Tony LaRussa pre-2006 to the one that won two World Series in 2006 and 2011 with Luhnow as the scouting director. Fourth, he has the support of one of the largest growing constituencies in all of sports: the bloggers and social media “experts” who think they can run a club, scout, and analyze because they play fantasy baseball and can read a spreadsheet, yet never picked up a baseball in their lives and wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.

Luhnow’s gutting of the Astros is fulfilling a mandate and reacting to the situation he entered. The Astros had bloated contacts, were notoriously thin in talent, and had neglected the farm system to the degree that there were very few marketable prospects for trade or development. He’s essentially running an expansion team in large part because he himself cleared out the house of any and all players that were there when he arrived. It may be a bit much to say they’re trying to lose, but it’s not too much to say they don’t care if they win. It’s a subtle difference and a large factor as to why they’re being allowed to put a team on the field that has a $26 million payroll and will have a dramatic impact on all of baseball with their historic and intentional awfulness.

Is it necessary to strip the whole apparatus down to its brass fittings in order to build it back up? No. It’s not. There are many ways to get where a club wants to go and the days of an expansion team having to take annual beatings for 5-7 years while their draft picks develop ended with free agency. The 1969 Mets and early 1980s Blue Jays were case studies of clubs that built from the bottom up and turned their fortunes around in year eight for the Mets (100 wins and a World Series), and year seven for the Blue Jays (89 wins in 1983 starting off a long run culminating in back-to-back World Series wins in 1992-1993).

However, those were the days before teams spent lavishly on free agents and had the ability to just buy their way into contention. Nowadays, it’s not necessary to wait. The Diamondbacks are the new age case study having won 100 games in their second season and a World Series in their fourth. Strangely, their success has been quantified as “lucky,” “mortgaging,” and “checkbook building” by then-owner Jerry Colangelo; then-GM Joe Garagiola Jr.; and then-manager Buck Showalter. They followed the strategies of Showalter—hired by the Diamondbacks shortly after the Yankees had fired him in 1995—and he took command of the implementation of Showalter-preferred teaching methods from that day forward. They were largely a creation of free agency by signing Randy JohnsonJay Bell and trading for Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams. This is often referred to with a scoffing eye-roll as if there’s something untoward about signing free agents and achieving rapid success with players drafted, signed and developed by other clubs. Like those who advocate eating organic foods and nothing else, there’s a sense of superiority for a team that developed their own players rather than purchased them. In reality, there’s no difference other than in the mind. The Yankees didn’t develop Babe Ruth. They bought him. So what? Does that diminish what he was? Not in any way.

The “development” attitude is supposed to be sustainable as if the atmosphere is being saved and global warming is being stopped by a player working his way through the organization and making it to the big leagues as a homegrown talent.

In the end, a win is a win is a win and it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s done by a bunch of mercenaries and a $150-200 million payroll or one with a $70 million payroll and the appellation of “genius” attached to the “architect” of the club.

The concept that what Luhnow is doing with the Astros is “right” is based on nothing more than the preferred public perception by the self-styled revolutionaries who feel as if statistics have taken over the game of baseball in an inextricable metamorphosis from what was to what is and what will be.

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Jim Crane Tells Astros Fans What He Thinks Of Them

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In this Wall Street Journal column by Brian Costa discussing the Astros’ decision to gut the big league product, strip it down to nothing and basically assure that it has the chance to approach the “accomplishments” (is “decomplishments” a word?) of the worst teams in the history of baseball, owner Jim Crane made some arrogant statements that would make Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria cringe at the unthinking and obnoxious audacity.

The money quote from the mostly laudatory piece was the following:

“It doesn’t bother me that people want us to spend more money,” Crane said. “But it’s not their money. This is a private company, even though it’s got a public flair to it. If they want to write a check for 10 million bucks, they can give me a call.”

Was Crane smiling when he said this? Was he being facetious? Was he serious in essentially kicking the remaining fans that will be willing to pay money to go watch the 110+ loss monstrosity they’ve put together in displaying this level of “screw you” attitude?

While refreshing in its honesty, Crane is forgetting that he’s in a service industry and the fans are the key to making a baseball team work. Baseball is different from a “normal” business and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The roster the Astros have put together is going to have significant impact on the fortunes of many of those other teams due to their historic awfulness. Jobs will be saved and lost; teams will make or miss the playoffs based on their ability to beat on the Astros. In years past, I would have agreed with Crane if they made an effort to put a competent big league product on the field. That can be done as the Marlins under the aforementioned Loria have shown several times. The Astros aren’t doing that.

When your best pitcher is Lucas Harrell; your best hitter is Jose Altuve; and your closer is Jose Veras, you’re not winning a lot of games especially in the American League West. They’re feeding their fans garbage with the promise of a potential future coming to fruition in perhaps 2016 if all goes well with their rebuild. The elephant in the room is that there are no guarantees that it’s going to work.

They’re operating within the rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the game and it made me rethink my belief that teams shouldn’t be forced to spend a minimum amount on payroll as they are in other sports such as the NFL and NHL. It’s bad enough that the Astros are not competitive, but that they’re so blatantly wallowing in the lack of competitiveness and doing so on purpose to garner revenue sharing money and have more cash to spend in the draft and on international free agent makes it feel overtly wrong. Crane’s statement to that effect is bold, frank and distasteful to the fans who will be willing to come to the park to watch the Astros in their current form.

As you can see here, it’s not a cheap little trek to go to Minute Maid Park with the most inexpensive tickets being $5 for the privilege of sitting in the upper deck of the outfield, then rising incrementally with the best seats fetching $160 a pop. Then they’re paying to park and spending money on food and items while there. Does that not count in Crane’s demands of someone who wants to watch a better team to give him money towards that end?

Crane’s right in that it’s a private company, but it’s a private company that is functioning within a group dynamic with 29 other teams. There’s also a certain amount of, as Billy Joel put it, “they rub my neck and I write ‘em a check and they go their merry way,” in being a sports owner. Maybe Crane felt that he made his money in private business and deserves to own something he can: A) enjoy; B) make money at while spending a limited amount of cash; and C) not have to eat crap from people.

He’ll learn, though, that he does have to eat crap from people. In this life, it’s unavoidable in getting what one wants. The President of the United States has to scrounge for money; pose for photographs; sell his agenda. It applies to everyone. The only possible way to prevent it is to make enough money to disappear; make other people enough money to disappear; or not have any money at all. And then disappear.

I mentioned Loria and he’s a relevant figure as a comparison. Considering the vitriol he attracts, think about this: he probably is being somewhat muted in his responses when criticized. So when he storms out of a press conference; makes ridiculous assertions that not even a sycophantic assistant would believe; calls former players like Jose Reyes liars; or insinuates that the fans should be grateful that they now have a beautiful new ballpark in Miami (without mentioning that they paid for it), he’s dialed down what he really wants to say by a substantial percentage. If a person is disposable in his eyes, I’d venture to guess that he makes George Steinbrenner look like Art Rooney in his treatment of them.

Crane showed the real Crane in his comments and it’s not a pretty picture. The ruthless businessman stuff isn’t going to sell while his team is this rancid. He needs to learn when to use “owner speak” and say something without saying anything or we’ll hear far worse than this in the coming years especially if the rebuild doesn’t go according to the blueprint or the inherent expectations in the conclusion of the WSJ piece:

“I didn’t make $100 million by making a lot of dumb mistakes,” Crane said. “We’re not going to get everything right, but we’re going to get a lot right.”

This article was not a good place to start in getting things “right.”

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The Astros Strip The Spaceship For Parts

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Stat-centric people are looking at the Astros and nodding their heads approvingly at the series of maneuvers that may have improved their farm system and future. GM Jeff Luhnow is implementing the sabermetric template in what’s developing into a case study of how a purely stat-based organization would be run. They’re creating new job titles in baseball circles (Director of Decision Sciences), hiring people from Baseball Prospectus, and gutting the big league club of any and all competent major league players while signing the refuse that’s available cheaply and who have nowhere else to go. If you wanted to see a team that was run by the people at Fangraphs, here are your 2013 Houston Astros sans Jed Lowrie who was traded to the Athletics yesterday along with reliever Fernando Martinez for Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi. The players they received may be assets for the future, but financially they cost a fraction of what Lowrie was going to make in 2013 ($2.4 million).

Whether the Astros’ strategy works or not will take at least three and probably five years to determine. As of now, though, MLB has to take a hard look at what the Astros are doing, and decide if it’s fair to the spirit of competition to have a team with what projects to be a $25 million payroll and won’t just be the worst team in baseball for 2013 (that’s a given), but will possibly be one of the worst teams in the history of the sport. To think that the Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012 could somehow find a way to sink lower than that ineptitude is mind-boggling, but they’ve done it.

When Jim Crane bought the team and hired Luhnow, the organization was a barren, expansion-like wasteland. That’s not an excuse for what they’re doing. The days of teams having to endure half a decade of 100-plus losses ended when the Diamondbacks showed that an expansion team can win if they’re truly committed and intelligent about it. With free agency and teams’ willingness to trade, there is no longer 1960s Mets-style acceptance of being a league punching bag until the young players develop. There’s no reason that a team has to turn itself into an embarrassment while they’re rebuilding.

The Cubs are embarking on a similar restructuring and overhaul with people who come from the same mindset (though not as extreme) as Luhnow. Theo Epstein was one of the first to turn his club into a sabermetrically-inclined organization with the Red Sox in 2003, but he also used scouting techniques and a lot of money to create a juggernaut that won on the field and “won” off the field in terms of popularity and profit. The Cubs lost six fewer games than the Astros did in 2012, but while Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and the rest of the staff alter the way the club is run from top-to-bottom, build through the draft and search for international players to sign, they’re also bringing in veterans like Edwin Jackson and Scott Hairston to join Starlin Castro (whom they signed to a long-term deal), Matt Garza and a few other recognizable players.

In fairness, the Cubs were in a slightly better situation than the Astros when the new front office took charge and the Astros weren’t going to win many more games with Lowrie than they will without him, but the Cubs tried to bring in big league caliber players all winter and the Astros didn’t. The Cubs have more money to spend and a fanbase that’s going to show up no matter what, but the Astros are essentially spitting in their fans’ faces with a team that no one is going to want to go see as a “root, root, root for the home team” group. Houston fans will go to the games to see opponents Mike Trout, Derek Jeter, Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, but they’re not going to see their own Lucas Harrell. By July, the Astros won’t be able to give tickets away.

MLB saw fit to intervene when the Marlins used financial sleight of hand to pocket revenue sharing money. They mandated that the money be used to improve the on-field product. Does realistic competence dictate that the commissioner’s office step in and tell the Astros that this simply isn’t acceptable?

The Astros are trying to run their club like a business, but in MLB or any other sporting conglomerate, there’s a responsibility to ensure a baseline of competitiveness not just for the people of Houston, but for the rest of baseball.

Is it right that the four other teams in the American League West will have 19 games each against the Astros while the AL East is so parity-laden? Clubs like the White Sox and Royals in the AL Central—who have an argument to make a playoff run—can deem it wrong that a playoff spot in the West will have an easier path because the Astros are openly presenting a product that has no intention nor chance to win a vast majority of the games they play through sheer lack of talent.

I’ve long been against a minimum payroll in baseball. If a team is smart enough to succeed by spending less, they should be allowed to do so without interference. That, however, is contingent on the teams trying to compete, something the Astros are currently not doing.

It’s fine to adapt outside world business principles to sports, but unlike the outside business world, a sports franchise is not operating in a vacuum as an individual company. Like the battle between pitcher and catcher, it’s one-on-one in a group dynamic. They’re individuals, but are functioning within a group.

Since there’s no such thing as European football-style relegation in MLB where actual punishment is possible, the overseers need to seriously consider creating a payroll floor to stop what the Astros are blatantly doing because it’s hindering the competitive balance that has long been the goal. The Astros are scoffing at that notion and it’s unfair to the rest of baseball that they’re being allowed to do it with impunity.

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