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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Are The Cardinals Waiting For Lohse’s Price To Drop?

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The Cardinals are said to be looking at starting pitchers that may be available including Astros’ starters Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris. Both would help. Norris is better than Harrell. Harrell would probably come cheaper in a trade. Before 2013 is over, the Astros are going to trade both.

The Cardinals have the prospects to move and the moderate need in their starting rotation, but the easiest solution for them remains former Cardinal Kyle Lohse.

Lohse, coming off his career-best season for the Cardinals, has been sitting and waiting for a contract that meets his and agent Scott Boras’s desires in terms of length and money. If any player in recent memory has been cornered by the draft pick compensation attached to free agents who were offered arbitration by their previous clubs, it’s Lohse. If the circumstances were different—if the cost was only money—Lohse would’ve gotten at least a three-year contract from someone and maybe a four-year deal. Whether or not he’s worth it or if he’s a creation of the Cardinals former pitching coach Dave Duncan’s Dr. Frankenstein-like skills of taking a pitching corpse and reengineering it into a top-tier pitcher is irrelevant. To moderately assuage that fear, Lohse had his career-best season in 2012 without Duncan, so he’s not attached to him like the hypnotized patient who wouldn’t be able to function without the “doctor” in view.

Conversely, considering the pitchers who blossomed under Duncan—Mike Moore, Kent Bottenfield, Joel Pineiro, Jeff Suppan—and were mediocre to disastrous after leaving his tutelage, it’s understandable that clubs would be reluctant to sign Lohse for a ton of money. Even a one-year contract is a disagreeable pill to swallow for Lohse (he feels he deserves more than a desperation contract to “prove” himself again) and for the club signing him (he’s still not worth a number one draft pick). But the Cardinals fill the bill with knowing what he can do and they don’t have to give up a draft pick to re-sign him. If they trade for Norris, Harrell or anyone else, they’ll have to surrender some players. With Lohse, it’s just money.

And that’s what it comes down to. They might be waiting for his price to drop, letting it be known publicly that they’re looking for pitchers and hoping Lohse gets itchy and tells Boras to make a deal with them. Amid all of that, what is being conveniently forgotten about Lohse is that he has been very good in the past two seasons for the Cardinals. This is not a situation where Boras has had to dig for numbers to validate the blue book of accomplishments he creates for his free agents. Lohse has legitimate credentials to get a multi-year contract for better-than-average starting pitcher money, but the draft pick compensation has him caged.

If Lohse is thinking he’ll sit out to start the season and wait until someone gets hurt, until a club needs a starter, or until after the draft, he’s still not going to get a three-year contract then either. If the Cardinals step up and offer two years with a vesting option based on innings pitched and performance, he should take it. I believe he would.

He and the Cardinals know each other. He can pitch and pitch effectively for the Cardinals because he’s done it in three of the five years he spent with the club. The two in which he was bad, he was hurt. If the sides stop and think about it for a moment and decide to be reasonable, it makes the most sense for them to accept reality and reunite. It’s the best choice for all.

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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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