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.