Houston Astros: Tradition in Transition

I have a confession to make.

I am an Astros fan. I’m not from Houston, but I fell in love with Jeff Bagwell’s goofy stance when I was a kid and my obsession blossomed from there. I was there for an incredible stretch that saw Houston make their first playoff run past the first round, then get over the NLCS hump the next year despite the best efforts of Albert Pujols. Despite getting swept in the 2005 World Series, the Astros spoiled me as a youngster.

Now? Not so much.

Heading into 2013, Houston is committed to paying $20 million to their big league roster.

That’s it.

There are 20 Major League players making more than that, including four different Phillies. In addition to the $20 million the Astros are paying their own players, they also owe Wandy Rodriguez $5 million, which would make him their highest paid player were he not a Pirate. Such is the state of the Astros right now.

There is a very good chance this year’s squad in Houston will chase the modern era record for losses (120) set by the first ever Mets team in 1962. The last team to come close was the 2003 Detroit Tigers, a team that finished with 119 losses, and presumably celebrated when they won their 43rd game to avoid the Mets’ futility record. Time will tell whether the most recent iteration of the Astros will be able to celebrate the same “achievement.”

Still, all is not lost in Houston.

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New owner Jim Crane has brought a culture shift to the organization, committing fully to rebuilding. Previous ownership had been unwilling to go all-in on such a strategy, instead choosing to sign questionable free agents and trade away top prospects for middling Major League talent in an effort to stay competitive, even as everyone watching could see the team’s talent eroding, with little to nothing waiting in the minors to give them a shot in the arm.

Thanks to Crane and new leadership on the baseball operations side of the organization, Houston has quickly turned around their farm system, taking it from one of the five worst to one of the five best in baseball. Young, talented players like Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart were brought in as part of a trade that saw Hunter Pence land in Philadelphia. Both players should join All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve on the big club sometime this season to birth a new core for the team.

Farther down the minor league ladder is Carlos Correa, an uber-talented shortstop that was selected first overall in last year’s draft when he was still just 17 years old. Houston will once again have the top spot in the 2013 draft and could make history if they pick first overall next year as well. While high draft picks aren’t guaranteed superstars (as the Astros know firsthand), it would take unbelievable bad luck for the club to whiff on three consecutive first overall picks.

So there is a future there, to be sure. The Astros look like they are following a modified version of the plan that saw the Tampa Bay Rays go from one of the worst franchises in baseball to a consistent contender that has made the playoffs in three of the past five seasons despite playing in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Tampa Bay’s transformation mirrors Houston’s current approach in major ways. Both were sparked by new ownership, and both feature general managers that approach their jobs in ways radically different from their predecessors.

Both teams also undertook major aesthetic changes under their new owners, with the Rays dropping the “Devil” they had carried in their name since the team’s inaugural season, instead making a ray of sunshine their defining imagery. Houston got an entirely new uniform set harkening back to Astros teams of years gone by, throwing the color scheme and jerseys from their mid-2000s teams by the wayside. In both instances management was signaling a new era for their respective franchises.

Houston fans should take all of these things as good signs.

The other thing Tampa Bay’s transformation included, however, was losing. Lots of it. In 2006 and 2007 the Rays lost 101 and 96 games, respectively. To get to their incredible 2008 season, Tampa Bay had to sacrifice a couple seasons and get the right pieces in place to become the powerhouse they now are.

Tampa Bay fans were used to losing, as the team had never had a winning record in franchise history. Astros fans, on the other hand, have come to expect a certain level of competitiveness, or at least the semblance of it.

So how will they react to their team having the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball and enduring a season where not setting a new record for losses would be a highlight?

So far, they have not reacted well. Fans have cried for Crane to spend more on the 2013 team, prompting the owner to proclaim:

“It doesn’t bother me that people want us to spend more money, 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.”

Crane has been criticized and lightly mocked for that comment, which is to be expected. A millionaire team owner asking the fans for money to run the team can’t really expect much else.

But that’s not really what Crane is saying. He is committed to rebuilding and has accepted 2013 as a lost season, a necessary step on the path to a being a consistent contender. Crane doesn’t see the point in spending $10 million of his money now to win 55 games instead of 45 when he could spend it on re-signing a star or bringing in a key free agent in 2015.

He knows that money isn’t going to make Houston a contender, much as the Rays knew spending big on relievers in 2006 and 2007 wouldn’t get them over the hill to contention. Those Tampa Bay teams had horrendous bullpens, but when the team needed a closer prior to the 2010 season they traded for the high-priced Rafael Soriano.

The key in Tampa Bay was patience and timing. Thanks to the previous regime’s mismanagement Rays fans were used to losing. Thanks to the current one, they’re used to winning and winning often.

Whether or not the Astros and their fans can pull off a similar transformation is yet to be seen, but it could prove to be one of baseball’s most compelling stories in the coming years.

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