We've been watching the Cubs rebuild now for about 2 years and most of us approve of what the Cubs are trying to do. One team that they'll likely be compared with over the years is the Houston Astros. Both teams started rebuilding around the same time but they have taken different routes to try and get to the same destination -- a team with the top-to-bottom organizational strength to compete year in year out.
Some of you may remember this tongue-in-cheek yet half-serious article I wrote on how building a bad baseball team would be the new market efficiency under the new CBA.
The Rays (David Price and Evan Longoria), Nationals (Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper) and even the Bad News Bears (Amanda Wuhrlizer and Kelly Leak), have shown that a couple of impact talents can turn a baseball team around.
It appears the Houston Astros have taken the lose-to-win strategy quite seriously and according to ESPN's Buster Olney, Bud Selig is okay with that.
"I do trust the organization," Selig said. "Look, every organization goes through certain phases. They have chosen the path with some very qualified people. And the only way you can really build a solid organization, a solid team, is through a very productive farm system. And I think they're doing it the right way. There's no question in my mind."
Selig mentions past teams (such as the Rays and the Nationals) as examples who built teams from the worst in baseball into consistent winners. He cleverly never brings up the fact that, unlike those teams, Houston has intentionally put themselves in this situation
As Olney points out, that may be something of a double standard. White Sox all-time great Shoeless Joe Jackson got a lifetime ban for his alleged role in conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series on purpose. Selig has punished Pete Rose for betting on games, saying it harms the integrity of the game.
Yet aren't we seeing the Houston Astros front office doing the same thing? That is, aren't they effectively losing on purpose for money? Doesn't the Astros' blatantly overt strategy of fielding a non-competitive team harm the integrity of the game?
To be fair, the money the Astros are losing to win is draft and international free agency pool money and, unlike Rose and Jackson, we are presuming that money is going to be reinvested in the the team and not used to fatten up their own wallets. You can argue it's more of a long-term investment in the team at the expense of short term loss. This is certainly what the Astros must be thinking.
But what of harming the integrity of the game by choosing not to compete? There is no question the Astros are trying to lose in 2013. There is not much room for debate there. That's not to say there isn't some gray area here when you look at the bigger picture. Yes, the Astros have traded away some of their best veterans, including Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, Jed Lowrie, and Chris Johnson -- but does anyone think that keeping those players would have made the Astros competitive?
It may be more accurate to say that keeping those players would have kept the Astros non-competitive for a longer period of time. They may have added a few wins in the short term but that would have only impeded the Astros ability to pick up long term talent they could use to become competitive in the future. You can also say the Astros, as constructed in 2012, were beyond repair. The Astros really had no core young foundation of players to build on.
But were they a whole lot different than the Cubs? Theo Epstein has said that the Cubs only had one core player when they arrived -- Starlin Castro. They were then able to acquire 1B Anthony Rizzo, converted Jeff Samardzija into a legitimate starter with front line potential, and got an elite defensive performance from Darwin Barney. All are peak age or younger with Samardzija having a low mileage arm relative to his age. He is atypical in terms of normal age progression and may not have reached his peak years either. The Cubs also have talented young up-the-middle players in catcher Welington Castillo and center fielder Brett Jackson, both of whom should get a chance to add to that core this season.
It's difficult to say whether the Astros had the talent to quickly generate that kind of potential young core. They had one player that they could call a core piece, Jose Altuve, but did not have an asset like Andrew Cashner to trade for an Anthony Rizzo, nor did they have a 98 mph power arm who was on the cusp of turning things around, or a player whose defensive skills are so good that they alone make him a legitimate starter.
This sounds remarkable considering how far the Cubs have to go, but the Astros may just be trying to get to the point where the Cubs are now. In addition to having a young middle infielder, they are banking on SP Lucas Harrell to take that next big step and for catcher Jason Castro to build on a great spring. Both could establish themselves as core pieces by the end of the year. Perhaps 1B Jonathan Singleton can become their Anthony Rizzo. They even have their own version of an athletic and talented --but strikeout prone -- CF'er in George Springer.
Filed under: Analysis