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Is the lose-to-win rebuilding strategy the right choice?

Is the lose-to-win rebuilding strategy the right choice?

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.

Not surprisingly, there are mixed opinions on the Astros strategy.  It's lauded by some while others remain skeptical.

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  • I have no issue with teams losing games for a better draft pick. I was actually rooting for the Cubs last year to get the first overall pick. While this year I'm hoping for progression with players like Castro, Rizzo, Jackson and Castillo to the point where they are not competing for the first overall pick, still if they are selling at the deadline, I'm all for trading every short term asset and losing a lot of games in August and September.

  • In reply to Ibleedcubbieblue:

    I also think think the only difference between what the Cubs and Astros are doing is that the Cubs are going the route of acquiring some short term assets that they can flip for more prospects. Signing and trading Maholm last year is a perfect example of that paying off. The Astros chose the route of just being bad and it got them the first overall pick. Both plans can be an effective way to quickly rebuild a farm system.

  • In reply to Ibleedcubbieblue:

    Keep in mind, though that the Cubs didn't set out to lose from the get-go. They have tried some flyers in a long shot effort to build a competitive team. The Astros, however, have made no such effort.

  • In reply to Ibleedcubbieblue:

    2 years? I've been waiting since 1945. Draft picks are 80% useless in the long term. Play to win or find another career.

  • In reply to Blomie:

    2 years? I don't know what you mean by that? My point is that what the Cubs are currently doing is not much different than the Astros. We can sugar coat it and say at least they are trying to win, but if you honestly think they have a realistic shot of winning a World Series this year, you're delusional. As a fan my #1 goal is to see them win a World Series. For years they've been riding the fence... Doing enough to keep the fans thinking they have a chance, but not doing enough to win a WS. The new management understands it will take some bad years and good draft picks to sustain winning in the future. The Astros management sees that as well. They are just taking a slightly different approach to achieve the end result. The Cubs management is making it look a little better, but let's face it... Both teams are willing to lose now so that they can win later.

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    This happens every time teams shed payroll by dumping veterans.

    The Astros had Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Johnson, Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence & Brett Myers for 531 combined games played in 2011 and lost 1 fewer game than they did in 2012 when those guys played a combined 179 games for them (if they played for them at all).

    Money and veterans do not buy wins in baseball.

    The Marlins will probably lose more than the 93 games they did last year but they'll pay at lot less per win too. The money Miami spent last year was bad. They binged on a lead off hitter, a #3 starter and a closer. When you spend money in the market it better be for a 3 or 4 hitter and/or a 1 or 2 starter and that's only if you needs those to get you over the top.

  • In reply to Ken Roucka:

    I think the long history of success by the Yankees would disagree that money and veterans don't buy wins. Low payroll teams rarely win titles in today's market -- even if it's to retain their own players. The Rays are the only exception as far as teams who remain competitive year after year. They are this generation's Montreal Expos in a way.

    I do agree that teams shouldn't build through free agency and any spending should be chosen wisely and as piece that gets you over the top.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    John,

    The Yankees are the only team that has been rich enough to swallow thier mistakes. They are the exception that proves the rule. And the most recent Yankeee dynasty (1996-2000) was built not through free ageny but through their fram system and some smart trades (Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Rivera, Paul O'Neil, Tino Martinez). Even they are now buckleing under the weight of free agent contracts to A-Rod, Sabathia, Teixiera et al.

    Oakland & Minnesota are also low payroll teams that have had very good runs. Atlanta & St Louis are mid payri=oll teams that have had long histories of success.

  • In reply to Ken Roucka:

    You also need money to retain your players, it's not just free agency. That's how the Giants did it with their pitching staff. The Red Sox also were able to do it until ownership started to meddle.

    We can come up with anecdotal evidence for success either way, but it stands to reason that a combination of having money and spending it wisely is the best recipe for success. Spending money is great -- having more of it to spend wisely is even better.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John, I think I would disagree here. The Yankees went a long time without winning with FA's, one of their longest periods ever. It wasn't until Steinbrenner was banned and they built that farm system that they went on this run since '95. The core of that whole run was guys from their system. Even now people can see the decline coming, and that is because the farm isn't producing like it has been.

    Second, nobody except now maybe the Dodgers has Yankee money to spend. On even a $100 million dollar payroll (higher than many markets can afford) two $15-$20 million dollar players won't put you over the top unless you have an elite farm system. Even then you have to blow a big part of your budget and risk not resigning young players from your system. It is tough for most teams, and the Yankees are not most teams, and even they are feeling the effects of a weaker system.

  • It's not about wanting your team to lose to get a better draft pick.
    Its about if they do we benefit. Theo/Jeb should stick with their
    long term plan and don't change just for the fans and the media.
    This 2nd pick in the draft should be another big piece to rebuilding
    the farm system.

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    I voted yes but I disagree partly with the Astros strategy in that it seems like they are actively signing the worst free agents they can find.

    They're not just trying to be bad. They're trying to get WORSE.

    I don't blame them for dumping talent. But signing all bad players is bad form.

    I wouldn't blame the Rockies if they dump Tulo and Cargo but if they go out and sign a couple below replacement players to fill in that's not OK.

  • In reply to Giffmo:

    I like that distinction. They aren't just allowing free agents to leave or trading vets, it does seem they are actively trying to make their current team worse, as if in some competition with the Marlins to pick 1st.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    This why I've been an advocate of a system of promotion and relegation similar to what is used in the European football leagues. I understand a lot would have to change to make that work but tanking a season to get the top draft pick is most dishonorable! There should be consequences for this behavior. If your are purposely trying to get worse then losing money shouldn't be your only penalty. Getting relegated to a lower league while some team who is more deserving gets promoted would change your strategy pretty quickly.

  • In reply to svelocity:

    Not a fan of straight out tanking but it would be hard to measure if a team is losing on purpose. How would you separate that from good old fashioned ineptitude?

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    In Euro Football the relegation system doesn't care if you are tanking on purpose or good old fashion inept...you go down either way.

    Generally in the European Football leagues the worst three teams go down and the best three teams in the lower league get promoted. Really all of MLB would have to be blown up and reorganized so this truly isn't a viable option for MLB but it sure would be interesting option. Certainly the Pirates wouldn't have been in the majors with 20 losing seasons. In Europe they would be in the equivalent of Class A ball.

  • In reply to svelocity:

    I kind of like that idea in that it ensures the best competition possible. Unfeasible as you say, but definitely has it's merits.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    While I'm not saying the Marlins will be good, per se...I don't think the Marlins will be nearly bad enough to be in the Astros conversation. I think they have more potential to surprise than given credit.

    Again, not good but last year was a classic example of how poor of a tool FA is for building a whole team. Its been proven time and time again in multiple sports. I honestly think this could be addition by subtraction.
    To their credit, they don't appear to be signing awful players intentionally and haven't gone into fire-sale mode.
    (And I won't even fault them if they trade away Stanton, since the return on him is the type of thing that would almost be stupid for a team in rebuilding mode to turn down.)

    I think its unfortunate that there's no real way to PROVE, in a litigation sense, that the Astros are signing the worst players available. When I see them signing a guy to DH that barely broke the Mendoza line last year, its just insulting.
    I'm interested to see when they start bringing up their high level prospects as well. Will they drag their feet on a player dominating in AAA because they fear added wins? I find this aspect interesting because even good prospects sometimes take awhile to acclimate to the MLB. Will they sacrifice developmental time to avoid a ROY candidate helping too much. (I see why Olney is so worked up, I feel dirty just saying that)

  • In reply to Giffmo:

    I totally understand where Olney is coming from and he's not the only one that doesn't like it. I'm not a fan either. The bigger question with me is if the Astros had much of a choice.

    We'll see how this thing goes. If they get to a level where they have 3-4 young guys, will they attempt to build around it or will they continue to surround them with sub-replacement players? I think it's too early to tell in some ways but if they do the latter, then I'd be against it.

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    The part of this I find kind of disgusting is the competitive balance lottery aspect. By tanking, they Astros are torching their revenue from ticket sales, putting themselves in the competitive balance lottery for yet more picks. Hey, Bud, how about torching that entire idea?

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Good point, Mike.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    Good point. Maybe MLB should have a threshold for expenditures, for players...maybe restrict it to the 40 man roster. If bottom six teams receive an average of X for TV tickets and revenue sharing, they have to spend a designated amount, or forfeit additional draft picks.

  • Integrity of the game- Lol.
    As long as there is revenue sharing and (as Mike also mentioned) competitive balance picks et al, there will be incentive to suck. Bud can't call out teams like the Astros because him and Reinsdorf have caused this by their market manipulating CBO's(plural).

  • The Astros ran the organization with an eye towards free agency and trading prospects for most of the late 1990s and early 2000s. When they moved into Enron Field, they had a good competitive team. When that team got old quick (like the Yankees and Phillies now are), all their assets were gone, just like a certain team from the north side. I don't see any overt contrast between what the Cubs are doing and the Astros. The Cubs aren't going to be lighting up the scoreboard this year, and the Astros train is stranded at the station for now. The only difference between the two is the Cubs have made some attempt to field a professional team this year. The Astros are years away. It would not shock me to see them lose 120 this year in that division. That is how bad that team is.

  • In reply to historyrat:

    I think the Cubs at least have a plan to be competitive, even if it's a long shot plan. They picked up a solid FA pitcher Edwin Jackson and 3 other established pitchers who project well for this season. They are trying to maximize production with platoons. They are giving themselves a shot, at least. The Astros only plan is to dismantle their team and get the highest draft pick possible.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I agree our front office is actually making an effort to put a viable product on the field. We can actually see they are putting some of the pieces in place for being competitive in a couple seasons. Hell, maybe even this year we can at least get a wiff of the playoffs. 2014 I'm thinking we could go for it if a few of our top prospects are ready.

  • I've been waiting since 1945. Hardly any draft picks make it to the show.

  • In reply to Blomie:

    Uh-oh

  • In reply to Blomie:

    Agree completely Blomie. I was just looking through the last 30 or so drafts and didn't even remember most of the names. Lets hope the new scouting team we have put together is better at predicting the outcome of the talent they see than past regimes.

  • At some point the active approach to getting worse will chase enough fans away that that won't have enough cash to take advantage of the competitive balance picks. Maybe we could ship them a AAA washout for their extra pick when they decide they don't want to spend that money?

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    Ha! Flat out trying to lose can only survive as a temporary strategy. Baseball's version of the Atkin's diet, maybe.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I wonder if the 'stros might feel the need to placate their fan-base and take a couple area products in the draft. Appel, and Cavan Bigio (sp?). Not sure they can stomach Appels monetary requirements though.

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    I don't think so. That's a nice bonus if they think Appel is worth the pick and it fits their draft strategy, but picking a player for the fans with the first pick is asking for disaster.

  • My issue isn't with the Astro's strategy. They're just playing the hand they were dealt to the best of their ability. They don't have the resources of the Cubs FO to sign & trade Vets. My issue is with the CBA altogether. I believe it is harming the integrity of the game.

    I'm all for leveling the playing field for small market (low revenue) teams to be able to compete. But you can't reward tanking and this just feels like it is to me. I'm no expert on the CBA (far from it), but why can't they tweak this CBA to prevent this from happening?

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    I agree. There has to be a better way to level the playing field in such a manner that losing on purpose is actually a viable strategy.

  • Cubs picked up Guillermo Moscoso off of waivers, by the way. Low 90s guy, decent change, average command, keeps the ball down, and misses some bats. Coming off a terrible year but peripherals are decent. Will write more about him in the Cubs Notes/Preview piece.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    thanks for the heads up John. Does this mean Takahashi is out of consideration or do we have another roster spot?

  • In reply to HoosierDaddy:

    They brought Moscoso in to compete but he's not being given a job. Takahashi still in the mix.

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    I can't say I really agree with the approach they are taking because on some levels it just isn't fair. It reminds me of the Colts 2 years ago when some people accused them of sucking so they could get Luck with the first overall pick. I mean, right now this is a legal means of building a team, and it seems like a smart one because you will continually have high draft picks and no under-performing veterans tying up your salary. That said, it also seems to be a relatively risky means of building a winning team. Sure the Astros may get the 1-5 pick over the next several years, but by taking this approach you are putting all of your cards on the players you draft and hope they turn out. If you draft a Mark Prior like pitcher and a few solid position players and they all bust once they hit AA or AAA, they you have to wait longer for other prospects to develop and hope they do so successfully. Seems like a high risk, high reward approach. If they have the 1st round pick the next 3 years and all of those guys develop well then you have a very solid team. If they turn out to be average, you just wasted a first round pick and a year of rebuilding. It comes down to how well they draft. I still like the Cubs approach better

  • In reply to Bill Newton:

    The Cubs have a more varied portfolio of players. Some are already performing in the big leagues. I like that better as well because it mitigates risk. The Astros are putting all of their eggs in the draft (and international FA, I guess), but it is high risk if they don't have a few key picks turn out.

  • Has anyone read the Forbes article on the most profitable team in baseball?

  • Yep. All I can say is that I hope it doesn't rally up the Wrigleyville and rooftop folks. Profit's great. Now let's get some more so we can build a winning team.

  • Yes. It'll be part of the game notes and I'll be interested in what everyone has to say. I try to focus on baseball but it seems a lot of action happening on the business side lately. I think I need a business writer on staff!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Find gaius marius (the cubs fan, not the roman).

  • Long time reader, but don't get on and post much. Love this site and what it brings.

    I felt this one I just had to comment.

    In no way, shape, or form is what the Astros doing the same as the Black Sox. The Black Sox lost games between the lines on purpose. The Astros are fielding a bad team, BUT between the lines nobody can claim they are not trying to win. That is a HUGE distinction and makes them completely different. That is an integrity of the game issue.

    Who is to say what the best way to rebuild a franchise. We all have ideas but if teams are competing on the field the people are getting their monies worth and watching a legit competition. The Black Sox hit the field intending to lose no matter what. The Astros are trying to win, undermanned.

    As for Rose he bet on the game. This has nothing to do with the Astros at all. Again, the Astros are trying to rebuild, how they rebuild can be debated, but they are not damaging the game like a player, or manager betting on the game.

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    In reply to bleedblue:

    You're leaving out the front office when you're talking about the Astros though. The team - the players and managers - will be trying (and usually failing) to win. But the front office is clearly doing their best to make that as hard as possible. They're approaching the strategy in Major League, although with a very different end-goal in mind.

    Obviously tanking to more quickly rebuild your farm is different from a team throwing a game, both subvert the natural goal of the sport, which is to win.

  • In reply to Kevin Heckman:

    Kevin,

    I hear what your saying. But there is no denying that there is a fundamental difference in trying to lose between the lines and being undermanned.

    Listen, in the history of this great game there have been a lot of terrible teams. Houston is one of the worst of that group. None of those teams were trying to lose on the field though, and nobody can charge the Astros of that. If you disagree with the FO not doing more, fair enough. My only point is that their is a galactic difference in the Black Sox (and Rose for that matter) and the Astros.

  • In reply to bleedblue:

    Good post!

  • In reply to bleedblue:

    Thanks and that is a very good point. It's not the players (or manager) who are trying to lose. It's the team's front office and thankfully, they don't get to play or take part in the day-to-day activity of the team.

    I can understand Olney's point with Jackson and Rose, but totally agree it's a different situation. As is also pointed out, those players allegedly did those things in their own interests, not the teams.

  • I've always felt, no matter what the sport, if your team isn't trying to win 100% of the time it's doing a disservice to the fan base, cheapens the game experience, and lowers the importance of the league as a "sport".

  • In reply to Rbirby:

    Agreed.

  • I prefer the win-to-win strategy.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    What about the win-to-lose strategy? That's not to popular except with Mike Quade.

  • This is what happens when rule makers make rules. We end up with a lot of unintended consequences.

    Before the recent changes to the draft and slotting system that dictates how and when teams can spend money, there wasn't any incentive to tank. Now there is: finishing last means you can spend $8mm more on talent acquisition than if you finished .500.

  • In reply to Cubswin4harry:

    Exactly. That is the perfect way to put it. These kind of moves may be well-meaning but whatever their intentions, there are always those unintended consequences.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    What makes this dumb is that they should have thought through the ramifications. They weren't hard to see. As I recall you and the community here were discussing them from pretty much the minute the details of the new CBA broke. If we could see them, then someone in the commissioner's office should have been able to see them.

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    In reply to Kevin Heckman:

    The assumption here -- and I am not kidding -- is that Bud Selig is more interested in the integrity of the game than the size of the checks the owners cash. I'm fairly sure he knew this was possible -- as you say, we saw it right off the bat -- but knew it came hand in hand with super profits for the owners. So, it's a trade-off worth making.

  • In reply to Cubswin4harry:

    That said, I don't care what the Astros do. If this is what they think is best, then by all means, go for it.

    It's the system of flawed rules that is broken, not the Astros response to it.

  • Get rid of the draft and then there won't be an incentive to tank the season. Things would naturally sort themselves out. No top first baseman or short stop would sign with the cubs because they will be blocked.

  • The Stros had themselves headed for this rebuild before the CBA new rules and the forsed realignment move, but with those back to back hits, I will cut them some slack. If I were an Astros fan, I would be discouraged. I hope what they are doing works out.

  • Baseball needs a draft lottery similar to the NHL. The teams that don't make the playoffs all enter the lottery, but no team can draft lower than one spot lower than they would have drafted without the lottery. Thus, for example, the fourth-worst team could get the first pick, then the worst team gets the second pick, the fifth-worst team gets the third pick, the second-worst team gets the third pick, and so on. That would certainly dampen the enthusiasm to finish last in order to draft Rodon next year,

    Also, there's something seriously wrong with the "Competitive" Draft when four of the playoff teams (Detroit, Cincy, Oakland and Baltimore) got one and a fifth (Cardinals) were eligible but didn't win one.

  • In reply to cubsin:

    Agree there on that competitive lottery. And I would be up for some kind of lottery system as well. Wouldn't surprise me if it happened down the line. You'd still get a premium pick to rebuild with but you couldn't target specific players like the way the Astros are targeting Rodon for next year.

  • Is it a good strategy for the Astros?

    Meh.

    It's going to be a long, long time before the Astros are relevant. Maybe it would have been anyway, but teams (or at least the their fans) that go into this sort of nosedive intentionally seem to underestimate how long it can take to pull out of it. It took teams like the Rays or Nats the better part of a decade to pull out of the losing tailspin, and it doesn't look like having the No. 1 overall pick from 2012-2014 is going to net the Astros a Harper-level talent to speed things up.

    Now, there is something to be said for low-revenue teams like the Pirates or Brewers trying to time a wave of cheap talent to give themselves a window of contention. We're seeing the Pirates at the beginning of their window, and I'm pretty sure the Brewers' have slammed shut after a few good years.

    For a team like the Cubs, 2nd in the NL in revenue, even if we accept that it's necessary right now to get things kick-started, the window should never be closed once we get going.

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    Excellent article, but then nothing less is to be expected. I just don't see where the Astros had any choice. Not only did their major league team suck, but their whole system was atrocious. Then you have the limits of the new CBA. The days of over-spending for amateur talent are over. The Astros are also not the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers. Spending their way to competitiveness through free agency was never a realistic strategy. So they did the only thing they could realistically do. The Cubs are doing the same thing. It's just that the Cubs' system wasn't as barren, which means the Cubs should be competitive sooner.

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