The Astros: Out of Their League?
"We feel this is very appropriate. Ed Wade is an outstanding baseball man. He's organized and has surrounded himself with a good, solid staff. Much of the work Ed did in Philadelphia had a lot to do with them becoming a champion. We feel he has us moving in the right direction to be a champion as well." — Drayton McLane, February 20, 2010
That was only three years ago.
Rewind to spring training 2010. Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt were the Astros' veteran cornerstones, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn were the Astros' future and Drayton McLane was the Astros' owner, choking daily on Carlos Lee's $100 million contract (as Lee himself was undoubtedly choking on a triple bacon cheeseburger).
The farm system was scorched earth. Washed-up veterans like Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Pedro Feliz were sold to the fan base as viable solutions to gaping holes in the roster. And inevitably, right about this time every year, McLane would step up to a microphone, spew the word "champion" about a hundred times and convince himself (if nobody else) that it was all gonna be all right.
It was futility personified, probably even more futile than the Astros' situation in 2013 in that there really was no long-term plan for this team back in 2010. By the time McLane later announced his intention to sell the team, in November 2010, fans were ready for the next era of Astros baseball, sight unseen.
Despite the downward spiral at the end of the McLane Era, though, in so many ways 2010 was a much simpler time to be an Astros fan. The devil you know and all.
That all changed on November 17, 2011.
That's the date that Jim Crane's $610 million purchase of your Houston Astros was approved by Major League Baseball. As part of the deal, Crane acquiesced to the wishes of Bud Selig and volunteered to make the Astros mathematics's sacrificial lamb, moving the team to the American League beginning with the 2013 season, ostensibly to even out the numbers and give each league 15 teams grouped nicely and neatly into three five-team divisions.
Almost immediately, the dilapidated house that was the Astros organization — run down by years of the Band-Aid repair work (every veteran short-timer signed in 2009 and 2010), poor decorative decisions (Carlos Lee's bloated contract) and neglect (the entire minor league system) that were staples of the McLane Era — turned into a complete tear-down.
Old-school baseball "good ol' boy" Ed Wade was promptly replaced as general manager by sabermetric brainiac Jeff Luhnow. The scouting department was revamped, New Age evaluation principles were embraced and titles like "Director of Decision Sciences" were created. Eventually manager Brad Mills was swallowed whole by the new regime and replaced with fiery 40-year-old Bo Porter.
And the roster? It was gutted, necessarily so, to the extent that by the end of the 2012 season, even the most diehard Astros fans would have had trouble recognizing the faces in the starting lineup.
Indeed, much like home buyers overspending on a modest house in the Heights just so they can tear it down and build something much nicer and more extravagant on the lot, Crane was able to purchase the patch of dirt that is the Astros for $610 million and demolish the existing home into a "$25 million payroll" pile of baseball rubble.
Now comes the reconstruction, and it's here where the story of the Astros in 2013 begins, at some nexus of the baseball universe where blind faith and undying patience meet hours of therapy.
With new uniforms, a bunch of new players, a new manager and a new league, if it feels to you as if this Astros team is an expansion team, you're not alone. They may as well be. Unfortunately, the Astros are projected by most experts to unwittingly embrace the "expansion" feel of the franchise by approaching a level of futility normally reserved for brand-spanking-new ballclubs.
In fact, after going the entire first 50 years of their existence without a 100-loss season, the Astros put up 106 and 107 losses in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Only five other franchises on seven other occasions have lost as many games in two consecutive years.
The expansion New York Mets did it in each two-year period from 1962 to 1965. By the end of 2014, the Astros could match that.
If you're looking for some historical perspective on what the 2013 Astros are "chasing," the chart to the right lists the teams with the highest three-season loss totals in baseball history.
To simplify, the Astros need 59 wins in 2013 to stay off of this list of the top ten most futile teams over a given three-year period. Coincidentally, sports books in Las Vegas have posted the Astros' season-win total at 59 on the season.
Bigger than the story of the Astros' trying to win 59 games in 2013 is the exponential degree to which the difficulty of doing so has been augmented by their move to the American League.
Much has been written and discussed about Astros fans' angst over the move to the AL. Gone are the "rivalries" with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, which frankly were steeped more in a few division title races and, in the case of the Cardinals, a couple of postseason series than in any sort of historical or geographic logic. Except on the rare occasions when the Astros play in a National League ballpark, gone are the days of watching pitchers bat.
However, the discarded franchise history and the adoption of the designated hitter should pale in comparison to the raw truth about moving to the American League West, and that is this: It is probably the hardest goddamned division in baseball.
In English Premier League soccer, they employ a method called "relegation." In the simplest terms, the worst teams in a given division are moved down into lower, less prestigious divisions the following season until they can play their way back into the upper divisions.
In an odd way, it's almost as if Major League Baseball is using "bizarro relegation," moving the 107-loss Astros up to a higher level of competition and plunking them down in a division that last season saw three teams win 89 games or more, and the 89-win team went out and bought Josh Hamilton in the off-season for $25 million per season.
If the sum $25 million looks familiar, it's because that happens to be the Astros' projected 2013 payroll for their entire team.
To stay with the "Astros franchise as an actual domicile" analogy I used earlier, imagine the tornado picking up Dorothy's little shithole of a farmhouse in The Wizard of Oz and plunking it down in the middle of River Oaks. That's the stark contrast in which the 2013 Astros will exist alongside their new neighbors in the American League West.
What exactly are the nuances of this move to the American League and what do they mean to the Astros? To you? Let's examine a bit more closely.
1. In the short term, the Astros' schedule just got much more difficult.
Over the past two seasons, the Astros have gone 10-20 in interleague play. If we take those numbers in their rawest form (a .333 winning percentage) and extrapolate them over the 142 games the Astros will play against American League teams in 2013 (the schedule now has 20 interleague games as opposed to 15 in prior years), that's 47 wins, which would mean they'd need to go 13-7 against the National League just to get to 60 wins on the season.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at the roster of teams in the American League or the Astros' record the past two seasons against those teams to hypothesize that the schedule just got much more difficult for Houston. Hell, forget the West for a second; look at the American League East! The one team in the American League East that hasn't made the playoffs in the past four seasons (Toronto) is actually now favored to win the American League in 2013!
To baseball at large, though, the bigger story is the effect that the ease of having the Astros in their division (and the 19 games apiece that come with it) will have on the playoff chances of the Athletics, Rangers and Angels. Those three teams won 94, 93 and 89 games respectively last season playing in a four-team AL West with the Seattle Mariners. Each team plays its division foes 19 times, so in 2013, those teams will all play the Astros 19 times instead of some 19-game mishmash of American League teams from the East and Central divisions.
Even taking the worst four teams from the East and Central divisions last season (Red Sox, Royals, Indians and Twins, let's say), it's hard to imagine the three stalwarts of the AL West not winning at least three or four additional games against the Astros that they wouldn't have won against those other teams.
The bottom line is that, yes, things just got a whole lot harder for the Astros, but they also by definition just got incrementally easier for the rest of the American League West, and as a result, there's a great chance that both wild-card teams in the American League come from the Astros' division.
Who said the Astros can't make an impact?
2. American League teams love to spend money.
Much has been made of the Astros' paring their 2013 payroll to an estimated $25 million. This would be far and away the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball. The next lowest would belong to the Miami Marlins, who did everything short of putting José Reyes on Craigslist to reduce payroll this offseason. Yes, $25 million is a ridiculously low number, but in the midst of a complete teardown, for the salary spend to bottom out, even to historic levels like $25 million, is not a huge story to me.
Now Jim Crane essentially saying, "Don't tell me what to do" by challenging his detractors to bring him a check for $10 million if they want to have a say in how he runs the club? That's a story. And that happened recently in a Wall Street Journal profile of the Astros owner. Not good for his look.
The crucial Astros-specific salary story will be written when the time comes to decide what portions of their nucleus — most of which is still at least a year away from the Major Leagues — to lock up to long-term deals and which free agents to sign to supplement the home-grown core.
According to Luhnow, that time is still years away: "You compare our roster to the Rangers, we're not there yet. But will we be in five years? I hope so. Will our payroll be up in the range where it can compete with the Rangers? I hope so. But for now, we're not even close."
When the time does come to decide on future spending, know that the Astros are now in a league that houses seven of the top ten payrolls in Major League Baseball, including three of the most liberal check cutters in the game, the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Angels. Of course, by the time the Astros are ready to spend somewhat big — in, say, 2017 — the Angels will be paying Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson a combined $97 million, and the Yankees will be paying a 42-year-old Alex Rodriguez $20 million, so who knows how the dynamic will evolve.
Unequivocally, though, from a fiscal-irresponsibility standpoint, the American League is where the big boys play, the Dodgers' recent spending binges notwithstanding.
3. Some of the American League teams that don't really spend that much are actually pretty damn smart.
Big-market teams spending themselves into the baseball version of a Kristal- and lap-dance-induced haze is one thing. What makes the American League even trickier is that the teams trying to do it the way the Astros likely will try to do it, with advanced stats and meticulous scouting laying the groundwork for fiscally responsible success...well, they're really, really good at it.
Tampa Bay has ridden a payroll in the $50 million range to a 2008 World Series appearance, three playoffs and an average of 92 wins per season the past five years. Oakland's ability to squeeze a lot out of a little has been well documented in print and on the silver screen, and they won 94 games last season. Baltimore has a modest $88 million payroll and is coming off a 93-win season with a young nucleus.
The reasonable expectation for the Astros is some balance between cost-effective youth and selective spending on veterans. They won't ever be the Yankees, Red Sox or Angels (nor, if you're a fan of reasonably priced tickets, should you want them to be), but with the lucrative new Comcast SportsNet (lucrative once it gets cleared in more than 40 percent of the homes in Houston, that is), of which the Astros own the biggest chunk, and the assumption that fans will return to watch the watchable, then a payroll ranking somewhere around tenth to 15th in baseball is logical.
Basically, the Astros' goal should be to emulate the Texas Rangers, which reminds me...
4. Road trips for fans may not necessarily be better but can be more frequent.
When the move to the American League was announced back in 2011, one of the narratives forwarded by longtime Astros fans was how much crappier all the American League cities are than the National League cities. Amazing how luxurious cities like Milwaukee become to Astros fans when Bud Selig is about to take away their precious "double switch" and pitchers bunting. The American League "downgrade" was a reach then, and it's a reach now.
Of the road trips that matter, Astros Fan, you're losing San Francisco, San Diego, Wrigley and, purely on venue and atmosphere (not so much the city), St. Louis. I'll admit, that stinks. However, you're picking up Fenway and an underrated gem in Seattle; upgrading to Yankee Stadium in New York; and still getting road trips to Southern California and Chicago. Even Toronto is a hell of a wild card city in the summertime.
And on top of all that, you now pick up three road trips per season to Arlington to watch the Astros take on the hated Rangers, whom you will hate even more once the Astros are good again sometime between now and rapture! In all, in the face of you jilted, bitter folks who want to equate Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to some sort of tropical paradise, I will say that the road schedule is more, not less, travel-friendly.
5. Oh, about that designated hitter thing...
I realize that proclaiming this in a Houston publication is going to be about as well received as Manti Te'o standing on a chair in the middle of an NFL locker room and announcing that he's gay, but here goes: I like the designated hitter.
There, I said it. Yeah, you heard me. I hate pitchers bunting. I hate pitchers swinging. I hate pitchers pretty much doing anything except pitching. Wait, I take that back; I used to love José Lima's singing, but that's it. Now, ironically, you know who really likes to see pitchers hit? Opposing pitchers!
As if the degree of difficulty could get amped up any further for guys like Lucas Harrell or Bud Norris as they try to win games (assuming that both are still with the Astros by the time this goes to print — far from a lock), now, instead of an automatic out in the nine hole like they had in the NL, they have to deal with some single-minded bopper somewhere in the heart of the order. Sorry, fellas.
As for the Astros, they had a hard enough time finding eight position players with Major League-caliber bats last season. I can't imagine that having to find a ninth this season is going to help matters in 2013. And for what it's worth, it appears that DH duties will fall upon some combination of Chris Carter (16 home runs in 2012 for Oakland), Brett Wallace and the veteran Carlos Peña (and his .206 batting average the past three seasons).
Scared yet, rest of the American League?
6. Stock the fridge with Red Bull; there are gonna be a lot of 9p.m. start times.
Before it all came to pass, one of the common pre-emptive complaints from fans about the move to the American League was the fact that the Astros would be moving from a division composed entirely of Central and Eastern time zone opponents to a division with three opponents located in the Pacific Time Zone, and the schedule would therefore be littered with late starts.
Here is how the 2013 schedule shakes out from that standpoint:
• 28 total games in the Pacific time zone
• 21 games with 9:05 p.m. or 9:10 p.m. Houston start time
• 15 games with 9:05 p.m. or 9:10 p.m. Houston start time on weeknights
Keep in mind this doesn't equate to 15 additional weeknight games with seemingly inconvenient West Coast start times, compared to previous seasons. In the National League, the Astros still had to travel at least once a year to Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Arizona, all Pacific Time Zone spots, not to mention Colorado, where weeknight games typically start at 8:40 p.m. Houston time.
So are there potentially more sleep-reduced nights in the American League? Yes, without a doubt. The good news is that, unless Norris or Harrell is pitching, the Astros should be down by five or six runs before 10 p.m., and you can just go to bed.
Strangely enough, like characters whose actors take a hiatus from a soap opera, the players who will affect your future enjoyment of the Astros the most will probably not even see Minute Maid Park this season. As the drama (or lack thereof) unfolds with the big club in Houston, the baseball that really matters long-term will be played in places like Oklahoma City, Corpus Christi and Quad Cities.
When the time comes for you to once again proclaim, as the marketing slogan did a couple of years ago, "These are my Astros!" only a handful of the faces you see on opening night, March 31, will be here.
In a short amount of time, through shrewd trades and savvy drafting, Luhnow has taken the Astros' farm system from one of the worst in recent history to one of the top ten in the game, with five of the top 100 prospects in all of minor league baseball scattered throughout the organization.
Carlos Correa, Jonathan Singleton, George Springer, Lance McCullers, Delino DeShields Jr., Jarred Cosart, whomever they take with the first overall pick in this June's draft (and likely next June's draft). Those are the names to remember. Those are the absentee characters in the Astros' 2013 script.
They may not be "your Astros" now, but by 2015, they will be.
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