The Houston Astros are like a grand science experiment. The mad scientist in charge of this grand experiment is general manager Jeff Luhnow. It's year three of this great experiment, an experiment that's seen the major league roster blown to bits and the farm system rebuilt.
But is this grand experiment working? The Astros are still an awful Major League team. The team's once again in contention for the first draft choice of the amateur draft -- something that no team has accomplished for four seasons in a row. The record is an awful 9-17, and the Astros seem more concerned with settling petty issues like Jed Lowrie bunting against one of their stupid shifts than they do with anything else.
The team's fans are being asked to put up with a lot. There's the paying of Major League ticket prices to watch a Minor League product. There's the ugly machinations behind George Springer's delayed call-up to the major leagues. Most of the fans in the Astros television footprint still can't see the damn games on television, and the bullpen still sucks despite efforts to fix it over the offseason.
One of the biggest experiments being tried by the team is the use of the tandem rotation by the Minor League teams. In the tandem rotation, the starter pitches an average of five innings a game and is then pulled from the game to be replaced by another starter who pitches the rest of the game. Those two pitchers then pitch four nights later. This method of setting up a rotation is not used in high school baseball or in college baseball, and it's a rarity in the pros.
The Astros are one of the few teams in professional baseball to have experimented with this method of pitching. The St. Louis Cardinals used it for its lower-level Minor League teams for a few years. The Reds, A's, Brewers and Pirates tried it for a bit. The Colorado Rockies used it for a brief time out of pure desperation on the Major League level several years ago due to the absolute suckiness of their rotation. But the Astros appear to be the only team to have gone all in, employing it throughout all levels of the minors, and supposedly, to a lesser extent, with the team's mediocre Major League rotation.
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Mark Appel, the No. 1 draft choice of the Houston Astros last season, was demoted from his Class A Minor League team to extended spring training on Friday. The speed of his pitches has been down, and opposing teams have been beating up on him. The Astros claim Appel's not injured. Appel says the same thing. But being demoted from Class A to extended spring training this early in the season is not a good sign. And the primary culprit appears to be the team's use of the tandem rotation. Appel is not the first highly drafted Astros pitcher to have problems with the tandem rotation. Mike Foltynewicz admitted earlier this year that he had injury problems as a result of trying to pitch this way.
"My whole life has been on a five-day rotation and that's all it was; that's all it's been," Foltynewicz told the Houston Chronicle. "Throwing in a piggy-back system and throwing one more day of rest, I couldn't tell you what the issue was, but I definitely was a little sore."
Baseball intelligentsia have been mostly supportive of the Astros' efforts to reinvent the rebuilding wheel. But with the Appel problem and the Foltynewicz injury issues, some of those who focus on pitching have dared to question what the Astros are doing. The Astros might not be happy with the mild criticisms leveled by the likes of Keith Law and C.J. Nitkowski, but every now and then, it's helpful to hear and see the criticisms because the Astros front office is still for the most part unproven, and it's not perfect.
The Astros are still probably a couple of years away from being a remotely decent baseball team. For that to happen, Jeff Luhnow's mad-scientist plan with the farm system is going to have to pay off big time. Experimenting with the high-priced pitchers is probably not the best way to make that happen, however. But who knows, maybe the Astros will be back on television by that time in the hypothetical future when the Astros will supposedly be good.