Is it already time to write off this season? The Houston Chronicle had a major revelation Wednesday: The folks running the Houston Astros might not know what they're talking about.
Beat writer Evan Drellich doesn't quite state it that way, of course. But his paywalled story is a thing of beauty, revisiting spring training quotes from Bo Porter, Jeff Luhnow and Jim Crane on how much better the Astros would be this season compared to years past. In fairness, no one would really expect the manager, GM and owner to come out and say that the team was going to suck -- they all need to sell the product -- but calling the team the most improved in baseball, exciting, and aiming for a .500 record was kind of hard for fans to swallow back in March.
Drellich's story is centered around Tuesday's 11-4 loss to Detroit. The loss featured another bullpen implosion, and the score was made semi-respectable only by the Astros' scoring three runs in the ninth inning. The team looked awful, it's looked awful all season and except for the excitement of winning two of three from the Yankees to open the season, there's been absolutely nothing to point to any bright future for the Astros.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. The Astros should be a better team next year. And better the year after next. The farm system is routinely graded as the best in baseball, and there's nothing to indicate that's going to change, not with another No. 1 draft pick coming in June and the very real possibility of another No. 1 pick next season.
But the issue is that the Astros aren't better this season, and while expecting the team to win 81 games was nowhere near realistic, it was also not realistic to think the team would look as bad as it did last year. And at some point, while the Major League team flounders, the question needs to be asked: Are the people tasked with rebuilding the Astros' Major League product up to what's becoming a more and more monumental task as each season passes and the losses pile up?
Bo Porter's in his second year on the job. He had no previous MLB managerial experience. In his time with the Astros, he's shown a penchant for T-shirt slogans, passive-aggressive criticism of his players, questionable knowledge of the rule book and an unhealthy desire for revenge on the A's Jed Lowrie for daring to bunt against the shift.
But what he hasn't shown is much of an ability to make his players better. Lucas Harrell and J.D. Martinez took noted steps backwards last season, and Jordan Lyles so far looks to be a much better pitcher in Colorado than here. The team is still prone to colossal base-running blunders and dunderheaded defensive plays. He's not been very adept at handling the bullpen, though in all fairness, Tony La Russa (with Dave Duncan as his pitching coach) would also fail with this fire-starter of a bullpen. Porter's coaches took the fall for him last season, but shouldn't the point be coming where he, too, must take responsibility?
Porter has been dealt a bad hand. With very few exceptions, he has not been given much talent to manage (Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, Dexter Fowler, Scott Feldman, Jarred Cosart and George Springer would probably be on other Major League rosters). GM Jeff Luhnow's been allowed to blow up the big league team (which was also awful when he took over) so as to restock the depleted farm system and hopefully put the Astros on a fast-track rebuild. But while Luhnow's done excellent work with the farm system, just as he did in St. Louis, at some point he's got to show he can do something on the major league level.
Yes, he found a way to trade Carlos Lee twice in one week -- one of the all-time great GM moves -- and he did fleece Boston for Jed Lowrie. But as of yet, not many of his other big-league trades can be declared wins -- Oakland's clearly ahead in the Lowrie for Chris Carter/Brad Peacock/Max Stassi trade. And Colorado's currently in the lead on the Lyles/Brandon Barnes for Dexter Fowler trade. The rebuilt bullpen, on which the team did actually spend money this off-season, is just as bad as last year's disaster. And I still contend the team overpaid for injury-prone Scott Feldman, the default staff ace who would be a three or four starter on most other teams.
The Astros should improve this season because there are multiple players in the minors who appear to be ready for the MLB roster, chief among them being first baseman Jon Singleton and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz -- though it might be a while longer as the team appears bent on gaming the service-time rules for as long as possible (who but for the paying customers really cares about this season when the future six years from now is more important). And if the kids start to perform as expected, then Luhnow may be the baseball savior of all baseball saviors.
But there's this year's product featuring players who shouldn't be on Major League rosters, science experiments in the minors and manager pieces who have yet to prove they can operate on a Major League level. Evan Drellich is correct to question the plan and to hold those who made it responsible. It's not going to do any good, but it's nice to see others share the same pain as the fans.
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