The Astros Appear to Actually Have a Plan

It was quite the busy weekend for Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. He unloaded pitchers J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon and David Carpenter on the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, and he sent closer/clubhouse cancer Brett Myers to the Chicago White Sox on Saturday.

Frankly, I'm shocked that any team in the American League would be willing to trade for the home run machine that is J.A. Happ, especially a team playing in a division noted for guys who like to hit home runs. But it is fitting that the Blue Jays, a team that has lost pitcher after pitcher after pitcher to the disabled list this season, would acquire the oft-injured Lyon.

Now I've seen some people who are upset by the return that the Astros have received in these trades. The Astros did acquire a closer in Francisco Cordero, and Ben Francisco has already started a game in the outfield. But there are those who think that the team should have at least received a player who can play in AAA for Myers -- those people obviously haven't watched Myers pitch the past two months.

But here's my question for any baseball fans who are still watching the Astros: Do you want to be a team that can compete for the World Series every season or do you want to watch a team that's happy to be competitive? There's a key difference here, because former owner Drayton McLane was content with just being competitive, whereas it appears that Luhnow and new owner Jim Crane want the team to compete for the World Series.

This is important because teams that are happy to be competitive waste money on aging free agents and guys who can bounce back and forth between AAA and the majors. The team will be in a position to win 75-80 games every season, but not much more because the money is wasted on free agents and not on the farm system and not on signing draft choices. But teams that want to compete for the World Series go about stockpiling all of the players they can get, usually lower-level minor league guys, in the hopes that the players will all age and grow into a major league team at the same time and lead the team to the World Series.

ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted on Saturday that rival executives think the Astros are following a path previously blazed by the Tampa Bay Rays. The path involves being bad so that the team can draft near the top of the draft several years running, giving the team the best shot at the best players. Sure, the major league team may suffer for several years, but if the plan works, your team is set for many years of playoff baseball.

The Rays' method was set forth in a book that came out last season titled The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Team from Worst to First, and it documented what happened when Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman took over the Rays from their previous ownership and put Andrew Friedman in charge.

The previous ownership group had merely wanted to be competitive, but the new group decided that instead of wasting money on guys like Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff who might get them up to 75-80 wins, it was more important to invest in the draft and in the farm system. The money saved by not striving for 75-80 wins every season, which would keep the Rays far away from the playoffs, was used to sign draft choices and to stock the team's farm system. Those players have since come up to the majors and have allowed the Rays to not only stay competitive, but to thrive in a division where they have to deal with the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

The Astros are divesting themselves of aging players at a nice rate, and they're stocking the farm system. Luhnow has a good reputation as a player evaluator, and he helped to build the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. And if they follow the Rays plan, the next season or two might be pretty miserable seasons for the big league club. But when a franchise is in as bad shape as the Astros, one has to take the long view, and for once, for perhaps the first time since Bill Wood was the team's GM, it appears that the Astros are actually focusing on the long-term development of the club and its farm system.

Sure, the future's a long way off, but isn't that better than watching a team that's been put together to win 75-80 games a year like the Astros under the final years of Drayton McLane's ownership was?

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal