The Astros Rebuild Is Ugly, But It Can't Be Rushed

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Astros fans are getting reckless. The team's losing night after night. There's another 100-loss season staring people in the face. The team's challenging the Miami Marlins for the number one draft pick, which would be the third year in a row that the Astros would have that pick.

The bullpen's a disaster of epic proportions. The hitters are strikeout machines. There's no TV deal. Attendance is dropping. Interest might be approaching levels not seen since the team was being run by bankruptcy creditors in the 1970s.

It's a depressing time to be a fan of the Astros. It's probably tempting for most baseball fans in Houston to do what sports fans in Houston always do, look for a bandwagon to jump on and become the biggest fans ever of the Yankees or Red Sox or Cardinals or Dodgers or Rangers.

The message for the fans is a simple one: The team will be better. Not this season. Probably not next. But the season after looks good. As do the seasons to come. Sure, it's hard living with and watching the Astros now -- it's probably a good thing most of the city doesn't get CSN Houston -- but for the first time in years, the farm teams are stocked with talent. And not just any talent, but highly ranked talent.

What the Astros cannot do, despite the desires of some of the fans, is jump-start the process. They can't rush players to the majors before they're ready, no matter how bad the guys on the major league roster. And what the Astros cannot do, must not do, is go out this off-season and sign some free agents just for the purpose of being competitive. Being competitive doesn't really make the baseball team better -- the goal of the Tampa Bay Rays for most of their existence was to merely be competitive and that translated to an awful team.

And aiming to be merely competitive, to win 70-75 games instead of winning 60-65, hasn't really proven to be worth the cost of signing aging, fading stars and non-stars to contracts. The team never really gets better on the field, it never becomes competitive and it really does nothing to generate interest among the fans.

There's a process to be followed, one the Rays are using to actually be competitive, but one that has also, in varying degrees, been followed by most successful baseball teams over the past several years. The Pirates and Orioles floundered for years, signing mediocre free agents and trying to stay competitive, before going all in on rebuilds. The New York Yankees became the pre-eminent team of the 1990s when George Steinbrenner was suspended and couldn't run the team, so they stopped signing big free agents, concentrated on the farm system and put together a core team of home-grown players which was complimented by free agents after the team started winning; the Atlanta Braves also built a core through their farm system, then supplemented with free agents.

It's difficult watching a team lose game after game. It's difficult watching this happen season after season, year after year. But spending money on mediocre free agents so the team can up the win total a few games doesn't help things. It doesn't increase fan interest because fan interest is not increased by a mediocre product. A mediocre product might be better than an awful team, but it's still a lousy product.

The Astros will be a good team again. Not this year. Not next. But it will happen. It's a painful process to sit through, but it's a necessary one, one that Drayton McLane didn't want to happen. And because McLane kept putting it off, which has just served to make the recovery harder, longer and much more difficult to sit through. But it will work. Just look at the Tampa Bay Rays, which seem to be the team blueprint the Astros are following.

Hey, if it doesn't work, it's not like anybody will really know. Face it, until the Astros are again on all of the cable systems in the region, the team will just fail to exist to most of the city. And even when that happens, until the Astros actually start to contend again, it's not going to matter what kind of product goes out on the field; there will be no fan interest. So the best thing the Astros can do is stick to the plan, no matter how ugly it might get.

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