The Houston Astros are a subject of much derision. They're a bad team with very few, if any, names on the roster recognizable to the average fan. They'll probably struggle to win 60 games. And there are national writers who think that the Astros are an embarrassment to baseball.
I'm often critical of the team. My thoughts on the various moves of Ed Wade, Tal Smith and Drayton McLane are well known. And I've also been very critical of many things that Jim Crane has done since purchasing the team.
But for every criticism that I've made over things like erector-set billboards in the outfield or not knowing that Joe Niekro is dead, I've been steadfast in my love for what General Manager Jeff Luhnow is doing. And for whatever reason Crane is allowing Luhnow to operate as he is, I'm appreciative that Crane is allowing it.
I do understand there are people unhappy with the course the Astros are taking for this season. That there are people who think the Astros should be spending money on free agents so that the Astros can be more competitive this season. Nobody thinks the Astros can win this season, even if they do spend money on free agents, but people want the team to be competitive, as in winning 70 or 75 games.
I don't understand this thinking.
Earlier this week I compared Crane to Charlie Finley, the former owner of the Oakland A's. Finley tore apart a bad team, stocked his minor league system through trades and the draft, and created a mini-dynasty. And while I feel that Crane/Finley is appropriate when it comes to Crane's constant missteps with PR and angering the fans, I think that Luhnow and his front office group are following a plan created by Andrew Friedman with the Tampa Bay Rays: a plan stating there's no need to waste money on the major league level for a team that's not ready to compete.
"Winning 67 or 71 games didn't make a dramatic difference to us," said Friedman in The Extra 2%, a book about the building of the Rays. "It was about putting ourselves in a position to win 92-plus [games]."
The Rays were historically one of the worst teams in baseball. In their early years, the team wasted money on fading free agent superstars in hopes that the fans would come out and support the team while hoping to be competitive. The team was never competitive, and the fans decided that seeing Jose Canseco and Wade Boggs fade into nothingness just wasn't worth the cost of a ticket.
A new owner assumed control of the team, and he put Friedman in charge of building a winner. The Rays stopped spending on free agents and put that money into the farm system, stocking their minor league teams with high draft pick after high draft pick. When the Rays were ready to win, when their players were graduating into the majors and performing at a high level, ownership went out and spent money on free agents like Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival, players past their prime but still capable of filling some holes on the roster and providing some much-needed veteran leadership. But for the Rays to make the World Series in 2008 (and to be a constant playoff contender since), they had to sacrifice several seasons on the major league level. The money was more important for the minors because it was more important to win in the future than it was to be merely competitive in the present.
The Astros have not said that they're following the Rays blueprint. But it does make sense. The team is bad. It was bad last season. It was bad the season before last, and the season before that. Attendance has been falling, even while the Astros, under McLane, were signing fading, aging free agents in an attempt to stay competitive and with a roster with guys like Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Brett Myers and Michael Bourn.
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Crane has said that he will spend the money for free agents when the time is right. And while I don't believe Crane's claims about the team losing money, or like how he handled things with radio team Brett Dolan and Dave Raymond, I do like that he's sticking by Luhnow and Luhnow's crew. So if he says he'll spend the money when Luhnow says the time is right, then for now, I'm choosing to believe Crane.
Will Luhnow's plan work? It's a huge gamble. And if it doesn't work, the Astros may become the next Pittsburgh Pirates or the Kansas City Royals. But massive rebuilds focusing on the draft and the minors while eschewing free agents have allowed the Rays and the Oakland A's to stay competitive in two of the toughest and biggest-spending divisions in baseball.
Besides, it's not like what the Astros were doing was working. So what's there to lose, except for maybe a hundred games or so. But it's not this year that matters. It's 2014. And 2015.