BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
From 2011 through 2013, the Houston Astros were the worst team in baseball. They lost 106, 107 and 111 games in that three year stretch, going a combined 162-324. Those results were not entirely unexpected, as the franchise embarked upon a “rebuilding” process that would begin in earnest entering the 2011 season, and would continue under the guidance of new GM Jeff Luhnow, who took over in December of that year.
No reasonable investigation of the Astros ascension can be undertaken without first addressing the issue that hangs over the club in the aftermath of a very unseemly front office display of both insensitivity and tone deaf public relations. In May of 2018, Toronto closer Roberto Osuna was arrested in Canada and charged with assault on the mother of his three-year-old son. He was swiftly placed on “administrative leave” from baseball by commissioner Rob Manfred, and was ultimately suspended 75 games without pay having violated the league’s policy against domestic violence. He would never pitch for the Blue Jays again, and was traded to Houston in late July of that year.
The Astros faced a firestorm of displeasure from their fans in the wake of the acquisition, but his new teammates, manager and the front office all stood in support of Osuna while trying to sound sensitive to the issue of domestic violence in general. “The due diligence by our front office was unprecedented”, Luhnow noted in his statement addressing the trade. “We are confident that Osuna is remorseful, has willfully complied with all consequences related to his past behavior, has proactively engaged in counseling, and will fully comply with our zero tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind.”
When the Astros clinched the ALCS, Brandon Taubman, assistant GM and a rising star young front office executive, was quoted as saying “Thank God we got Osuna ! I am so f**king glad we got Osuna,” several times. His outburst was directed towards a group of female reporters in the clubhouse, one of who wore a purple domestic violence awareness bracelet. When Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein reported this encounter, suggesting that Taubman was directing his comments towards the female reporters in the clubhouse, the Astros released a statement in response. “The story by Sports Illustrated is misleading and completely irresponsible. We are extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated’s attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”
After multiple eyewitness accounts were published in support of Apstein’s characterization of the exchange, the Astros back-tracked and fired Taubman before Game 3 of the World Series, issuing an aplogy in the process. In the few days that passed between the episode and the decision to fire Taubman, the organization showed incredibly poor judgment, and was pilloried in the court of public opinion.
It’s difficult to identify what draws a fan to a specific team, and why that partisan would stay loyal to his or her chosen target of adulation for decades, even lifetimes. The Astros aren’t the only club to employ a player such as Osuna. The Yankees traded to acquire LHP Aroldis Chapman from the Reds in the winter of 2015 in the wake of Chapman’s own brush with domestic violence. Chapman was the first player suspended under MLB’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse policy in early 2016. The Yankees continued to employ him after the suspension, and even after trading him to the Cubs later that summer of 2016 (he would help Chicago win the 2016 World Series), New York would re-sign Chapman as a free agent prior to the 2017 season.
The Cubs invited criticism for having traded for Chapman, a known violator of the new policy, and their franchise was again embroiled in controversy when their own starting shortstop Addison Russell (acquired via trade with the A’s) was suspended in late 2018 for running afoul of the new policy. Despite renewed backlash from their fans, the Cubs welcomed Russell back to the team this past season after his 40 game suspension had been served. These are only the most recent examples of players (or coaches/executives) who, by their own actions and decisions, bring shame and negative attention to the franchises who employ them. They will not be the last.
Despite brave and carefully crafted public pronouncements from the team in the wake of such controversies, the unmitigated facts remain: If a player has the talent to improve a team’s on the field fortunes, all manner of evils will be tolerated or rationalized in the quest for victories. It seems that it is the exception, not the rule, that franchises take a stand in their refusal to seek to acquire as distressed assets (as the Yankees did when they traded for Chapman, who the Reds desperately wanted to be rid of) or harbor such personalities such as Russell or Osuna. It is thus left to the fan to decide how much of their heart and soul they are willing to invest in such teams, and at what point their moral or ethical positions regarding players of questionable character begin to outweigh their sometimes lifelong allegiances.
In the light of such weighty considerations, it is still possible to appreciate the brilliance of a player, executive, or even an entire franchise for their accomplishments on the field of play, and to celebrate achievement in those areas while continuing to hold those same entities accountable for their decisions. Excelling in the one area does not abrogate responsibility for the other, just as the failings of one particular part of a franchise (who employ literally hundreds of people) do not erase the excellence achieved in competition. It is with that paradigm in mind that we investigate the indisputable superiority of the Houston Astros franchise, during a period in their history where the off-the-field behavior of their employees has rightfully earned them public and professional scorn.
Reality is fraught with good and evil at every level of existence. Is it roseate to expect that sports teams, the objects of our lifelong adoration, exist in a utopian state of morality, helping to justify our investment in them? It is undeniable that events such as the Taubman imbroglio strike deeply at the hearts of Astros rooters, and there are certainly many who have already decided to remove their support from the team over such issues. The relationship between fan and team has never been more fraught with complications, and like all connections of longstanding duration, it is left to the individual to decide when the merit of blind allegiance is nullified by the actions, or ethical positions, of the team in question. It would seem that the plight of the modern sports fan shares much in common with the tribulations of our entire country, enmeshed in ugly political upheaval and national dissonance.
We need sports to be a relief from the harsh realities of society, a safe haven for our affections, and a place where we can bond with like-minded people to celebrate and admire the physical and mental prowess of the professional athlete, who performs for our enjoyment in very public forums. It is when those pleasures are poisoned by the behavior of the people who play that we all suffer a sense of loss.
From 2017 through 2019, the Houston Astros have been the best team in baseball, going 311-175; a record nine games better than the next best team (Dodgers). They won the 2017 World Series, and reached the Fall Classic again this season. How did such a wretched team go from the very bottom of the standings to arguably the best team in the game-and World Series Champions-in the span of four years ?
Step 1: Lose a lot of games.
In late July, 2010, the Astros traded franchise icons Lance Berkman and pitcher Roy Oswalt, moves that signaled the end of one era and the start of another. The following summer, they dealt outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, receiving young minor league talent in return in each transaction. Later in 2011, two Astros farmhands made their major league debuts: Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez, the leading edge of a wave of talent that would gradually populate a roster now bereft of both ability and high salaries.
The Astros featured the game’s lowest payroll in both 2012 and 2013, bottoming out at $35.5 million in 2013, a season that saw them finish 51-111. While those three seasons were difficult (and embarrassing) for Houston fans to endure, the money saved during those campaigns would be reinvested in their player development department, and the draft picks earned by the ignominy of their last place finishes would help fuel the rebuilding effort. By losing so egregiously (and by paying rock bottom salaries and avoiding pricey free agent splurges), the Astros had paved the way for a steady rise from the ashes.
Step 2: Find brilliant front office personnel, and let them have control.
When the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series in a thrilling seven game series over the Texas Rangers, Jeff Luhnow was the Cardinals Vice President of Scouting and Player Development, a role he held with the club since 2006. The drafts over which Luhnow presided from 2005-2007 produced 24 major leaguers, the most of any team during that span, several of whom would contribute to the Cards title in 2011. In December of 2011, the Astros would hire Luhnow to become their General Manager, replacing Ed Wade.
Luhnow immediately set about transforming the Astros franchise, making analytics and data utilization the driving force behind their organizational philosophies. The Astros have been among the most aggressive teams in baseball in terms of utilizing infield shifts for their defensive alignments, bolstering the efforts of their elite pitching staff. The franchise has also been remarkably adept at both developing pitching through their minor league system as well as helping to enhance and improve the performance of imported pitching using their internal pitch mix theories and analytically driven coaching staff. From the top down, Luhnow has populated the front office and minor league development staff with young, data driven professionals, who have collectively overseen the transformation of the franchise from laughing stock to juggernaut.
Step 3: Draft wisely.
Wade made the most of his last draft as the Astros GM, choosing George Springer with the 11th pick in the June 2011 draft. Luhnow would have the luxury of drafting either first or second overall in the next four drafts, adding Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Alex Bregman to the minor league organization. Other drafted players would be would become trade chips used to acquire impact players from other teams.
Step 4: Invest in the International Free Agent Market
Two key players on the 2019 Houston roster were acquired via the international free agent market. Infielder Yuli Gurriel was one of the best hitters in Cuba, and when he finally chose to defect at age 32, the Astros scooped him up, signing him to a five year, $47.5 million contract. Back in 2007, a few weeks after having been sent home from a tryout in his native Venezuela, Altuve re-appeared in an Astros camp. The team agreed to sign the diminutive player for a meager $15,000, and he hit his way through the minors, though he never appeared on any top prospect lists, primarily due to his 5’6” frame. Since his debut in 2011, Altuve hasn’t stopped hitting, winning the 2017 AL MVP. The Astros have utilized some of their international free agent signings in impact trades, bringing in C Brian McCann in 2016 in return for two such players. McCann would be the primary catcher on their World Series winning team the following year.
Step 5: Trade aggressively.
The Astros used their wealth of young talent, built through the draft and from trading off expensive veterans during their 2011-2013 nadir, to acquire impact players to compliment their young core.
In 2015, they dealt former top overall pick Mark Appel and four other minor leaguers to acquire reliver Ken Giles from the Phillies. Three years later, they would package Giles and two more minor leaguers to acquire the aforementioned Osuna to be their current closer.
In 2016, they moved pitcher Josh Fields to the Dodgers in exchange for recent international signee Yordan Alvarez. The tall Cuban is the presumptive 2019 AL Rookie of the Year.
At the 2017 trade deadline, they sent 2015 first round pick Daz Cameron and two other minor leaguers to the Tigers to snag future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.In early 2018, they used four minor leaguers to import likely 2019 AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole from the Pirates. At the trade deadline this season, Houston utilized three recent first round picks to persuade Arizona to part with former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.
Not all the Astros wheeling and dealing ended up working out as well. Houston had reliever Josh Hader, acquired in a trade from Baltimore in 2013, but they moved him to Milwaukee in a 2015 deal to add righty Mike Fiers to their rotation.
Houston had drafted (2009) and developed J.D. Martinez, but the team didn’t buy into the young slugger’s new swing mechanics in 2014 despite his excellent spring training performance. The team released Martinez in late March of that year, and two days later, the Tigers signed him as a free agent. Martinez has gone on to become one of the top five hitters in all of baseball over the past six seasons.
Ramon Laureano was an Astros draftee (2014) and minor league star, but the team moved him to the A’s after their 2017 World Series victory in return for RHP Brandon Bailey. Laureano has emerged as a young star in centerfield for Oakland over the past two seasons.
Step 6: Add veteran free agents on short-term deals to the core young talent.
The Astros have largely avoided forays into the highest levels of the free agent market, though they have added key players on shorter-term deals.
Before the 2017 season, they added Josh Reddick (4 years/$52 million), Carlos Beltran (1 year/$16 million), and Charlie Morton (2 years/$14 million), each of whom played key roles in their title run.
Before the 2018 season, they added two relievers, Joe Smith and Hector Rondon as free agent upgrades to their championship roster. And prior to this season they signed outfielder Michael Brantley (2 years/$32 million), starter Wade Miley (1 year/$4.5 million) and catcher Robinson Chirinos (1 year/$5.75 million) to bolster their pennant hopes.
The core of the team, Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Gurriel, Springer, Reddick, Brantley, Alvarez, Verlander, Greinke and releiver Ryan Pressly are all under team control through at least 2020. Despite having such a loaded roster, the Astros have carried payrolls outside the Top 5 in baseball during their run of making the playoffs four of the past five seasons. Their yearly rank among franchises in terms of spending has risen from 25th in 2015 (at $81 million), their first playoff appearance under Luhnow, to 20th in 2016, 17th in 2017, 9th in 2018 and 7th overall, at $168 million this year.
As their young and inexpensive group of players become more costly, the Astros, who have been hesitant to exceed the luxury tax threshold, could become vulnerable in the AL West. They are very likely to lose ace Gerrit Cole this offseason as he becomes a free agent, leaving them with only Verlander (37 next year) and Greinke (36 next year) as rotation certainties.
They do have some young pitchers who could step in, but their pitching might leave them vulnerable to a team like Oakland, who has built an excellent lineup and a formidable rotation. Assuming lefties Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, top 25 prospects who made strong impressions as rookies in 2019, ascend to the rotation, the A’s could have a collection of starters that might be the best in the division. If Luzardo and Puk slot in behind Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas, the A’s would have four starters 27 years old or younger who collectively will earn less than $6 million.
That reality could make it easier for Oakland to augment their bullpen and lineup with wise investments on the free agent market. The team has $100 million in salaries on the books for 2020, which should leave room for the team to make upgrades if GM Billy Beane sees a fit via trade or free agency. If there is a way to finally dethrone the Houston dynasty, it stands to reason that a strong rotation, deep bullpen and elite defense will be the best weapons against the high-powered Astros lineup. The AL West in 2020 should be significantly more competitive than it was this season, especially as the A’s see their young core of stars continue to develop.
No matter how the World Series turns out, Houston, led by Luhnow and his team of forward thinking, analytically driven minions, deserve immense credit for having guided the franchise from the very depths of the league to their current position, a win away from their second championship in three seasons. They’re the only franchise to make the LCS each of the past three years, and they figure to be favorites to be back in the postseason in 2020 as well.