It’s been a long way down for the Houston Astros, and it’s still going to be a long road back up to the top, but the rebuilding process is being done properly, and that should be a silver lining to fans who prepare to suffer through what may be the most excruciating season yet.
Watching the Astros field a Triple-A team over the last two years while simultaneously losing draft picks to free agent signings and making poor choice with the picks they did retain left seemingly no hope of competing any time soon. As recently as two years ago, the Astros farm system not only ranked as the worst in major league baseball, but among the most barren in recent memory. There was simply no help on the way for a team that needed it badly.
They still need it badly, but thanks to a rebuilding process that was begun by former GM Ed Wade (one of the few things he did right) and continued by new GM Jeff Luhnow, there will be help coming this time.
The problem with many teams when they try to rebuild is that they don’t do it all the way. For a major league organization, a rebuilding process, should that prove to be the right decision, is not something that can be done halfway. The organization must be all-in.
This is what the Astros have done. The result is going to be a lean year in their first go-round in the American League West, but the hope is that the end result will be a competitive team.
Rebuilding, in this case (and most), means trading veteran assets as they get expensive for young, cheap talent in the form of prospects. Prospects, by nature, are unpredictable. We don’t know how any of them are going to turn out. But the fault here, if this rebuilding process doesn’t result in a competitive team, will be fall at the hands of the scouting department that gave the recommendations as to which prospects to acquire, not at the philosophy itself.
The Astros have broken things all the way down. The mistake many teams make is to trade some valuable assets, like the Astros did with Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, but then hold onto other assets to keep from having to field a completely uncompetitive teams, like the Astros did not do when they traded Carlos Lee and Wandy Rodriguez this past season.
Things got pretty dicey toward the end of 2012 for the Astros, and holding onto a player like Rodriguez would have given them a reliable starter to lead a young rotation in the 2013 season, but they resisted temptation and traded the left-handed pitcher to the Pittsburgh Pirates for prospects Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman and Rudy Owens.
What good would Rodriguez do them this year? Perhaps his presence keeps them from being a 100-loss team, only to see them lose 98 games instead. I’d rather have Grossman, who could be a nice number two hitter to slide in behind Delino Deshields Jr. by the 2014 season. It will mean taking some heat during a rough season this year, but it was the right decision.
The biggest issue with the entire Astros organization just a few years ago was a complete lack of talent, from top to bottom. Even with players like Bourn, Pence and Rodriguez, they were not competitive, and there was nothing internally to add to them. The only choice was to blow the whole thing up and start over.
And that’s exactly what they’ve done.
The influx of talent that has entered the Astros farm system—both through trades and through better drafting—has given them one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. Not necessarily one of the best, especially in terms of major league-ready impact talent, but one of the deepest.
That depth has come primarily though trades. Jonathan Singleton, acquired in 2011 from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade, gives them a legitimate centerpiece around which they can build, even despite his 50-game suspension for marijuana. Owens and Brett Oberholtzer, acquired in separate trades, should be usable major league lefties. Jarred Cosart, who came over from the Phillies with Singleton, could be a mid-rotation starter or a late-inning reliever.
The real impact talent, however, has come from the draft. DeShields, a 2010 first-rounder had a great 2012 season, embracing his role as a leadoff hitter and doing a better job working counts and getting on base, and as a result stealing 101 bases between two levels. George Springer, the team’s 2011 first-rounder, should be the team’s center fielder of the future and took full advantage of the California League in his first full season. He swings and misses a little too much, but he’s got one of the best power/speed combinations in the minors.
Lastly, with the first overall pick in 2012, the Astros selected Carlos Correa out of Puerto Rico; he will have more to say about the Astros rebuilding process than any other player. A rebuilding organization can’t overcome a bust with the top overall pick, but all indications point towards Correa becoming the Astros shortstop of the future.
The Astros have also done a good job acquiring some interesting lower-tier prospects in smaller trades that could result in role players, key pieces, or even a potential starter or two:
—Sending third baseman Chris Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks brought back Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss. Borchering is a former first rounder who had been pushed over to first base thanks to organizational crowding at third in the Diamondbacks system, but the Astros were willing to try him back at the hot corner after acquiring him last season. He has big time power but serious contact issues. Krauss is a 25-year-old corner outfielder who has put up good numbers in the minors but is generally underwhelming in terms of tools. Still, he has a good track record of production, takes a walk and hits for power. He should see time in the majors this season.
—Domingo Santana was the player to be named later in the Pence trade, but has always had big upside. At the time of the trade, we had only seen glimpses of that on the field, but the California League sure cured that in a hurry. Santana hit .203/.385/.536 last season in Lexington, with 23 home runs. He’ll have to prove himself in a more neutral ballpark, but it’s a good start.
—Matt Dominguez should be the Astros starting third baseman in 2013 after coming over in the Carlos Lee trade last season. He’s limited offensively, but one of the highlights of the Astros season could be getting to watch Dominguez play defense. His glove alone should provide decent value, especially for an aging veteran like Lee, who was doing the Astros no good whatsoever.
For the Astros, there’s a chance this could all fall flat. Singleton could continue to have off-the-field troubles and Correa could stall out developmentally, as just two potential examples. With prospects, anything can happen. But what’s important, at least at this point, is that they’ve gone about things the right way philosophically, and that the talent is there. The Astros started down the rebuilding path, and they took the path all the way to the bottom of the hill, which is where they are now.
The good news is that there’s no place to go but up.