Mid-Season Report: Houston Astros

Mid-Season Report: Houston Astros

To add content besides our lists, I will do a mid-season review listing each team’s current Top 10 prospects and showing how their prospects have progressed during the season.  Hopefully, it’ll help improve our rankings by getting feedback from people who follow certain systems and identifying sleepers who could be worth ranking.  I’ll go in reverse order of the standings, which means I get to start with the Astros. 

Note: this epitomizes why I avoid posting about the Astros.  I typed this while watching the game, and what was supposed to be a 200 word summary turned into a diatribe providing way too much information about the state of ‘stros baseball (at least we are winning tonight).  Most of this information will not help your keeper league team, so if you are just looking for possible pickups, skip to the Top 10 list at the bottom.  Sorry this post ended up too long, and I promise the rest of the reports will be much shorter.    

It’s been a rough season in Houston. But anybody who follows the ‘stros knows this was a disaster seven years in the making.  In 2004, after one of the most talented teams in Astros history lost to the Cardinals in the NLCS, we entered the off-season facing an aging roster and numerous departures.  The most publicized departures were Kent, Beltran, etc., but in retrospect, the loss that hurt most was losing GM Gerry Hunsicker.  Hunsicker’s “resignation” marked the beginning of the exodus of “behind the scenes” people largely responsible for the team’s success.  With the core of our team (Biggio, Bagwell, Clemens) nearing the end of their careers, the 2004 off-season was the time to start placing increased focus on building toward the future.  But instead, the team went in the opposite direction and focused on trying to keep the team competitive.  The short-term strategy paid dividends in 2005, and we had an amazing run leading to the team’s first World Series appearance.  As great as it was reaching the series, it emboldened the team to become increasingly focused on short-term results.  

For years, the Astros have been a disaster waiting to happen. The team continued adding free agents to remain competitive when we lacked the resources to compete without help from the farm system.  Every year, the idea the team could compete became increasingly far-fetched. The low point occurred in 2007, when the team effectively skipped the major league draft by not signing anybody until the 5th round. Four years later, teams that invested in players are starting to see those results.  We have the worst record in baseball, but based on the strategy we followed from 2005-2009, how could we have expected anything different? 

As frustrating as the 2011 season has been, I am more optimistic about the future of Astros baseball today than any time in the past four years. First, we have new ownership.  The new ownership’s first job is to evaluate the front office that took over in 2008.  It’s easy to blame the current front office for the team’s problems, but it is definitely more complicated.  On one hand, the current group inherited an absolute mess.  The question is simply whether they did enough to fix that mess.    As an Astros fan who follows prospects, my thought was priority #1 in 2008 should have been making the Astros one of the most aggressive teams in baseball acquiring amateur talent.  That has clearly not happened (even though they’ve been more active recently), and my instinct is to criticize them because, from an outsider’s perspective, there seemed to be a very passive approach applied in the face of a disaster where urgent action was required. 

I am not sure that criticism is fair.  As an outsider, the question I cannot answer is whether what seemed to be a failure to take urgent action was really part of a well-implemented strategy to build an infrastructure of coaches and scouts that would allow us to find and develop talent to increase return on investment before spending aggressively. In other words, the front office inherited a system in 2008 that was so barren I am not convinced my instinct of immediately investing huge resources in amateur talent in 2008 would have worked.  As person who likes finance and baseball prospects, I like to study the financial return on investing in players.  To me, teams are generally smarter putting resources in the draft because you acquire the players at prices below what they would command on the open market.  But I admittedly have little concept of all the “behind the scenes” work that goes into player development, and the problem with trying to quantify return on investment by simply looking at past data is ROI is presumably profoundly impacted by a team’s ability to find and develop players. 

So you could theoretically argue the Astros knew what they were doing and their plan was to first install an infrastructure that could properly develop players, and then once that happened, spend more heavily.  Three years ago, it was hard to watch the Astros lower-level teams without becoming frustrated.  The recent top picks have been less successful than we would have liked, but slowly but surely, the situation has improved (perhaps too slowly).  Unlike several years ago, when you watch the system today, you get the sense we are at least somewhat capable of finding high-caliber players and developing them into major leaguers.  As the situation has improved, the team started spending more aggressively.  So maybe there was a strategy? 

As much I would like to believe the Astros have spent the past four years implementing a competent strategy that was just beyond my understanding, I have a tough time giving them that much credit.  My first instinct is the current front office (mostly b/c of the ownership) was not proactive enough about fixing the crisis they inherited. For example, if the current group recognized the impending crisis to the extent that priority #1 was implementing a coherent plan toward rebuilding our system, why did millions of dollars that could have later gone towards building our system go to Brandon Lyon, Pedro Feliz, Clint Barmes, Bill Hall, etc?  The cynical part of me believes the recent increase in spending on amateur talent only occurred because losing lots of games (and subsequent declines in attendance) was the only thing that could make the team finally understand what should have been happening for years.  But it’s too late now and it’ll take years to fix the problems caused by the team’s reluctance to rebuild.  

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  First, the front office was hamstrung by ownership insisting on a “win now” philosophy. Second, even though it does nothing to justify the strategy, when you are running a team day-to-day, it’s probably difficult to implement a strategy that doesn’t give the current players a chance to win that season.  A great example was in Pittsburgh a few years ago when Neal Huntington faced a lot of criticism for trading away his players even though he was doing the right thing.  I don’t claim to offer enough knowledge to fairly criticize the people running the team, and if I knew more, maybe I’d feel differently.   I have no doubt the front office is not happy about losing and were doing their best, but putting emphasis on short-term results for such a sustained period was a terrible mistake.

Personally, I hope they keep Bobby Heck because there have been some encouraging signs on the farm system. The following shows how the Astros prospects progressed on our Top 250 rankings. The charts are a little misleading because our rankings are usually a little bit behind performance. For example, contrary to what the chart shows, the performances that dropped Springer’s ranking happened in April and he was performing better by May (I’m just a little bit behind).   

At this point, I would rank our team’s Top 10 Prospects:
1.  George Springer—OF (assuming he signs)
2.  Jose Altuve—2B
3.  Delino Deshields, Jr.—2B
4.  Ariel Ovando—OF
5.  Jonathan Villar—SS
6.  Giovanni Mier—SS
7.  JD Martinez—OF
8.  Mike Foltywicz—P
9.  Austin Wates—OF
10.  Adrian Houser—P

It’s hard to say where the system will rank next season because a lot can change depending on trades, player performances, etc. Unfortunately, with the graduation of Lyles, I think the farm system will rank in the bottom 10 again next season. However, unlike previous years, there is a light at the end of the tunnel because the chances are really strong our system makes a huge jump in 2013.  There are several encouraging signs.  Most importantly, the system is building depth.  Three years ago, creating a list of the Astros top prospects involved a great deal of combing through baseball reference thinking “there has gotta be somebody better than ____ I can put at the end of this list.”  This year, the team has at least 15 more prospects with enough potential to make a case to be listed in the Top 10.  Second, the team is spending more aggressively.  Acquiring Ovando from the Dominican Republic was a bold move, and picking Springer indicates the team was not passing on any player with more upside because of budget concerns.  Finally, one benefit of the worst record is we should add another elite prospect in next year’s draft.

Frustrating season!  The good thing is it will eventually get better, and in my opinion, the trick will be realizing there is no short-term solution to fixing this problem.  Huge resources need to go into acquiring amateur talent, even though it’ll take time for the strategy to show results.   As a reward to anybody interested enough in Astros baseball to have actually read that entire post, you will remember this.    Go Astros!