Signs of growth amid Astros' historically bad stretch
When Jeff Luhnow took over as the general manager of the Astros last December following the team's sale, nobody expected him to turn things around immediately. Outgoing owner Drayton McLane had spent the better part of half a decade forestalling a rebuilding effort by in an attempt to wring one last playoff run from an aging core that had been in decline since 2005, when the team won the NL pennant. On the heels of a 2011 season in which the team had gone a major league worst 56-106, incoming owner Jim Crane recognized the need for change, and hired Luhnow away from the world champion Cardinals, where as vice president of scouting and player development, he had proven adept at integrating statistical analysis with more traditional scouting methods. In taking over, Luhnow's immediate mandate was to pare payroll, rebuild a downtrodden farm system and orient the team towards a more competitive future.
He's done that, but it hasn't been pretty. While the team held its own over the first two months of the season, going 22-23 with a run differential of +14 through May 25, the Astros have gone 17-56 while being outscored by 161 runs — 2.2 per game — since then. That's a .232 winning percentage, lower even than the modern-day barometers of futility, the 1962 Mets, who went 40-120 for a .250 winning percentage. Within that stretch, the Astros have compiled two separate nine-game losing streaks (May 26-June 2 and June 28-July 6) as well as a 12-game one (July 17-28). From June 28 through August 9, they went 4-34, a stretch so bad that the archaeologists at Stats LLC disinterred the ultimate bad team comp: the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.
The Spiders, who were part of the National League from 1889 through 1899, were victims of baseball's "Wild West" days. Through 1898, they were generally competitive, finishing as high as second place in a 12-team league, and they sported a familiar ace, Cy Young. Alas, prior to the 1899 season, the team's owners purchased the bankrupt St. Louis Browns, whom they renamed the Perfectos (a year later, they would become the Cardinals), and transferred most of Cleveland's stars, including Young and fellow future Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace, to St. Louis. The result was a squad that went 20-134, for a record-low .149 winning percentage; their attendance was so poor that other teams refused to visit, forcing the Spiders to play 112 of their 154 games on the road. In other words, the deck was so heavily stacked against them that it's difficult to take their ignominious marks seriously. So when a team like the Astros bumps up against one, things have gotten very bad indeed.
Since that 4-34 plunge, the Astros have actually won three of five from the Brewers and Cubs, but they still have the majors' worst record at 39-79, for a .331 winning percentage; the next-worst team, the Rockies, are at 43-71 (.377). The Astros' 108-loss pace would be the worst in franchise history, and the worst in the majors since Diamondbacks lost 111 in 2004. Their recent mini-surge didn't stop Luhnow from taking the unconventional tack of sending an open letter to season ticket holders earlier this week, expressing gratitude and sympathy for fans suffering along with the team, while highlighting his vision for the future. "We share your frustration with the results on the field so far this year… We ran into a combination of bad luck, injuries and a lack of depth that led to our deteriorating record through the midsummer months," he wrote, before outlining the team's progress regarding their efforts to build for the future via the amateur draft, international signings, and trades.
Indeed, the Astros have made significant progress on all fronts. Their recent draft, in which they surprised most observers by taking 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa instead of college hurler Mark Appel, illustrated Luhnow's advanced thinking in terms of choosing a higher-upside talent significantly younger than the rest of his draft class — a strategy via which the Angels netted Mike Trout in 2009. With the bonus money they saved by signing Correa instead of Appel, they also signed supplemental pick Lance McCullers, a righty with the best velocity of any high school pitcher in the draft, and fourth-round pick Rio Ruiz, a third baseman who was considered a first-round talent coming into the year before being sidelined by a blood clot. On the international front, while they failed to sign any of Baseball America's top 20 prospects, they did sign three 16 and 17-year old Dominicans to add to their talent pipeline.
Meanwhile, Luhnow has traded the team's five highest-salaried players from the Opening Day roster — Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Lyon and J.A. Happ — leaving only two players who were acquired in the Happ deal, outfielder Ben Francisco and reliever Francisco Cordero, making more than $1.5 million; the latter is a free agent after this season. While Houston's Opening Day payroll was $60.8 million, it is now just above $21 million, not including the portions of salary being paid to the Marlins, White Sox and Pirates for Lee, Myers and Rodriguez, respectively. Those trades have additionally brought prospects into the organization, including pitchers Asher Wojciechowski and Joe Musgrove, a pair of supplemental first round picks (2010 and 2011, respectively) from the Blue Jays, and outfielder Robbie Grossman, an on-base machine with the power for double-digit homers and the speed for 20 steals, from the Pirates.
Those players join a system that has improved over the last two years thanks to midseason trades of Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, but still has a long way to go. While the won-loss records of minor league affiliates aren't a great barometer of future success due to the delicate balancing act between winning and player development, it's worth noting that all of the team's farm clubs from A-ball and up are over .500, whereas only three of their non-complex league teams have been above .500 in the previous five seasons. With a remaining schedule that ranks among the toughest in the league, the rest of the Astros' 2012 season doesn't promise to be much fun. But as has been noted here before, the organization is clearly moving in the right direction. That's worth remembering no matter how many times you hear their name linked with the Cleveland Spiders the rest of the way.