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The Joy of Tanking

Hoarding prospects and being horrible with the Houston Astros

Nothing drains the sporting soul quite like rooting for a truly awful baseball team. Sure, on a pure percentage basis, no baseball team can be quite as bad as the dregs of another sport. No baseball team goes winless over an entire season, the way the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers or 2008 Detroit Lions did. Even the worst baseball teams generally win a third of their games, a winning percentage that the worst NBA and NHL teams would eye with envy.

But what they lack in quality, bad baseball teams make up for in quantity, because they lose — every … damn … day. Even Lions fans could take solace in the knowledge that their team was no threat to lose six days a week. The uninterrupted drip-drip-drip of a bad baseball team is Chinese water torture in cleats. Your car’s transmission blows out on Monday; your dishwasher backs up and floods your kitchen on Tuesday; your kid comes home from school with a black eye and a note from the principal on Wednesday. A terrible baseball team is a steady procession of minor disasters without any chance to catch your breath.

As a Royals fan, I have been privileged to watch truly awful baseball teams operate in the flesh on many an occasion. From 2004 to 2006, the Royals became the first non-expansion team to lose 100 games in three straight years since the 1950s. In 2005, the Royals hit rock bottom, losing 19 straight games in July and August. Loss no. 11 was truly special; the Royals had a 7-2 lead going into the ninth inning. It was 7-6 with two outs when Jeff Liefer hit a routine fly ball to left fielder Chip Ambres, who flat-out dropped it. The final score was 13-7.

The Royals lost a franchise-record 106 games that year, a benchmark for futility — exactly 50 teams in major league history have had 106 or more losses in a season. Such futility rarely repeats itself; only six times in history has a franchise hit the 106-loss mark in consecutive seasons:

  • The 1910-11 St. Louis Browns were a terrible franchise having a couple of terrible years; the team wouldn’t win its first pennant until 1944 and wouldn’t win its second until 1966, 12 years after the team had moved to Baltimore and become the Orioles.
  • The 1915-16 Philadelphia Athletics had won back-to-back AL pennants in 1913-14, but with the outbreak of World War I, owner/manager Connie Mack decided to cash in, selling off his entire roster in a purge that would make Jeffrey Loria jealous.
  • The 1941-42 Philadelphia Phillies were a terrible franchise having a couple of terrible years. Actually, calling this franchise “terrible” is praising with faint damnation. From 1918 through 1948, the Phillies had a losing record in 30 out of 31 years.1
  • The 1962-63-64-65 New York Mets were an expansion franchise at a time when expansion franchises trying to acquire talented ballplayers were told to eat dirt and like it. Granted, no other expansion team was quite this bad, but there are extenuating circumstances here.
  • The 2002-03 Detroit Tigers were a terrible franchise bottoming out with a couple of terrible seasons. The 2003 Tigers lost 119 games, the most in American League history. We’ll get back to them later.
  • And finally, we come to the modern-day Houston Astros, who lost 106 games in 2011, 107 games in 2012, and six weeks into this season are on pace for their worst season yet. They are a threat to become only the second team ever, after the Amazin’ Mets, to lose 106 games three years in a row. The Astros don’t simply personify awful. They embrace it, they lovingly caress it, they whisper sweet nothings to it.

So why are so many people optimistic about the Astros in the long run?

For one, the people presiding over this mess aren’t the same people who got the team into it in the first place. The last time we checked in on the Astros, two years ago, they had just started coming to terms with the abyss into which they had fallen. Since then, they have a new owner and a new general manager.

That GM, Jeff Luhnow, has embraced the Astros’ predicament with uncommon zeal. He was hired in December 2011, after Houston — a franchise that had never lost more than 97 games — had finished 56-106. Luhnow could have been forgiven for thinking the team had hit rock bottom. He could have been expected to obey the first rule of getting out of a hole: When you hit bottom, stop digging.

Luhnow kept digging.

Only this time, with purpose. Perhaps alone among all the teams on the above list, the Astros are there by design, and not the design of an owner simply looking to fill his coffers. The Astros were terrible in 2011 because of a decade of poor, shortsighted decisions. That they were even worse in 2012, and are on pace to be worse again in 2013, is not because they are still paying for their sins. It’s because, the way baseball works under the current collective bargaining agreement, sometimes the fastest way for a bad team to get to the top is to take a shortcut through hell. The more a bad team loses in the present, the easier it will be to win in the future.

Luhnow had the perfect background to take advantage of baseball’s new rules. As vice-president of scouting and player development for the St. Louis Cardinals from 2006 through 2011, Luhnow presided over one of baseball’s most productive farm systems — the Cardinals entered this season with the no. 1 farm system in the game, and most of those prospects were acquired during Luhnow’s tenure. (According to Baseball America, more players on Opening Day rosters this year were signed by Luhnow than by any other scouting director.)

Luhnow has an unconventional background for a front office executive — he was born and raised in Mexico City, where his father worked as an advertising executive. He speaks fluent Spanish. He graduated from Penn, got his MBA from Northwestern, and worked in corporate America for years before joining the Cardinals in 2003. Not surprisingly, Luhnow is a strong believer in applying analytics to baseball, and last year he hired two writers from Baseball Prospectus: Mike Fast as an analyst in the Astros’ baseball operations department, and Kevin Goldstein as their coordinator of pro scouting. (Disclosure: Both Fast and Goldstein were colleagues of mine at Baseball Prospectus, and I consider both of them friends.)

Trading veterans for prospects is standard operating procedure for bad teams, and Luhnow’s predecessor, Ed Wade, started the rebuilding process in 2011, when he traded Hunter Pence to the Phillies and Michael Bourn to the Braves for prospects. Luhnow put that process into overdrive. If you were on the 2011 Astros and had even a hint of trade value, you were well advised to keep a packed suitcase with you at all times.

Just days after he was hired, Luhnow executed his first trade. The most useless luxury in baseball is a closer on a bad team, so Luhnow traded the one he inherited, Mark Melancon, to the Boston Red Sox for shortstop Jed Lowrie and pitching prospect Kyle Weiland. This trade produced immediate dividends when Lowrie hit .244/.331/.438 for the Astros last season, while Melancon gave the Red Sox a 6.20 ERA.

In spring training last year, the Astros flipped backups Humberto Quintero and Jason Bourgeois to Kansas City for a pair of prospects. Then, in July, with the trading deadline approaching, the Astros sold off everything that wasn’t bolted down. Carlos Lee, in the final year of his contract, was shipped to the Miami Marlins. The Astros agreed to pick up virtually all of his $18.5 million salary, and in exchange they got Matt Dominguez, a former first-round pick who had yet to fulfill his promise at the plate but was considered one of the best defensive third basemen in the minors.

David Carpenter, J.A. Happ, and Brandon Lyon were sent to the Toronto Blue Jays for placeholders Ben Francisco and Francisco Cordero, and five prospects. Brett Myers (and cash) was traded to the Chicago White Sox for three prospects. Wandy Rodriguez, one of the team’s most valuable commodities (he’s a very consistent no. 3 starter, and was under contract for another year), was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for three prospects. Chris Johnson was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two prospects.

The Astros were also notable for what they didn’t do — they didn’t paper over their holes with midrange free agents who might keep the team respectable. Instead, they outsourced the job of free-agent shopping to Macklemore. Over the 2011-12 offseason, the most expensive free-agent contract the Astros doled out was to backup catcher Chris Snyder, who got $750,000. If you’re going to suck, it makes no sense to pay a little more to players so you can suck a little less. Instead, they took flyers on guys like Fernando Martinez, a former top prospect who had fallen into such disfavor that he had been waived by the Mets.

Before the purge began, the Astros were a respectably bad team; they were 32-43 on the morning of June 28, and they didn’t even fall into last place for good until the All-Star break. But a funny thing happens when you scrub your roster of anyone capable of playing good baseball: You suck. You suck really bad. From June 28 through the end of August, the Astros went 8-49, tied for the worst 57-game stretch by any major league team since 1916.2 They had losing streaks of 12 games, nine games, seven games, six games, five games, and four games (twice). They won back-to-back games once in two months.

At that point, the Astros looked like a shoo-in to become just the sixth team ever to lose 114 games, but they went 15-15 in September and October to finish 55-107 — still the worst record by any team in the majors in eight years.

The Astros didn’t have to lose 106-plus games for the second straight year. But it was unquestionably in the best interest of the franchise that they did.

Consider all the prospects they managed to acquire. None of the players the Astros dealt were worthy of top prospects, so they settled for quantity in place of quality. Four of the players they acquired last summer ranked among the team’s top 30 prospects this spring according to Baseball America, though none higher than no. 14. Moreover, Dominguez didn’t qualify for that list because the Astros installed him as their starting third baseman last August. In his brief career with Houston, Dominguez has hit .269/.300/.413, while showing flashes of Gold Glove defense. He’s just 23 years old, and could be a fixture at the position for years to come.

More important, the nature of the latest CBA gives the worst teams in the game the most sizable advantage they have ever had in acquiring amateur talent. Prior to 2012, teams could spend as much or as little on their draft picks as they wanted, and the only thing that the commissioner’s office could do was to give free-spending teams a very stern lecture on the evils of living beyond their means. While bad teams had the advantage of drafting first, it was easy enough for truly elite talents to set their price tag high enough to scare off the faint of heart. The Astros, under previous ownership, were among the faintest of heart, which is how they wound up in this predicament in the first place.

But now every team has a firm signing cap on draft picks, with penalties onerous enough to discourage exceeding the cap by more than 5 percent. The cap amount is determined by the slot value assigned to each pick in the draft, and the slot value drops dramatically after the first few picks before tapering off.

For instance, last year (the first year the new draft caps were in place), the difference in slot money assigned to the 20th and 21st picks in the draft was just $25,000. The difference between the seventh and eighth picks was just $100,000. But the difference between what the Astros were allotted with the no. 1 overall pick ($7.2 million) and what the Twins were allotted at no. 2 ($6.2 million) was a full million dollars. The no. 5 pick was allotted $3.5 million — meaning the difference in slot money between the first and fifth picks is greater than the difference between the fifth and last picks in the draft.

To put it another way: There’s not much of an incentive in the draft for a good team to be mediocre, or for a mediocre team to be bad. But there’s a huge incentive for a bad team to be awful. The Astros had more than $11 million of cap money to play with, and only one other team had even $10 million.3 And while the slot values are so high at the very top of the draft in order to allow teams to sign the draft picks with the most leverage, there’s no law that mandates they do so.

So last June, with no clear standout player in the draft, the Astros cut a deal with Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa, a top-five talent but not the consensus no. 1 player available, who signed for $4.8 million. Correa got a higher bonus than any team drafting out of the top three picks could afford — but the Astros saved $2.4 million relative to the slot value of that pick, money they used to sign two highly regarded players (Lance McCullers Jr. and Rio Ruiz) who slid in the draft because of their bonus demands. Correa, McCullers, and Ruiz all rank among the Astros’ top 10 prospects.

By tearing apart their roster last summer, the Astros guaranteed themselves the no. 1 pick again next month, and once again will have a significant spending advantage on every other team. Only this year, the advantage spreads to signing amateur talent on the international market as well. While there is no draft on foreign amateurs — yet — each team has a firm cap on how much money it can spend to sign kids from Latin America and other markets.4 Those caps are determined by “draft order” even though there is no draft. The upshot is that the Astros have $400,000 more to spend than the Chicago Cubs, who lost 101 games, and the gap only grows from there.

At some point, the Astros will make a push to start winning games. But the longer they continue to suck, the longer they’ll reap the advantages of draft resources that other teams don’t have. They’re already just the third team ever to draft no. 1 overall in back-to-back years — and the last team that did that, the Washington Nationals, turned those two picks (Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, ahem) into the cornerstones of one of the game’s best teams within three years.

But as you can see, the Astros aren’t content with the no. 1 pick in just two consecutive seasons. This winter, they were at it again. They traded Wilton Lopez, their best remaining reliever, to the Colorado Rockies for former first-round pick Alex White. (White underwent Tommy John surgery last month. Not every gamble pans out, but you can’t win if you don’t play.) And Lowrie, who had paid off so handsomely after he was acquired the previous winter, was himself traded to the Oakland A’s for three players: Chris Carter, a left fielder/first baseman whose right-handed power swing was made for Minute Maid Park’s short left-field fence; Brad Peacock, a major league–ready starter who immediately became one of the organization’s top 10 prospects; and Max Stassi, a plus defensive catcher who is now in Double-A at the age of 22.

Two years ago, the Astros’ farm system was nearly as bad as the varsity team; Baseball America ranked their system 26th out of 30 teams before the 2011 season. The system Luhnow inherited after that season was a little better; they ranked 18th last year. This year, they were ninth, and that ranking figures to only get better with time. While minor league win-loss records are mostly meaningless, it’s telling that the Astros’ affiliates are a combined 88-60 this year. Two years ago, their minor league teams had the worst combined record of any organization in baseball.

Only two players who had significant roles on the 2011 Astros are still in significant roles for the team today. Bud Norris, the team’s nominal ace, has a 4.21 ERA over the past three years and would be a no. 3 starter on another team. And the remarkable Jose Altuve, who stands just 5-foot-5 but is making his case as the best player of his size since Wee Willie Keeler, just keeps getting better. Altuve hit .276/.297/.357 as a rookie in 2011, improved to .290/.340/.399 last season, and is hitting .333/.371/.444 so far this year. It’s a testament to just how aggressive the Astros are about rebuilding that not even Altuve is considered untouchable.

This winter, the Astros were a little less stingy in free agency, signing five players to contracts. First baseman Carlos Pena got $2.9 million, closer Jose Veras got $1.85 million, and the triumvirate of Erik Bedard, Philip Humber, and Rick Ankiel got $2.7 million combined. Even these low-end contracts were probably done as much to keep the Major League Baseball Players Association off the team’s back as anything else — with the purge of the old legacy contracts almost complete, the Astros have an astoundingly low payroll in 2013.

After ranking 19th in the majors with a payroll around $78 million in 2011, the Astros ranked 27th last year at $61 million, and more than half of that money was tied up in two players, Carlos Lee and Brett Myers. The Astros had six players on last year’s roster making seven figures, and they traded all six. This year, the Astros’ Opening Day payroll clocked in at just over $26 million, the lowest in the majors since the 2008 Marlins. Their highest-paid player, Wandy Rodriguez, is actually on the Pirates — the Astros agreed to pick up $5 million of his salary this year. (Their second-highest paid player, Norris, is probably the most likely Astro to get traded this summer.)

The Astros could be bad, spend a modest amount on payroll, and have the benefit of a good draft position. Or they could be awful, spend a tiny amount on payroll, and have the tremendous benefits that go with the best draft position. The latter option saves millions of dollars and will probably lead to a faster rebuilding process. The downside is that you have to put up with people snickering at you for a while. It seems like a fair tradeoff.

And let’s be blunt: The 2013 Astros are worth snickering at. They’re 10-29, putting them on pace to tie the modern-era record of 120 losses. They’ve struck out 389 times in 39 games, putting them on pace to shatter the all-time team strikeout record by nearly 100. They’ve allowed 242 runs, or 6.21 runs per game, in a league that’s averaging just 4.40 runs allowed per game.

Some of the individual numbers are even more snicker-worthy. Rick Ankiel struck out 35 times in 65 plate appearances; his 54 percent strikeout rate is the highest by a position player who batted 50 or more times in major league history. (Ankiel also hit five homers and slugged .484 before he was released, which might be why he was playing center field for the Mets yesterday.) Carter leads the major leagues with 57 strikeouts, and is on pace to whiff an absurd 237 times. It seems only a matter of time before they get no-hit this year; Yu Darvish fell one batter short of a perfect game in just the second game of the season, and Justin Verlander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning last week.

The pitching numbers are even worse. Humber, who threw a perfect game in the majors barely 12 months ago, is 0-8 (in mid-May!) with a 9.59 ERA, and was designated for assignment on Sunday. Peacock had a 9.41 ERA and threw 21⅓ innings in five starts before he was demoted to Triple-A. Bedard has a 6.67 ERA — and he’s the Astros’ no. 3 starter. When the Astros have the lead after five innings, they are just 10-6. Perhaps most amazing of all, the Astros have won just one game all year in which they were losing. Not losing after eight innings — losing at any point in the ballgame.

Their new manager, Bo Porter, tried to remove reliever Wesley Wright from a game against the Angels last week before Wright had faced a hitter — a move that most 12-year-old baseball fans know is against the rules. Then again, Porter somehow managed to convince four umpires — four guys who get paid lots of money to know the rules of baseball — that what he did was perfectly valid. So while Porter may be in over his head as a baseball manager, he seems quite qualified to join the Jedi Order.

And there’s probably not a lot of help coming from the minor leagues, at least not right away. Aside from Peacock, only one of the Astros’ top 10 prospects (Jarred Cosart) has reached Triple-A. While Cosart might get a shot at the Astros’ rotation later this year, and George Springer and Jonathan Singleton might get a September look-see, none of the Astros’ top prospects are likely to contribute until 2014.

Which is, of course, the point. The Astros probably won’t lose 120 games this year, but they remain favorites to finish with the worst record in baseball. (Although it looks like they’ll get a spirited challenge from the Marlins.) Which means that in 2014, they’ll once again dominate the draft and the Latin American market, and in the next 13 months they’ll add a pair of no. 1 overall draft picks to what might be the game’s most improved farm system over the past two years.

At some point, they’ll have to turn on the switch and go from rebuilding to contending. Around this time next season, once they’ve crossed the service-time boundary that allows teams to delay free agency for their players by a full year, expect the Astros to start calling up their prospects en masse. Springer will join Carter in the outfield, Singleton and shortstop Jonathan Villar will join Altuve and Dominguez on the infield. Along with Jason Castro behind the plate, the Astros’ lineup of the future will almost be in place.

Cosart will be joined in the rotation by the team’s no. 1 pick next month, almost certain to be Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray, both college right-handers with the ability to be in the majors inside of a year. And some of the Astros’ best prospects, like Correa and McCullers and right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, will still be making their way to Houston.

And once this season is over and the Astros can end their charade of being the worst team in baseball every year, they can use the free-agent market to actually upgrade their roster. The team has incredible payroll flexibility — they have $5.7 million in contract obligations on the books for 2014, and few of their young players will even be arbitration-eligible next season. There’s no reason the Astros can’t be competitive next year, at .500 by 2015, and then become legitimate contenders in the AL West in 2016 and beyond.

If you’re looking for proof that a team this bad can turn things around that quickly, look no further than the last team to lose at least 106 games in back-to-back years. The 2003 Tigers lost 119 games, the result of a decade of bad decisions — but as with the Astros today, the guy in charge of the mess in 2003 wasn’t the guy who created it.

Dave Dombrowski was hired as team president in Detroit before the 2002 season, and after the team started 0-6, he fired GM Randy Smith and took the job himself. Like Luhnow, Dombrowski understood the team he inherited had to get worse before it got better. He didn’t tear down the team quite as aggressively — he never did get around to trading his best player, Dmitri Young — and Dombrowski didn’t have the new draft advantages that Luhnow has taken advantage of. But the Tigers still had the benefit of a top draft pick, and the following year the Tigers used it to select Justin Verlander.

Three years after the Tigers lost 119 games, they went 95-67 and played in the World Series. If this season is the Astros’ version of the Tigers’ 2003, it’s not a stretch to envision them in the World Series three years from now. Especially since the Astros have an unprecedented advantage in acquiring new talent thanks to the new CBA and are making the most of their advantages by shamelessly losing games in the present.

It’s not conventional, and it’s not pretty. The Astros are not just rebuilding by tanking; they’re rebuilding by incinerating the franchise and then feeding the ashes to wild dogs. And that approach might just be the future of baseball — just like the Astros themselves.

Filed Under: Houston Astros, Teams

rany_jazayerli_2

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli

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