Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series begins with the Houston Astros.
2012 record: 55-107
Finish: Sixth place, NL Central
2012 final payroll: $63.9 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $32 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 30th
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It takes a mighty level of commitment to be as bad as the Houston Astros expect to be in 2013. It's not just halving their payroll, which already was among the five lowest in the major leagues, to what may be the most paltry. Nor is it dealing away most of their effective major league players, leaving a roster that resembles an animal carcass in vulture territory.
More than the deeds, it's the ethos that drives this franchise: If you are not going to be good, be bad. Be really bad. Be spectacularly bad. Clean house, bottom out for a couple years, draft well, make some decent trades and emerge better for it.
Baseball bankruptcy, it should be called, because that's what it is: hitting the restart button and hoping fans will understand that the collateral damage of 100-loss seasons is worth getting the largest pool of money to sign amateur players domestic and abroad. It is what has so far driven the Astros this offseason to sign just three players: a first baseman over the past four years who has hit .211, a closer who never has closed and a starter who, outside of his perfect game, last year put up a 7.04 ERA.
Free agents Carlos Pena, Jose Veras and Phil Humber cost the Astros $5.55 million for this season. They owe Wandy Rodriguez another $5 million. And that is all the Astros have on the books for 2012 at the moment: three veterans, three arbitration-eligible players (Bud Norris, Jed Lowrie and Wesley Wright) and 19 pre-arb tykes. They may spend another couple million, leaving them a little bit north of $30 million, unless a team desperate for a shortstop antes up on Lowrie or the pitching market makes Norris too valuable to keep.
The real action for the Astros this offseason has little to do with its 40-man roster. Following an apprenticeship under Davey Johnson, the well-regarded Bo Porter joined Houston in September as GM Jeff Luhnow's first managerial hire. The team unveiled new uniforms. And the Astros played their final game in the National League after 51 seasons, shifting to a loaded AL West that seems to get better by the year.
Never before has a team chosen No. 1 overall in the draft three consecutive seasons. It will be a monumental upset if the Astros don't earn that dubious distinction. For what they're doing, it's better than winning.
Much as Astros fans would love a Total Recall-style reality – remember how great things were when the stadium was called Enron Field, and Jeff Bagwell was crouching like, well, you know, and Biggio and Berkman were killers alongside him, and Derek Bell wasn't shutting down operations, and ahhhhhhhhhh – instead, here is the real reality.
This team has a chance to be the worst since the 2003 Tigers went 43-119. The only thing salvaging the Astros, at the moment, is the core of Lowrie, Norris, Jose Altuve and Lucas Harrell, which isn't all that great a place to start when the first two are perpetually on the market. Harrell has a big fastball, and Altuve is baseball's iPad Mini, every bit as good as his larger counterparts.
There is some hope in the minor leagues, too: While the return for the Michael Bourn trade amounted to nothing, former GM Ed Wade fetched a boffo haul for Hunter Pence: first baseman Jonathan Singleton and starter Jarred Cosart, both of whom the Astros figure will arrive by September at the latest.
Until then, it will be painful. Empty crowds. Too many losses. Completely overhauling an organization takes time, and Luhnow's vision is diametrically opposed to Wade's. So much attention is paid to the names of his lieutenants ("Director of Decision Sciences") that Luhnow's tack, embracing the word "rebuild" instead of going for half-measures, is practically ignored rather than admired.
For it to work, he needs to find more Justin Maxwells. Scouts have forever loved the 29-year-old's tools, only to peg him near-worthless because of his Dunn-ian strikeout rate. Maxwell struck out an absurd amount last season, 114 times in 315 at-bats, but he hit 18 home runs and played a more-than-respectable center field, bringing great value for next to no money.
The Astros think this year's version is Josh Fields, a reliever taken first in the Rule 5 draft. Until Singleton and Cosart arrive, and until last year's No. 1 pick, Carlos Correa, ascends, the Astros will take small victories such as a bullpen guy succeeding. The timetable is neither 2013 nor '14. The Astros want to be relevant by 2015. It's asking a lot: patience, faith, commitment. Not just in Luhnow or Porter or the players but the man above all of them.
Jim Crane bought the Astros for $680 million and has proceeded to … well … um … yeah, the Astros are playing .340 ball since he bought them, so he hasn't done much other than oversee the game's least successful franchise byf ar. The renovation gives him an excuse. Crane's bona fides as an owner will reveal themselves once Houston creeps back toward contention. The Astros' television deal is potentially bigger than Texas' – the team owns nearly 50 percent of a new Comcast channel debuting this season – and considering the Rangers have ascended into the land of nine-figure payrolls, there's no reason Houston can't, too. Unless Crane stands in the way.
Full Metal Jacket
Remake: Only losses and
Steers come from Texas
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