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No. 30 Astros: They still are bad, but they may start showing signs of life

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Houston Astros.

2013 record: 51-111
Finish: Fifth place, AL West
2013 final payroll: $29.3 million
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $45 million
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 30th
Astros in six words: No. 1 pick four straight years

OFFSEASON ACTION
Considering the Houston Astros ended the 2013 season by losing 15 consecutive games, and that the 111 defeats represented the nadir thus far in their let’s-get-awful plan, the very act of time – of the calendar flushing 2013 into the past – made this offseason a rousing success.

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Unlike last season, of course, in which the Astros spent the offseason touting the likes of Carlos Pena and Phil Humber as their big signings, they actually got some legitimate major league ballplayers this year. Granted, some of them look like nothing more than four-month rentals to be pawned off around July 31. But then that is the M.O. of these Astros, and so long as one can stomach the losses, it is a good one: extract as much value out of every single player as you can.

It’s why during an offseason in which they signed Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million deal and traded for a potentially dynamic center fielder in Dexter Fowler, they were still dangling catcher Jason Castro in potential trades, according to two executives. The Astros don’t want to trade Castro. They don’t want to trade anyone, per se. They just understand that placing anyone, even their best player, off-limits is akin to putting a bullet in their Lisfranc.

The Fowler trade was a particularly adept move, and a sign that the Astros are not going to suffer through another season in which their highest-paid player doesn’t even play for them anymore and that with him and Feldman they’re finally putting pieces in place for a year beyond this one. Yes, Wandy Rodriguez still will rank third on the team, with $5 million owed from afar, and chances are the Astros will carry the lowest payroll in baseball again, which is beyond shameful for a team in America’s fourth-biggest city.

Look, there are competing forces here, and it’s the same thing with which basketball deals in its efforts to keep teams from tanking. There is incentive to lose, especially for a team that prides itself on building from within, when the worst teams get the most money to spend in the draft and Latin America. It’s a Catch-22 for Houston and other teams like it. They don’t want to lock themselves into the sorts of long-term deals free agency almost always necessitates, and loading cash into a one-year deal to make themselves better would only stand in the way of their plan.

The other pieces that did come onboard – relievers Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Anthony Bass and Peter Moylan – are all cheap and eminently tradable. The Astros understand how this racket works. Teams are happy to pay in prospects for relievers, and as long as the Astros are committed to being awful – a commitment that will slowly transition itself out toward the end of this year, mercifully – their offseason should be considered a success. A weird sort of success, one that exists only in a system that incentivizes losing, but a success nevertheless.

REALITY CHECK
On Tuesday, the Astros will return to court to once again try to extract themselves from something even more disastrous than their last three seasons: their failed dealing with Comcast SportsNet Houston, the television network that has filed for bankruptcy and from which the Astros want to free themselves. The face plant of CSN Houston, which was available in only 40 percent of the viewing area and in one particular game drew a 0.0 rating – meaning so few people were watching it might’ve been no one – actually dovetails rather well with the Astros’ fall from perpetual contender.

Now for the positive part of the program – and this is not forced positivity, not optimism for optimism’s sake, not sanguinity that comes undeserved. The Astros really, truly, legitimately have a chance to be good soon. Seriously! Even in a division like the AL West, which is going to be a monster this year, and which should be a monster for years to come, and which with a competitive Astros team would begin to better resemble its counterpart out east.

Sometime this season, George Springer will bring his potential 30-30 credentials to center field and Jonathan Singleton his big bat to first base. Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick last year, should join the rotation at some point, and 100-mph-throwing Mike Foltynewicz may do the same. Next year, the bounty should continue. Carlos Rodon, the college left-hander who may already have the best slider in the world, almost certainly will be the No. 1 overall pick in June and could be fast-tracked to the big leagues by 2015, along with outfielder Domingo Santana, second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. and perhaps shortstop Carlos Correa, the top overall pick in 2012.

Among these kids, there is but one certainty: Not all of them will succeed. No organization graduates all of its top prospects. So the Astros do need ownership to spend some money, and they do need to supplement the top talent with deep, rich drafts like general manager Jeff Luhnow did as Cardinals farm director, and they do need wild cards, like tiny left-hander Luis Cruz, to perhaps sneak their way into a rotation that with Appel and Foltynewicz and Rodon and Feldman and Jarred Cosart suddenly looks pretty damn intriguing.

Until then, the Astros are what we’ve known of them the last decade or so: a bad baseball team. Not as bad as last year, or the year before, or the year before, which isn’t much of a standard, but, hey, when you’re talking about losing as many games in three seasons as great teams lose over five, it’s a step in the right direction. The Astros can go places, good places. It’s time for those next steps.

SAVIOR
The sort of rebuild Jeff Luhnow vowed to undertake when he started as Houston’s general manager two-plus years ago guaranteed some U-G-L-Y, you-ain’t-got-no-alibi days, and the Astros have more than fulfilled their end of the bargain on that. These were some all-time horrific ballclubs. Talent is coming, though, and now it is Luhnow’s job to leverage it into something that seems so foreign to Houston: a winner. Part of it is continuing to win in the amateur and trade market. And more important is convincing owner Jim Crane that the Astros are at a place where they must start supplementing homegrown talent with the sort that turns dream to reality.

HAIKU
Carlos Rodon is
Going to hold them hostage
Pay the ransom, boys

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