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Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Astros starting over in every way

By Jayson Stark

The Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays found themselves on the same field Tuesday. That was a fascinating development -- and not just because Rays starter David Price happens to own a dog named Astro.

It’s fascinating because the 2013 Astros are trying to go where the Rays have already gone, from 100-game losers to a place among the top organizations in baseball. And the Astros would love to get there in a style very similar to the way the Rays diligently built their franchise, through high draft picks, state-of-the-art info and outside-the-box thinking.

Now it wouldn’t exactly be accurate to say the Astros want to be the Rays when they grow up. But it would be accurate to say that the Astros are following a Rays-like rebuilding model these days -- right down to their projected $25 million payroll. (The Rays figure to be somewhere around $59-60 million.)

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens, left, was in uniform last week, but he's not scheduled to pitch. At least not yet.
“The Rays have had a tremendous amount of success,” Astros assistant GM David Stearns said Tuesday. “Regardless of your market size, regardless of your philosophy, regardless of your payroll, it’s natural to look at them as an extremely successful franchise. And I think what they've managed to do, and what Andrew [Friedman] and all those guys have been really good at, is to do things a little bit ahead of the curve. So we’re cognizant of that.

“But I think emulating exactly the way they do things isn’t really what you want to do. You want to find the next advancement and to be ahead of the curve yourself. But the amount of success they’ve had is incredibly enviable. And I think any organization would strive to emulate that level of success. But I think it’s dangerous for someone who doesn’t know exactly how they’re doing things to say, 'We need to copy the Rays' strategy.’ I think developing your own strategy and developing your own philosophy is really the best way to go about it.”

The Astros of new GM Jeff Luhnow and new owner Jim Crane may not be starting life as an expansion team, the way the Rays did 15 years ago. But they are, almost literally, starting over in every way.

They’ve blown up their roster, restocked their system and prepared themselves to lose a lot of baseball games in the big leagues as they build a foundation they hope can lead them to a Rays-like tomorrow.

But of course, they have one massive advantage the Rays don’t have -- and may never have:

Money to spend … when the time is right.

Houston is the fourth most populated city in America. The Astros had the eighth-largest payroll in baseball ($92.5 million) as recently as 2006. And they have a big new TV deal just kicking in that will enable them, if and when they eventually get good, to spend the dollars required to stay good.

“Our payroll this year is more a product of strategy than anything else,” Stearns said. “Our goal is to have a very young team of talented players. And if you have a lot of players at the major league minimum, that’s obviously going to produce a very low payroll. But we’re in a market that has supported a much higher payroll in the past. And we certainly expect it will be able to support a higher payroll in the future.”

But that’s then, not now, obviously. The Astros have only four players on their roster making $1 million or more and no one earning more than $3 million. The Rays have 17 players who will earn $1 million or more this season -- led by a pitcher with a dog named Astro who will make $10.1 million.

The Astros' entire starting rotation this season won’t make $10.1 million. But some day, that -- like a lot of things about this team -- will change.


Rays Stat of the Day

If the Rays’ new shortstop, Yunel Escobar, thinks his likely double-play partner, Kelly Johnson, looks vaguely familiar, there’s a reason for that.

This will be the third team they’ve played for -- together -- in the past six years. They were teammates in Atlanta from 2007 to 2009, in Toronto in 2011-12 and now in Toronto.

So how many double-play combinations have played at least 100 games together for three different teams?

The correct answer, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: None!

In fact, there has been only one recent pair of teammates to play 100 games together, at any positions, for three different teams: Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino (Mets, Giants, Astros).

Kent and Vizcaino actually started at second and short for four different teams (those three, plus the Indians). But not for 100 games. Vizcaino did too much bouncing around the field late in his career.

And no other duo in the expansion era has played together for any significant number of games for this many teams. Kind of amazing, in an era of massive free-agent player movement. Don’t you think?