The Houston Astros are kind of like some small band you’ve never heard of that a guy praises while ripping Springsteen. Or some hole-in-the-wall favorite of foodies that serves bacon-wrapped quail and gives you one bite of bacon and two bites of quail for $28.
In the corner of the Internet that I roam around in -- that subset of baseball lovers who also love sabermetrics -- the Astros are widely praised. It doesn't matter that they lost 111 games last year and 107 the year before and 106 the year before that; the Astros are the nerdy-yet-cool kids turning baseball upside down with their revolutionary approach to rebuilding and hiring front office personnel. They tore everything apart and essentially started from scratch. They hired Sig Mejdal -- a guy with two engineering degrees and advanced degrees in operations research and cognitive psychology/human factors -- to the title of director of decision sciences. They hired Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as director of pro scouting. Mike Fast, who wrote a seminal study on pitch framing for Baseball Prospectus, was hired as an analyst. Even Jeff Luhnow, the Astros' general manager who had been the scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals, has a unique background, with degrees in economics and engineering from Penn, a guy who spent years in the business world before joining the Cardinals.
The fans in the club admiring the band have become the band.
Of course the sabermetrics crowd loves the Astros. Their friends, of sorts, are running the team.
Don't get me wrong. It's terrific that baseball has gone this route, that the entire sport has embraced the sabermetric revolution, more than 30 years after Bill James first started publishing his books. These are smart people working for the Astros, intent on studying the game and its processes for every edge possible, in a sport where even the smallest of advantages can show up in the win column.
But while the Astros are commended, let's ask ourselves this: Are they really all that different from the Miami Marlins? You know, the franchise everyone rips, the team that dumps talent, that tried to win one year and quickly gave up and sold off all of its veterans, with its art-dealer owner who built the funny-looking ballpark.
The Marlins are criticized for essentially not trying to win, for keeping their payrolls at the bottom of the league (except for 2012). Isn't that what the Astros have done the past three years? There's no other way to put it: They tried, on purpose, not to build the best team possible and as a result ended up with the worst string of seasons since the expansion Mets. Astros fans may understand the long-term goals in place, but Astros fans have also quit going to the park as much or watching as often on television.
The plan: Stockpile young, inexpensive talent, especially first-round picks, and especially high first-round picks. In fact, one study suggested the biggest drop-off in talent in MLB draft history has been from the first overall pick to the second overall pick (Ken Griffey Jr. over Mark Merchant, Alex Rodriguez over Darren Dreifort, Stephen Strasburg over Dustin Ackley). The Astros had the past two top picks (Carlos Correa and Mark Appel), will draft first overall again this June and it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see them drafting first overall again in 2015.
If the Astros do eventually turn things around, will it be because of all the smart guys in the front office or because of benefiting from all these lousy teams? It's sort of how the Washington Nationals developed into playoff contenders: They drafted Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall in 2009 and 2010, on top of getting Ryan Zimmerman fourth overall in 2005 and Anthony Rendon sixth overall in 2011.
But let's compare the Astros to the Nationals. Do they have their Harper? Not yet. Maybe you point to George Springer; but he's three years older than Harper and yet to play in the majors. Will Springer even be as good as Jayson Werth? Werth hit .318/.392/.532 last year. Maybe Correa becomes that franchise cornerstone. But will he be as good as Ian Desmond, a fellow shortstop who hit .286/.333/.480 the past two seasons? Maybe Appel develops into the Astros' Strasburg; OK, but do they have a Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister in the pipeline, as well? Maybe they do, but young pitching is notoriously risky. Would you rather have Zimmerman and Rendon or Matt Dominguez and Jose Altuve?
Maybe the Astros did what they had to do; you can certainly argue that winning 75 games and drafting seventh is a worse place to be than winning 60 games and drafting first. The Astros believe they’re on the right track, even if they’re staring at another 100-loss season. But if the Astros are to turn into a winner, this much is also clear: The smart guys will eventually have to make some good trades, maybe sign some free agents (if any good ones will even be out there) and rely on that old baseball axiom: A little luck.