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The Astros and The Success Cycle

Jonah Keri's first post over at FanGraph's takes on the concept of the "Success Cycle." Basically, he describes teams going in a couple of different directions. They are either win-now, building to greatness or rebuilding. But, as he points out in his update to the cycle, teams can do both. They can win now and stock up for the future.

Keri gives some great examples of this, outside of the usual Yankees and Red Sox models. The Minnesota Twins are cited as a team that has consistently stocked up on young talent while not failing to spend on established players who can get them over the hump. Target Field has probably helped with that, but the Twins are a great model.

As are the Tampa Bay Rays. They have competed with the two top-spending teams in the major leagues and have faced them down for years now. The Rays have assembled a deep, consistently productive farm system which not only produces big-time talent like Jeremy Hellickson, but more under-the-radar players like John Jaso. That farm system gives the Rays the luxury of letting Carl Crawford walk for greener Monsters and trading Matt Garza for young talent when he got too expensive. But, unlike those rebuilding teams, trading Garza doesn't hurt the Rays on the field. It simply opens up a spot for a younger player with a higher ceiling.

Why is this important to you, Astros fans? Because it shows that Drayton McLane's policy of "Are You Ready To Be A Champion?" can be done, that you can rebuild a team and still win at the same time and that the Astros have just done it wrong.

I didn't expect to have such an angry reaction when I read Keri's article. But, I did. I got angry thinking about the philosophy of this team, of all the mistakes that snowballed into position to make Houston a solid rebuilding team. Make no mistake, the Astros are rebuilding, despite an older core.

What irks me is that the guy in charge two GMs ago did a great job of turning an aging team into a young one. Gerry Hunsicker took the Astros core, built around Biggio, Bagwell and Moises Alou, and turned it into a team built around Morgan Ensberg, Lance Berkman and Bagwell, with guys like Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and Adam Everett providing support. Basically, Hunsicker rebuilt on the fly.

We've documented a lot of the problems here before. Hunsicker resigned because he knew Drayton couldn't get Beltran back. He didn't want to bring Kent back. He wanted to go cheaper. But, then he spent big on a lesser player like Carlos Lee. He tried to sign older, pricey vets for the rotation to supplement Oswalt, Clemens and Pettitte, but wouldn't spend on draft picks to keep the farm system flowing.

Now, part of the problem lies with fans. When Hunsicker traded away Mike Hampton and Carl Everett, it was rightly seen as a salary dump. Did we care that Hunsicker had young guys coming up to fill the rotation? Or that he had to make room for Berkman in the outfield? I think fans were right to question all the cost-cutting moves made back then, and they should continue to do so. But, maybe the owner shouldn't be so sensitive to fan reaction.

That's been a big part of the problem. Instead of letting his smart baseball people work, Drayton has been there with his opinions. It's unclear to anyone outside MMP how much he's involved. Certainly, Wade has made it clear he has the freedom to make any deal he wants. But, it's telling that Drayton's fingerprints have been all over moves like the Tejada trade and the Lee signing.

Is he still so involved? I'm sure he's setting a payroll and letting Wade and Heck go to work. Maybe that's a good thing. But, if he's more hands-off because Wade sold him on his rebuilding plan and the fact that it'll take a few years to win again, how much time should he give them?

The Astros are a mess. I'll be the first to admit, I'm a natural optimist but am very cynical about the hometown nine. I want to hope for the best for them each year, but I usually talk myself into misery. Thinking about this year's team, there's some things to like, but where are the building blocks? Are there even any in the minors?

That's a lot of open-ended questions I've not really answered. I don't think the Astros have followed this Build and Win model lately, but I don't think they could have. If they had tried to back in 2004 or 2005, things might have been different. By now, the damage was already done. There was no base at the big league level to win with. So, Ed Wade trades two of his biggest stars last summer and supplements the team with guys like Clint Barmes and Bill Hall. He's trying to win games next season with the focus on 2012 or 2013. The difference between the 2011 Astros and the 2011 Rays is that Houston is gunning for 82 wins and the Rays are shooting for a division title. I guess winning is all relative.