When the Astros fired Bo Porter a few people in the baseball media used the opportunity to fire the latest round of shots at the team, a seemingly endless criticism and damnation of the team and its front office.
I'm not sure if some people just have an axe to grind or if there is some statue of limitations that hasn't run out yet on tanking, but if folks who follow baseball outside of Houston haven't noticed, the Astros aren't tanking anymore. They haven't been since the team traded for Dexter Fowler and signed Scott Feldman.
The Astros are also no longer the worst team in the majors. They currently have a better record then three other teams in the major leagues, and are within two games of a fair number of other clubs. If we're going to criticize the Astros for being bad by design, then what do we say about the Rangers, who tried to be good but are worse then the Astros? The Rangers have a $128 million dollar payroll which has bought them the worst record in the league and a -137 run differential. Is this what a baseball team is supposed to look like?
The example of the Rangers underscores the issue in baseball: spending money is not always the best way to win games. Having young, cost-controlled talent can get you a lot further than a few under-performing free agents.
Yet we're not hearing podcasts and articles about how big of a travesty and an affront to baseball this Rangers team is, (at least not outside of Arlington, hang in there Ranger's fans!) but we do keep hearing a similar narrative about the Astros. It's tiring, and frankly, it's getting old.
If someone in the baseball media wants to complain about a team tanking, then why don't they complain about a team who actually tanked this season? Someone like, I don't know, Boston maybe? Boston looked pretty tanky in late July when they traded two of their best starting pitchers, one of their best relievers, and two of their regular position players within the span of about two weeks. Boston currently is a half-game better than the Astros right now and may very well end up with a worse record than Houston, but there is no outrage from the media about not sticking out this season and fielding a competitive team in Boston. Why not? Is an organization like Boston too "classy" to tank? If you reach a certain level of class can you start calling the process rebuilding instead of tanking?
Let's be clear that the line between tanking and rebuilding in baseball is pretty thin. But to anyone who would criticize the Astros for tanking the last three seasons, my proposal is this; given the assets that Jeff Luhnow and Co. were given in 2011 when they took over, how would you build a better team that is positioned for sustainable, long-term success? Let's remember that at that point in time, the team's best player was Carlos Lee, Pence and Bourn had just been traded, and the only other guys that topped 2 WAR were Clint Barmes and Brian Bogusevic. One year before the Pence and Bourn trades, Baseball America ranked Jiovanni Mier their second-best prospect . Once Ed Wade committed to rebuilding in 2011 he got some nice pieces like Springer and Singleton, but before that? In 2010 John Sickels' top 10 looked like this: Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles, Mier, Sammy Gervacio, Chia-Jen Lo, Tanner Bushue, T. J. Steele, Jay Austin, Jon Gaston, Ross Seaton. The 2012 list looked better, but for a team that was playing .469 ball and had a -118 run differential, the 2012 guys alone were not going to get the Astros to the promised land.
Jeff Luhnow had to do a drastic rebuild, because the team needed drastic changes if it was going to succeed. The Astros didn't have the luxury of a fast turnover rate to be competitive because their minor and major-league products were terrible. They might have had that luxury after 2006 had they had a more insightful ownership group. Anyone who watched the 2005 team knew that it was running on fumes. That was the last, best chance for that era of Astros teams. When Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens left after 2006, that was the nail in the coffin. Had the team begun rebuilding then, say by trading Roy Oswalt for good, young, pieces and then committed to actually signing their draft picks, the team might not have been in such dire shape in 2011. Instead, they signed Carlos Lee and Woody Williams, pushed for the playoffs again and the rest was history.
Of course the team could've continued that way under Crane and Luhnow. They could've signed whatever the 2011 version of Lee and Williams would have been, limped around .450 and stayed safely in mediocrity (while getting few impact players from their minor league system, and getting less talent in the draft), but what would be the point? Anyone who follows the game knows that under baseball's current system that's not really the most sustainable way to success.
Frankly, you can criticize Jeff Luhnow all you want, but what he did in 2011 and continues to do, is actually quite bold. Call it rebuilding, call it tanking, I don't care, but let's be honest about how much better this organization's future looks in 2014 compared to 2010. The #process hasn't been smooth and it hasn't been perfect. The front office has made mistakes, as Luhnow has admitted, at least in terms of the way it has handled its message to fans and employees, and given the media leaks this year there are obviously people within the organization who are unhappy with its direction. These are problems that the team's ownership group and management need to be introspective about, and be honest with themselves in evaluating if they are alienating people within the organization.
As Astros fans we know it has been a painful process. We've been there, the whole time, watching these games, and having these losses pile up on our shoulders. It sucks and it feels bad. Most of us who are still left after all those games are here because we recognized the necessity of a drastic rebuild. We bought in to idea of slash n' burn and starting over because we knew it was the best way to get this team back to where it was in the 90's and early 00's where it was competing for division titles every year; and guess what? This year those plans are starting to bear fruit.
The national media seems to like to use the Astros as their whipping boy, or as a good excuse for a sanctimonious article about the integrity of the game every time the team makes a mistake or makes an unorthodox decision. But the "Lastros" are no longer in last place, if anyone outside of Houston has been paying attention. Please, stop beating a dead horse. This team is coming alive on the field and most of its best players haven't graduated to the big league team yet. It would be nice to have some national coverage that reflected that.