I reject the national narrative that the Astros were "tanking" from 2012 to 2014. Reportedly, the owners around Major League circles are concerned about a perceived pattern of tanking, or losing games on purpose in order to secure benefits during the next season.
The first pick isn't that big of an advantage anyway
Typically, the term is used in the NBA, where teams with the worst record have a better chance at securing the number one overall draft pick. This matters hugely in basketball, where traditionally the talent levels of players in NBA drafts drops off exponentially after the first couple picks, and sometimes after the very first pick. To a lesser extent, the topic surfaces in the NFL, where the value of the first draft pick is higher than other picks. In both of those sports though, players taken with the first few picks play in the highest level of the sport immediately. There is no farm system in the NFL, and the NBA never sends its highest-valued players to its developmental league.
Baseball is different, and there is still inherent risk with even the first overall pick of the MLB draft. In fact, compared to other sports, the percentage chance of even getting a quality major leaguer during the first round of the MLB draft is less than 50%. From that standpoint, the tactic of tanking for draft picks in baseball is a questionable strategy. It's not like every number one pick has worked out. And the best player taken in a draft is never the guy taken first overall. Okay, maybe it has happened once or twice with guys named Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, and Ken Griffey. Still, three out of fifty one drafts isn't good odds.
Other advantages in MLB include having the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, where minor leaguers with five years of pro experience but haven't been added to an MLB roster may be selected by other teams. Also, the team with the worst record gets first crack at claiming players off of waivers who have been demoted by their parent clubs and who are out of player options. Not that either is a big competitive advantage, being able to draft players that other teams don't want.
The Astros were already tanked
There is still a point to be made that there is a slight advantage to being able to pick first, in that you have a better chance at landing an eventually-great player. Not that it worked for the Astros for three years, besides Carlos Correa, but that's a different topic.
As I said before, I reject the notion that the Astros were tanking when the Jim Crane / Jeff Luhnow / George Postolos regime inherited the club at the end of 2011. At the time, the Astros had:
- Not finished higher than third place in five seasons
- Had one of the oldest rosters in the league
- Albatross contracts that depressed those players' trade values (Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez).
- A bottom-five ranking of minor league talent in the farm system
- Only two players ranked on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects (Lyles #42 and Villar #94)
- No contract with a television carrier to bolster revenues so they could buy their way into competetiveness.
- A move to a more competetive league, requiring a DH that they didn't have
- Big ol' loans from both the purchase of the team and also on the stadium note.
- A disinterested fan base
- A previous GM that didn't exactly make the most of his tradeable assets in every case.
They didn't tank for draft picks anyway
They didn't have the financial wherewithal to go after the highest-paid Free Agents, and a couple of those free agents would not have helped them reach the playoffs over the Angels, A's, and Rangers anyway. They also didn't have any big-time prospects who would provide maximum value for their performance.
So what the Astros actually did was try to address the things that they could address, given the circumstances. They traded away everything that wasn't nailed down in an attempt to address issues numbered two, three, four, five, and seven from the list above.
The end result of trying to rebuild the organization in this manner, plus there not being any point in signing free agents that would not help the team reach the playoffs anyway, resulted in the worst win-loss records in franchise history. If one wants to look at it from a half-positive angle, the silver lining was receiving higher draft picks and Rule 5 and Waiver claim priority.
But the draft pick wasn't the end-game. The #process wasn't about tanking for that draft pick. It was about rebuilding the system as completely and as quickly as possible to build a team in contention, not just one that could hover around .500 for a decade. The key to that process was adding a large volume of good young players in hopes that enough of them would develop into very good players that it would make future spending worthwhile for free agents that would supplement a cost-controlled core. And that could be achieved through trades and smart drafting in lower rounds, not by the acquisition of one single guy at the top of the draft.
Were they horrible at the major league level? Absolutely. Did they have the first pick in the draft for three straight years? Yes. But a rectangle isn't always a square, and the draft picks were the result of a larger plan involving asset collection, not the single goal of a concerted losing effort.
They say the end justifies the means, but in this case, the means are being misunderstood or misreported for the purpose of having something to be offended or outraged over. Tanking is a simplistic concept -- an effort to lose games to gain a later competitive advantage through acquiring a better draft pick at the top of a draft. That wasn't what the Astros did.
EDIT: By sheer coincidence, Aaron Ashcraft of Astros County made this same exact point in his post yesterday. I didn't realize he had written it, and it's a good read. Check it out.