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Houston and Baltimore...Through the Looking Glass

There is quite a lot of parallels here…

Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

“We have met the enemy, and he is us”

When that line was uttered in a 1970 Pogo comic strip, it was a play on the famous line from the War of 1812, when Oliver Hazard Perry noted “we have met the enemy, and he is ours”. Walt Kelly’s line highlighted the damage on the environment by humans. The idea that sometimes, people can be their own worst enemies.

Yet, lines can evolve in meaning or take on a different perspective when uttered. When the Houston Astros take the field on Tuesday to open their three-game set at Camden Yards, the line about “meeting the enemy and it is us” takes on a slightly different meaning. (No, this line is not referring to the various, head-scratching lineup decisions from the Astros’ on-field management) In this case, a Houston Astros fan, well-versed in the recent history of the Houston ball club, its evolution from bottom-feeder to standard-setter of excellent in the AL and all the steps therein, may see the other team in orange and might decide that “...there is something familiar here...”

That sentiment is not all that surprising. Typically teams will emulate models of other franchises, especially if those models yield desired on and off-field results. To see why this might be the case, look no further than the nameplate on the Baltimore Orioles GM’s office: Mike Elias. If that name rings a bell for the Houston fan, it is because before he took the GM job in 2018, he left his previous job as Assistant GM for the Astros, then under the helm of Jeff Luhnow.

New York Mets v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Elias took many aspects of the Luhnow playbook with him to Baltimore, especially with the emphasis on rebuilding the franchise through the draft, stocking up on the high draft picks that can work their way up to the major-league level and become All-Stars/franchise cornerstones.

That drive rendered all other priorities rescinded. What the early 2010s were to Houston, the late 2010s were to Baltimore—multiple 100+ loss seasons (115 in 2018, 108 in 2019, 110 in 2021), aided by little to no significant MLB-level talent, amplified in the hyper-competitive AL East. While Baltimore did not record a 0.0 Nielsen rating for any of their games in this stretch, which did happen at the lowest point of the Astros’ rebuild, they saw record lows in attendance and viewership during the low point.

Yet, those lean years produced some results that are now starting to pay off. The 2018 Os cratered to 47-115 (right before Elias’ hire), but that draft allowed Elias to select with the #1 overall pick in Adley Rutschman, a stellar catching prospect who now ranks among the game’s best catchers (think early Correa). The 2018 Draft continues to pay dividends, as 2nd round pick Gunnar Henderson is shaping up to take his place as the next great Orioles’ 3rd baseman.

High draft picks from the 2019 and 2021 seasons cemented Baltimore’s position as a top farm system, loaded with prime talent and/or trade chips, much like Houston saw with their 2010s rebuild. There are some differences, in that Baltimore used their top picks on position players, which tend to offer a greater degree of security vs. the volatility of young pitchers (see Appel and Aiken for Houston).

Milwaukee Brewers v Houston Astros
Luhnow (2nd from Right) and Elias (Far Right). Could the student supersede the teacher?
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

That is not to say that Baltimore didn’t keep some players from the down years. OF Cedric Mullins evolved into a strong everyday player, and while he is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, starting pitcher Jon Means offers a top-of-the-rotation type arm. While this is not quite the Altuve/Keuchel comparison, there are a few parallels here. Throw in the fact that the 2022 Os jumped from a 52-win season to an 83-win one, keeping them in playoff contention until the final weeks, and the Os are moving quickly from pretender to contender (ala the 2015 Astros). For reference, the 2014 Astros improved by “only” 19 games (51 to 70), but that was the springboard to a playoff return in 2015 (70 to 86).

The 2023 Os currently lead the AL East and have the best record in the AL. They appear to have skipped the growing pains season like the 2016 Astros suffered and should things hold, they may find themselves not only in the playoffs for the 1st time since 2016, but they may have the #1 seed in the AL. Yet, there is still room for the Os to evolve. While they have All-Stars in their bullpen (Cano and Bautista), they still lack a bona fide ace on the staff. While rumored to be in on starters from Ohtani to Verlander at the 2023 trade deadline, they settled on Cardinals starter Flaherty—a decent pick-up, but not the “ace” pitcher that the staff lacks. Elias likely does not view this iteration of the Os as ready for the big deadline moves, much like the Luhnow Astros of 2015/16.

Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles
Two Franchise Leaders…one current champion and perhaps a future champion?
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Perhaps another area of difference is in the ownership of the teams. The Angelos’ family is currently sorting through a series of ownership disputes/lawsuits. While likely happy to see the team improve, thus improving their coffers, there is still the sense that the current ownership cares little for the on-field product and is not overly interested in getting the franchise’s first World Series since 1983.

The family is even rumored to have considered a move out of Baltimore (apparently, the lessons from the Mayflower debacle of the Colts do not resonate with the Angelos). Crane, while keen on not overspending (see his near-religious adherence to staying under the 1st CBT threshold), will sign off on the big moves (see Verlander 2017 and 2023, Cole 2018, Greinke 2019). That might change in the next couple of years as some of the high-caliber prospects graduate into the Os MLB team. A playoff appearance that sees Baltimore show potential might change the ownership’s view on things, but that remains to be seen.

Granted, baseball writ large shows reluctance to outright label a movement “The Astros’ Way.” Setting aside the sign-stealing scandal and its fall-out, many saw the results-at-all-cost mentality of the Astros’ front office and its pure business approach to a game known as much for personalities and relationships as analytics as an example of what not to do for a franchise. In the litany of Astros-related literature published in the last couple of years, most that worked for the Astros didn’t have fond memories of the experience. To date, while Elias made the expected changes (i.e. oversaw personnel transition) when he took over as GM, there are not quite the same tales of ruthlessness associated with Baltimore as there were in Houston.

So, when Houston lines up against Baltimore Tuesday, it will be more than a matchup of playoff contenders and a potential post-season preview. It will be the established model of excellence in Houston vs. a team looking to get where Houston resides. That team, Baltimore, is perhaps the one team among all others that most followed the Astros’ blueprint, with their own modifications. Maybe Baltimore is not quite ready to take over Houston’s crown, but they are close. By the end of the 2020s, Baltimore will likely add another World Series to its collection.

Yet, Houston is not going away, and perhaps we will see a 2020s when Houston and Baltimore leverage their franchise-building models in a battle for AL and MLB supremacy. If nothing else, it should be a lot of fun to watch.