The Lessons of the Astros’ 2016 Backslide

So much for a quick and easy rebuild. The Houston Astros are a dumpster fire to begin the 2016 season. Even with a win Sunday over the Mariners, the Astros are 12-20, owners of the second-worst record in the American League. Astros pitchers have allowed 151 runs, better than only the Twins in the AL, and Scott Feldman is their only starter currently owning an ERA under 4.00.

The Astros were a hot pick entering the season. Sports Illustrated, playing off the mockery that surrounded their Astros 2017 World Series Champions cover back in 2014, declared the Astros their 2016 World Series pick. A majority of pundits picked the Astros to win a weak American League West. The logic isn’t hard to follow: the Astros were good and young last year, and good young teams just keep getting better, right?

Unfortunately for the Astros, there’s another inexorable principle of sports that comes into play, the pull to average. When a player has a career year, his next season likely won’t be as good — it will rather fall closer to the average. Thus far, the Astros have felt this pull in a big way in the struggles of Dallas Keuchel (4.70 ERA, 83 ERA+), Collin McHugh (6.59 ERA), Evan Gattis (.203/.257/.313, 60 OPS+) and Luis Valbuena (.178/.294/.274, 62 OPS+). Even though their young studs Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer have all been excellent, they haven’t had the support around them to be competitive.

I would think this might be a bit hard to stomach as an Astros fan considering the ridiculous amount of losing there was in Houston from 2012-2015, and that there would be some urgency not to waste years of these brilliant young players at their peaks. After all, the Killer Bs only made one World Series, in 2005, and they were swept out of it. Brewers fans should understand this sense of urgency well ourselves: we only got one playoff series win out of the Prince Fielder years, and then it was back to losing ways once again.

The Astros had an Opening Day payroll this year of just $96.8 million. They had a higher payroll in 2009, seven years ago, at $103 million. They have all of $19.5 million committed to 2017 before arbitration awards. Correa and Lance McCullers don’t hit arbitration for two more years; Altuve’s contract locks him in at $4.7 million in 2017 already; Springer and McHugh will only be in their first arbitration seasons in 2017. The Astros are not a small market team by any means. If I was an Astros fan, I would be pretty disappointed the team didn’t do more to shore itself up either at third base, catcher, or starting pitcher before 2016.

Of course, it’s easy to say that now, but the free agent market this offseason admittedly wasn’t great. The top line starting market was fairly barren past the $200 million men in David Price and Zack Greinke. The best available third baseman may have been Juan Uribe, and the best catcher may have been Tyler Flowers. It’s not an inspiring market, and just looking at the 2015-16 offseason, the Astros can be forgiven for holding their cards. But it still feels like the Astros are leaving cards on the table by keeping their payroll this low in a year where they have this much cheap, top-level talent on their roster.

This, to me, is the problem with wholly eschewing the free agent market in a rebuilding phase, particularly in the current climate, where teams are routinely locking up more and more of their best players to team-friendly deals during their arbitration years. Fewer and fewer good players are actually reaching free agency, and that means teams that wait until their prospect waves arrive to start filling the holes around them might find themselves out of luck when their window finally comes. Maybe a guy like Brian McCann or Bartolo Colon or Masahiro Tanaka or Francisco Liriano or James Shields — all free agents in 2013 or 2014 — would have been useful to have around Altuve and Springer and Correa and the gang, and not even for the typical “veteran presence” reason that always gets thrown around in the tanking argument.

It’s not like adding one or even two of these guys would have ruined the tanking plan. Even with one or two quality players, the dumpster fires that were the 2012 and 2013 Astros, teams that combined to lose 218 games in two years, still would have been in the running for the first overall picks those seasons. The only thing it would have hurt was owner Jim Crane’s pocketbook.

There’s no problem with taking a long view, and there’s no point in handing out big-time long-term contracts to players that are never going to play for a competitive team. But the Astros as well as the Cubs and the Rays before them have shown that turnarounds can be much quicker than expected. But that doesn’t mean that rebuilding teams need to do the full gutting the Astros did, nor does it mean that they should treat free agent contracts like poison pills until they’re ready to make a playoff run. In fact, such an approach might leave them scrambling when the prospects are ready quicker than expected.

The Brewers under former Astros executive David Stearns have the lowest payroll in baseball this season. Their approach was understandable this year, as they evaluate what they have on hand and prepare for the prospect wave that should be coming in over the next three years. But hopefully Stearns is seeing what has happened to his former team. The free agent market is a resource worth using just as the trade market and draft are, and if the right deal makes itself available, I hope they will pounce rather than save money because that’s what the prudent rebuilding template says. As the Astros are showing, rebuilding arcs don’t always progress the way simple logic says they should. When the next wave of Brewers prospects hits Milwaukee, I hope they aren’t stuck waiting for free agent help that winds up too little, too late in the end.