There’s rebuilding projects, and then there’s the Houston Astros. Ever since the team went to the World Series in 2005, the entire organization has been in shambles. Sure, they won 86 games in 2008, but that is their only time in the past eight years to win more than 80 games. They are currently on their seventh different manager in those eight years, and their attendance has plummeted to one of the lowest in the league.
Even worse, the Astros continued to refuse to secede into full-blown rebuilding mode. General Managers Tim Purpura and Ed Wade repeatedly made questionable decisions in trades, in the draft, and in offseason free agency.
Despite maintaining a higher payroll than they should have, the Astros still could not find any success. Finally, Drayton McLane mercifully sold the team to Jim Crane, giving the franchise the opportunity for a fresh start.
Crane hired Jeff Luhnow to be his G.M. Luhnow, a Penn-educated engineer, drastically cut the Astros’ payroll and started over. He got rid of all the team’s established players, fielding a roster of mostly minor league caliber players. It was an admirable undertaking, but one that was slated to get worse before it got better.
After nearly three full seasons utilizing Luhnow’s new ideals in the front office, it has definitely not been easy. The Astros blew past the 100-loss plateau in both 2012 and 2013, and they are once again one of the worst teams in the league this year. However, there is obvious improvement regarding the on-field talent, especially recently.
In their last series, the Astros beat the A’s twice in a best-of-three series. This comes after they took three-of-four games from the Rangers and also swept the Angels in a brief two-game series.
In the past, Houston wouldn’t have even been able to compete with legitimate playoff contenders like the Athletics and Angels, much less win. Even with the recent turmoil in the front office, Luhnow was reportedly not seeing eye-to-eye with manager Bo Porter before Porter’s firing, the Astros are still winning.
Unfortunately, winning the rest of the way will not be overly beneficial to the Astros. They are nearly mathematically eliminated from the postseason at this point, currently trailing the Mariners by 15.5 games for the second Wild Card spot, so winning will only earn them a lower draft pick in next year’s draft.
However, with Luhnow’s past success in the MLB Draft, it won’t much matter what spot they get. The Astros are already slated for the second overall selection in the 2015 draft due to their inability to sign this year’s first overall pick Brady Aiken.
The Astros might be undermanned at the big league level, but there is plenty of talent working its way up the minor league ladder. Carlos Correa headlines the plethora of highly-touted prospects in the Houston farm system, but Mark Appel, Domingo Santana, and Colin Moran are also projected to be solid major leaguers. Widely thought of as one of the top three farm systems, the Astros’ future is only a few years away from reaching the big leagues. Recent draft picks Lance McCullers Jr., Rio Ruiz, A.J. Reed, Tony Kemp, and Derek Fisher are already making a name for themselves in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Expect them to move up the ladder at an expedited rate.
Not to mention the high-upside youngsters who are already at the big league level. Jon Singleton, the team’s former top prospect, is working out the kinks in the Show after his June call up. Mike Foltynewicz has been a nice weapon out of the bullpen, as his 100 MPH fastball suits him as a reliever more than a starter.
Dallas Keuchel is a homegrown pitcher, and his breakout season has him looking like a solid future starter. The starting rotation is filled with other young arms, and they will only get better with time. Also, they recently announced that they will be implementing a six-man rotation for the foreseeable future. They recalled Nick Tropeano, the Astros’ number-thirteen prospect according to MLB.com, to fill that sixth slot.
They have been relatively quiet this season on the trade and free agent market, but they did make one move at the July 31st trade deadline. They shipped Jarred Cosart and others to the Marlins for outfielder Jake Marisnick and Colin Moran. Moran, the sixth pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, was expected to be the centerpiece of that trade, but Marisnick has been better than expected.
Always known for his outstanding defensive attributes, Marisnick has contributed with the bat so far in Houston. He sports a .250 average during his time in Houston after hanging around the Mendoza Line in his past MLB experiences. He has also chipped in with several timely hits for the Astros, and that kind of clutch hitting is a luxury going forward.
The organization also has a few cornerstone players who the Astros can build around if they choose. Jose Altuve has blossomed into one of the most productive second baseman in the entire MLB. He has always been a solid infielder, but 2014 has been the ultimate breakout season.
Always known as a free-swinging singles hitter, Altuve has set career highs this year in hits, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and Wins Above Replacement (WAR). There are still 20 games left to play, plenty of time for the Venezuelan second baseman to also surpass his previous career highs in both home runs and RBIs. Most impressive, however, has been his aggressiveness on the basepaths. He has stolen 51 bases this year while only being caught seven times. His 5.2 WAR ranks eighth in the American League, meaning he is one of the most valuable players in the Junior Circuit. To put his number into context, Mike Trout’s WAR is 6.6 and Jose Bautista’s in 4.2.
The Astros might have also uncovered a gem in Chris Carter. The powerful right-handed hitter has shown his massive power on occasion in the past, but he finally put it all together this year. His average still sits at a paltry .235, but he is finally tapping into his prolific home run potential. He is currently second in the American League with 36 home runs, and has driven in 85 runners, many of them coming late in close games. I’m not sure if he is in the Astros’ long-term plans because of his age and propensity to strike out, but he is an excellent placeholder even if the Astros have another first baseman/designated hitter in mind. Carter doesn’t bring much to the table regarding defense or baserunning, but if you’re only going to possess one of the five tools that scouts talk about, power is the one to have.
While the two aforementioned players are very good, there is one player in the organization who is in a league of his own. Unlike Carter, outfielder George Springer is a legitimate five-tool player. He can hit tape measure home runs and is also very fast, giving him the unique blend of power and speed that is matched by very few.
Springer was called up in April, and after adjusting to major league pitching, he started to rake. He launched ten homers in May and then six in June. The former first-round pick struck out at an alarming rate, but he has been working on that and should be able to hit for a higher average in the future.
So with the Astros string of moderate success, it seems they are barely even scratching the surface of their overall potential. With all the losing, the Astros have stockpiled plenty of jewels in the draft. It has been a drastic uphill climb, but they finally have a loaded farm system that is poised for possible greatness.
It will be interesting going forward to see what the Astros do next. Once the first crop of prospects is in the major leagues, Luhnow will have to decide when it is the right time to become buyers instead of sellers. When it is indeed time, the Astros will not hesitate to pull off a blockbuster trade or sign a marquee free agent.
“If we do our jobs and get some breaks going our way and the fans start coming back,” Luhnow said in an early 2012 interview. “We’re going to be able to push the payroll to a point where we can compete year in and year out.”
However, Luhnow knows that there must be a steady nucleus of homegrown players to make free agents work.
“You can’t win with just free agents. Everybody knows that. Even the Yankees know that,” Luhnow said in that same interview.
There are still plenty of questions regarding the club’s future, including the fact that most of the prospects are largely unproven. However, considering Luhnow’s phenomenal success rate from his time in the St. Louis Cardinals scouting department, the Astros are in pretty good shape.
But Lunhow’s arrogant nature has to be concerning as well. He all but ran Bo Porter out of town because they did not see eye-to-eye on all issues. If for some reason his plan doesn’t begin to show some dividends in the near future, his seat will consistently get hotter and hotter.
The bullpen has been a massive question mark for the Astros this year as well. Veteran closer Chad Qualls has repeatedly blown huge leads, and the rest of the relieving core has been below average at best. Tony Sipp is a decent left-handed specialist, but after that it gets shaky. Foltynewicz will eventually be a valuable weapon out of the ‘pen, but in the interim, the Astros are going to lose a lot of leads late in the games unless they specifically address that area.
All in all, the Astros have arguably the most long-term potential of any organization in the league. Still, their future success is solely dependent on how fast the prospects progress. Once they start producing at the major league level, the front office can explore other avenues to solidify the roster. 2015 is not going to be the year where they are legitimate contenders, but I think by 2016 or 2017 they will be one of the premier teams in the American League. Prospects are incredibly tough to gauge, but the Astros have stored up enough of them that at least a few of them will become stars.
If that happens, all of the losing will be worth it. Hopefully a few winning seasons will bring more spectators to Minute Maid Park, and they can build a loyal fanbase that will support them in the coming years.
The American League West has developed into one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball, but if the Astros’ prized prospects become as good as most scouts think they can, Houston’s ceiling is nearly unlimited.
They are a team of the future, and if Sports Illustrated’s recent proclamation that the Astros will win the 2017 World Series is any indication, that future is very, very bright.