MLB: Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros

The Houston Astros will be a better team in 2014 than they were in 2013. In 2013, like 2012 and 2011 before, they were dreadful. Terrible. Embarrassing. They lost 111 games after losing 100 games in each of the two previous years. They’re on track to post the worst four year stretch in baseball history.

These loses all came in service of a greater good, of course. The Astros stripped their big league roster down of all viable talent, trading it to rebuild a crumbling farm system. This off-season, the Astros began changing gears, picking up legit big leaguers like Dexter Fowler and, to a lesser extent, Scott Feldman and a bunch of relievers. Upgrades for sure but their depth chart is still a ghost town.

More of their premium prospect talent is closer to the big leagues now. Better days are certainly ahead in Houston. Well, better days are probably ahead in Houston. Hopefully.

Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus looks at what the Astros did this season, wondering about the morality of putting a substandard product on the field for years at a time. He equated it to an infielder in 1950 going out of his way to distract a batter, a move that was both within the rules and beyond the realm of good taste. A more modern (and thus GIFable) example is below.

It was technically within the rules but definitely odious and just looks wrong. It doesn’t look like the game as we’re accustomed to seeing it. It takes our belief and attempts suspending it in a way that makes the viewer uncomfortable.

Watching the Astros over the last few years feels just like that. It felt…uncomfortable. It felt wrong. They weren’t a run-of-the-mill bad team at the low ebb of a rebuild cycle. They set new standards for awfulness. They made a mockery of the current playoff system, conspiring to lose 15 straight games to finish the year and all but handing the Rangers a spot in game 163.

Miller showed in his piece that despite their struggles, the Astros attendance actually improved year over year and wasn’t as bad as it seemed if you watched a game on TV. “Watching on TV” was a challenge for Astros fans, as their new cable deal produced impossibly low numbers do to ongoing battles between service providers and the rights holder.

Did the Astros factor all this into their master plan – if you’re going to commit total brand suicide, why not do it when you’re about to alienate many old fans by switching to the American League and when you can use the telecom growing pains to hide the worst parts of the year away from prying eyes?

There is no way to dress it up – the Astros tank project stinks. It sucks for the rest of baseball and it sucks if you’re an Astros fan. It should be a black mark on the game, the kind of practice that attracts all the negative press reserved for suspected PED cheats. But it doesn’t. Losing just creates apathy. All the compiled prospect capital in the world doesn’t change the public impression of the average fan, who looks at the Astros as the ultimate doormat.

Doormat is too kind. Disgrace fits a little bit better. There are many good and smart people in the Astros employ, too many to suggest this current lull is anything more than part of the master plan. If we must point fingers, I suppose we should look at a system that permits and even encourages this style of rebuild. Just like Sean Avery’s goofy stick waving thing, we have to hope the league will remove the incentive to tank like the malignant tumor it really is. Fans, rights holders, and the other teams deserve better.

Comments (11)

  1. I’m not against it. I want to see how this plays out for the Astros. Of course, I’m not an Astros fan, and I can imagine this would be awful for your generic fan.

    The scary part is if it works, a lot of teams are going to start tanking. If the Astros make the playoffs in, say, 2017, then 2018 and beyond will be a tanking shit show.

    It is, as you say, Tal’s Slippery Hill (Slope). They could totally impede competitive growth for years. But if we preach replay, no collisions, sabrmetrics and other progressive thinking, why not let the Astros tank in their own progressive way?

    • I’d be a lot more accepted of this as a “strategy” if they weren’t still pocketing big bucks from the league’s TV deals. There is no reason they couldn’t go about nearly the same thing without putting an embarrassing product on the field. A few one year deals or even a Kyle Lohse-type signing last winter? They’re at least closer to competitiveness, rather than giving Brett Wallace enough rope that he hangs himself twice.

      • If they’re pocketing it – they’re villains. But if they’re stashing it to go batshit nuts on the needed free agents in 2016/7/8 then I fully support that.

        They’re bad, but their future is brighter than many other franchises. If I were an Astros fan I would be much more hopeful than, say, a Brewers, Phillies, White Sox, etc. putting an overwhelmed product on the field with little hope in the minor leagues.

  2. How about the implementation of a salary floor or a poverty tax. Have a minimum salary floor and if you don’t reach that then you are still required to make up the difference by paying fines to the league. However, a likely better deterent would be the forfeiture of draft picks – which is supposedly why one would tank….

    • Rather than a poverty tax, maybe an account from revenue sharing that is solely for on-field improvements.

      there’s also the problem of proving that you’re tanking. Astros admit they’re tanking and rebuilding, probably because there are no repercussions for this. But if there was, they would certainly not admit it.

  3. Good piece, Drew. I didn’t pay to get past the BP paywall, but my sense on this is that this is not as easy to accept as it is in, say, basketball, where prospects tend to flourish better than in baseball where the flame-out rate is so much higher. I mean, if luck conspires to keep the Astros’ talent from becoming valuable big leaguers, this could become a lost decade for the club. Once you get to that point, especially in a place like football-crazy Texas, you’re looking at a huge number of lost fans that may not be interested in baseball for years.

    And the idea that the team is pocketing the surpluses it’s deriving from years of low payrolls is pretty repugnant. I’ve got to hope that the club is going to re-invest those dollars when the window is back open, but history and pragmatism kick that idea out of my head quickly.

  4. In terms of tastefulness, I still think Astros’ strategy > Marlins’ strategy

  5. Great article, by the way. But this URL Weaver was a little light on the URLs, dontcha think? #whiner

  6. The Astros situation is extremely frustrating. You bring up an excellent point. For all the bitching and complaining about how ARod is a cheat – what happens to a team that never even intended to try to be competitive. Everyone can accept a re-build. Most teams have to go through some period of being bad to save up good young players, but their entire team made $26M last season. That will raise as some of the young guys get to arb years – but that is as staggering a cheat as there can be. They benefit greatly from ensuring they were the worst team in the league – by pocketing TV money and having the #1 spot.

  7. At least they’re doing it because it makes good long-term baseball sense (presumably, at least). It’s much better, and more respectful of the game and its stakeholders (fans, players, etc.) than what Loria has been doing for years. I’d be way more pissed off if I were a marlins fan than if I were an astros fan.

  8. In about 4 years, we’ll forget about all of this and remember the good parts of the AAAstros

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