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.