The famous words from Ricky Bobby, “If You’re Not First, You’re Last” could not apply more to the Astros. I’ve always been a big believer of that phrase so when the Astros decided to rebuild I could not have agreed more. With the loss to the Rangers last night, the Astros have clinched the first overall pick in the 2014 draft. This will be the third straight year the Astros will have the first overall pick.
If you follow me on twitter (shameless self-promotion: @YoniPollak) you know I have been on the rebuild train for quite some time. As an Astros fan as well as a huge Rockets and Texans fan I have hated being mediocre. For the last several years, I was forced to watch the Rockets continuously be the last team out of the playoffs, the dreaded #9 seed in the Western Conference. Why is that so bad? Well the Rockets were forced to pick from the #14 spot in the draft, which means they had the worst pick from non-playoff teams. I hated it. Couldn’t stand it. The Rockets were trying for superstar after superstar and failed. They amassed many assets but couldn’t swing the big deal. Having those assets meant having quality players but unfortunately just not good enough to at least have a shot at a title run. It was frustrating to be a fan. The best non playoff team? Ugh. Couldn’t stand it.
However, in basketball it’s a bit different. With no real farm system to develop players (small argument could be made for the NBA D-League), you can’t just draft players and stash young talent in a farm system and hope one of them can turn into a star. You either build through the draft and play those players right away or just hope to lure and then sign superstars. The latter doesn’t happen often in the NBA. Teams either tank (don’t you dare try and tell me they don’t) in hopes for a high lottery pick, or they go after big free agents. Being in the middle stinks, but it worked out for the Rockets in the end. A shocking trade and a huge free-agent signing later and the Rockets are now championship contenders. What seemed at the time to be terrible luck ended up being a blessing in disguise.
Why am I telling you this? Well, as a Rockets fan I hated being mediocre. Sure the team was pretty fun to watch, but to have the #14 pick three straight years just sucked. At several points I just wished the team would tank for good, trade assets for pick, be bad, get high draft picks, and build through the draft. At the end, huge strokes of luck gave the Rockets a different way to rebuild by trading for a superstar and then being able to sign a superstar.
But the Astros went a different route. A route I believed was the right way to do it from the start. The MLB doesn’t have a salary cap so signing free agents may have been easier, but it doesn’t guarantee a championship. In baseball, it’s not always the best team that wins the championship. Any team from around 15 teams has a shot at a championship. You could argue that several teams that will miss the playoffs in the MLB this year could have easily won the championship this year. It happens. That’s how baseball is. A hot team in September that can ride a hot bat or two or strong starting pitching could go ahead and win the World Series. In basketball it’s different. The best team usually wins. There’s always an exception to the rule (Detroit Pistons), but usually the team with a superstar or two will win the NBA championship.
What the Astros did was unusual to the say the least. They traded away anything of value. From Lance Berkman, to Hunter Pence, to Michael Bourn, to Bud Norris, and even Justin Maxwell. Anything. Anything of value that could bring back a young piece, a piece that one day could turn into a quality starter or that could provide depth. What the Astros did was acquire young talent. They may never make it to the Houston Astros or even to the MLB level, but at one point they had potential to be that player. Prospects don’t always pan out, but that’s the way the Astros chose to rebuild and I believe that was the correct path.
By trading away their MLB talent, the Astros knew they were going to be terrible. Did they know it was going to be three years of franchise record losses? Who knows. But they were prepared to scrap everything to have a brighter future and I think they succeeded. I was ready for it. I knew they were going to be bad. Of course you don’t want your team to be the worst team in the league three straight seasons, but if that’s what the plan is then so be it. You may as well have three terrible years if it means a brighter future, as opposed to three mediocre years which will lead to a mediocre future.
Three first overall pick is EXACTLY what I was hoping for. Coming into this past offseason I wanted to be terrible. The Astros needed that first overall pick again and I’m happy they “succeeded” in this mission. People wanted (at the time) to keep valuable players like Bud Norris, Jed Lowrie, Lucas Harrell, and others, but I just kept wondering why? Why keep the “talent” when these guys have more value to other teams than to us? Why keep players that may make the Astros any better when the whole point of the season is to be bad? Why keep players that may make us good enough to be the second or third worst team in the league? If you’re going to be bad, at least be VERY bad. Be terrible. Be the worst team in the league. It’s no better or worse being 2nd-29th. If you didn’t win the championship at least get the next best prize, the first overall pick.
There is a lot more value in being the worst team than being the second or third worst. If you’re the worst team in the league you get the first overall pick in the June draft and first waiver priority. You get the first overall pick in the Rule V draft and the most international money. All these things are perks that bad teams need. To have these advantages are a lot better than 5-10 more wins or being second or third in line for these perks.
I’ll be honest. I’m ecstatic. Stoked. I love the way the organization has turned things around. The 2007 squad wasn’t going anywhere and it was obvious there was a need for change. When Jeff Luhnow came in, he continued where Ed Wade left off (he deserves some credit as well). The late 2000′s team was filled with garbage. Change was needed and the Astros successfully have given fans hope. The young talent they brought in via trades and having the first overall pick back-to-back years is apparent. Jonathan Singleton, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, Lance McCullers Jr, the list goes on and on. Many experts believe the Astros have a top five farm system if not THE BEST farm system in the majors. And guess what? Another year of drafting first overall will bring in even more talent. Luhnow and the rest of the front office has done a fantastic job in rebuilding this squad. Not through free agency but rather through rebuilding, and the way to rebuild successfully is by having the first overall pick to help revamp your farm system.
Just be bad.
Why? Because “If you’re not first, you’re last!” And if you’re last, may as well be DEAD last instead of stuck in the middle.