Houston Astros: A (Slight) Paradigm Shift


We are now in 2016 and the Houston Astros are in a middle of a balancing act for the present and future.

With the rebuilding plan bearing fruit, at least, one year earlier than many anticipated, general manager Jeff Luhnow and the Houston Astros front office staff have begun navigating unfamiliar waters. The unfamiliar part being how to improve a suddenly contending club while not compromising the long-term objective of the organization.

Since his arrival in Houston back in 2011, Luhnow has stressed the foundation of a strong farm system. Quite often, in fact. Honestly, without a strong farm system, any organization would fail to remain healthy, for lack of a better word, over a long-term period. Of course, certain money rich franchises seem immune to this reality.

But the Astros aren’t one of those “select” franchises, which is no secret. This idea is evident by the team’s opening day payroll since the start of Jim Crane’s tenure, which has consistently ranked among the lowest in professional baseball.

  • 2012: $60,651,000 (28th)
  • 2013: $22,062,600 (30th)
  • 2014: $44,544,174 (30th)
  • 2015: $70,910,100 (29th)

Until the future core was in place, the organization felt the need to trim payroll, which was also due to certain financial circumstances that I won’t get into right now. The plan was just to strip everything down and do a slow, yet necessary, rebuild.

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To be honest, the slow part was always a guesstimate. Rebuilds are dreadfully hard to predict. The Pittsburgh Pirates are one example of a franchise that suffered rebuild after rebuild before team management finally got it right. But that doesn’t mean all rebuilds take significant intervals of time to experience some sort of success, i.e. a winning season. For example, after the unexpected success of last season, the Astros are now thrust into the contender conversation of the American League.

Expectations in and around the franchise are now at the highest level since the Killer B’s heyday. Fans want to be far removed from the 100+ loss seasons and want the expectation that a winning product to be the norm going forward. And this new reality may have altered the organization’s long-term plans.

One example of how the Astros had to alter their plans is the front office’s response to the bullpen meltdown against the Kansas City Royals in the American League Division Series. This realization created a trickle effect that essentially “forced” the Astros to pay dearly for Ken Giles, an “ace” reliever, which was perceived as the glaring need for the ‘pen. Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle alluded to as much in this tweet:

The Carlos Gomez and Scott Kazmir trades during the past trade deadline also highlight the team’s increasing awareness of its need to improve at the major league level. Or the increasing willingness to take a chance on improvement. In essence, borrowing against the future for short-term purposes.

I don’t mean to say that the franchise will disregard the minor league system in the slightest. In all reality, this may cause the team’s front office and scouting department to raise the bar to ensure that they get picks right, especially in the early rounds. It will be imperative that the team partially restock the farm system in 2016 after the trades that took place in 2015. Needless to say, that remains part of the long-term plan.

Losing top prospects such as Mark Appel, Vincent Velasquez, Jacob Nottingham, Daniel Mengden, Thomas Eshelman, Brett Phillips, and Josh Hader will surely smart at one point or another. Regardless of who was traded or not from the Astros acclaimed minor league system, there seems to be a slight shift of principle within the halls of Minute Maid Park. A shift that is from a long-term scope to a more narrow, short-term view. But that is also part of the conundrum; the cost of improving the major league roster at an earlier time than originally anticipated.

Prospects are not the only currency by which teams operate by nowadays. Service time and money are massive variables in transactions. The Giles acquisition (multiple years of control, not yet arbitration eligible) is a perfect example of a team willing to part with more to ensure that more time is provided and that the player is more cost-efficient. And for a team like the Astros, the cost of players impacts more of the roster construction than other franchises.

In the recent past, the Astros have stressed the long-term objective. The farm system became priority number one. But like losing and failure, winning and success can also result in changes to plans. The paradigm shift has begun for the Astros. More major league roster and less farm system. No more talk of what is to come, more of what is happening now. But you can’t really do one without the other, however.

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That is where the balancing act comes into play. And honestly, achieving the best balance for both is the most desirable long-term objective that the organization could take from now on.

**Payroll figures provided by stevetheump.com**