How much did Rob Manfred’s punishment affect Astros’ horrendous 2024 slide?

The Astros have themselves to blame for most of their horrid start, but Rob Manfred has played a big role as well.
World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game One
World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game One / Bob Levey/GettyImages

The Houston Astros' dumpster fire of a 2024 season thus far has a lot of causes. Houston has a new manager in Joe Espada that has to shoulder at least some of the blame. Several of the Astros' lineup regulars are off to subpar to bad starts to the season, especially Jose Abreu.

Then there's the Astros pitching staff that is a rotating cast of guys that can't seem to get healthy and/or get outs when they need to. Houston's attempts to reshape the bullpen have been an unmitigated disaster, too.

However, what we are seeing could also be the inevitable result of not being able to restock the Astros' farm system with talent. Some of that is because of questionable draft and international free agent choices, but the sanctions that were levied on Houston by Rob Manfred in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal have played a huge part as well.

Astros' sign-stealing punishment has loomed large in 2024

After MLB's investigation into Houston's rules violations, Manfred and MLB handed down a pretty significant punishment on the team while the players involved got off mostly unscathed thanks to an agreement for their cooperation in the investigation. The team was fined $5 million which is "whatever," former Astros front office execs Jeff Luhnow and Brandon Taubman as well as manager AJ Hinch were all suspended for a year, and most importantly, the Astros lost their first- and second-round picks for each of the next two drafts.

Let's ignore the fact that one cannot help but wonder how the Astros would have done if they had kept Hinch at manager, because that is it's own Pandora's Box of possibilities. For those keeping track at home, that meant no first- or second-round picks in the 2020 draft (which only had five rounds to begin with) and the 2021 draft for Houston. The Astros went to the World Series in 2019 and made the ALCS in 2020, so they would have been picking near the bottom of each round. Here are some of the names that would have been available to them in each draft for those picks.

2020 Astros Draft Pick Possibilities

  • Jordan Westburg (Comp A round pick)
  • Evan Carter (Second-round pick)
  • Masyn Winn (Second-round pick)
  • Tink Hence (Comp B round pick)

2021 Astros Draft Pick Possibilities

  • Jackson Merrill (Late first-round pick)
  • Connor Norby (Second-round pick)
  • Andrew Abbott (Second-round pick)
  • Zack Gelof (Second-round pick)
  • James Wood (Second-round pick)
  • Kyle Manzardo (Second-round pick)

These are just the guys that we know are uber-talented and are likely to make contributions in the big leagues if they aren't already (man, everyone missed the boat on Evan Carter in 2020). That doesn't account for the massive losses to Houston's draft bonus pools that could have enabled them to make other signings later in the draft or go over slot for a name that ultimately got picked ahead of them. There are also going to be other guys from those draft classes the Astros could've grabbed with those lost picks.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know who the Astros would have selected. It isn't like Jim Crane ever got in front of a microphone and said "we would have picked Tink Hence and James Wood at the bottom of the first round in each draft, so blame Manfred" at any point. They still could have screwed those picks up the ol' fashioned way.

What we do know is that the Astros didn't and couldn't pick any guys in those two rounds. Given all of the injuries Houston has dealt with in 2024 and the underperformance at key spots on the roster, the lack of picks torpedoed their prospect depth along with the move at the trade deadline for Verlander. The end result is Houston being in the middle of this current rough patch, with few places they can turn for help.

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