Wild Stat of the Week: 382 (Astro losses over the past four years, 38 more than the next most-losing team, the Twins)
The Houston Astros are in the midst of a historical rebuilding process, one that is challenging some of the fundamental philosophies of baseball. Houston has lost at least 100 games in each of the last three seasons, earning themselves the worst record in baseball each year along with the amateur draft's #1 overall pick in every year. The front office has unloaded virtually every veteran with a decent sized contract over these past few years, and has had the lowest payroll in the majors over the past two years. It's one thing to punt on a season here or there when you know you don't have the talent to compete, but going into every season with no intentions of winning games is something entirely different. This kind of conspicuous tanking is rampant in basketball, but really hasn't been found in baseball all that much, and I believe for good reason. What the Astros are doing a travesty to the game, insulting to the fans, and in the end will run counter to their hopes of building a winning team from scratch.
I understand the appeal of tanking. Teams everywhere see what the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA did by tanking and picking up stars early in the draft like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the now departed James Harden. You can't win anything without stars, and the top of the draft is the best place to find the All-Stars of tomorrow. However, there's a fundamental difference between how this strategy works out in basketball, and how it works out in baseball.
In basketball, you can win a whole lot with just one transcendent star. A LeBron James or Kevin Durant can step in from the first day they're drafted and make a huge impact, using something like 30% of their teams possessions. The Thunder can decide to give Durant the ball every time down the floor and let him do what he will (as Scott Brooks often does decide to do). Baseball teams don't operate anything like it. A hitter can only have about 15% of his teams at bats and a starting pitcher can only throw about 15% of his teams total innings, and those are both as high as the numbers could possibly climb in the modern era. It takes so much more to win a championship in the MLB, case in point Mike Trout. Trout is the best ballplayer on the earth, but even in his incredible 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Angels failed to make the playoffs. The Angels are probably going to be in the playoffs this year, but that's because they've been able to rely upon an improved rotation and production from third base instead of counting on their stars to plug up the holes on the roster.
There's also the issue that a total rebuilding process in the MLB is bound to take a lot longer than in the NBA. Superstars in basketball can start from their first game, but even premier baseball prospects generally have to spend at least two years in the minors before they can make any impact at the majors. This lengthier process creates a culture of losing, the kind of which the Astros find themselves within right now. The culture of losing often becomes hard to break, alienates fans, and actually leads to bad decisions for the long-term. The perfect example of this occurred last week, when the Astros failed to sign their #1 overall pick Brady Aiken. Aiken was drafted out of high school as a pitcher and became only the third #1 overall draft pick to fail to sign with the team that drafted him. The negotiations were called into question, as the Astros seemed to use the threat of not signing other draft picks who were fellow clients of Aiken's agent (or unofficial assistant) as a bargaining tool to make Aiken accept less money than he should have earned. They did this with the cover story of having Aiken's UCL (a ligament in the elbow) appear smaller than it should be during a physical, but the validity of that story has been put very much into question.
The point of the story is that the Astros were willing to let three tremendous young talents walk for the sake of picking up the #2 overall pick next year (due to a compensatory pick from not signing Aiken) and not having to pay Aiken his full value. But in the hoarding these assets and trying to force bargain deals onto draftees the Astros have sullied their reputation among agents and players, impeded the process of three excellent baseball players, and have possibly even brought a lawsuit among themselves, as the player's association has considered legal action for the Astro's shady techniques. In trying to take a long term view by losing to improve their future, the Astros actually forced themselves into making rash decisions that will actually hurt their future.
Houston's front office thought they were the smartest guys in the room, but right now it looks like all they've earned is another near last place finish, a decent farm system, and a terrible reputation among fans and players. We still have to wait a bit to declare the Houston experiment a failure, but I'm terribly disappointed by what we've seen so far, and the fans of baseball deserve better than this.