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How the Houston Astros succeeded by tanking

In 2011, the Houston Astros won 56 games. Their last season as a member of the National League, 2012, they won 55. When they moved over to the AL in 2013, Houston regressed even more, going 51-111. In their horrific 2013 season, the Astros ranked dead last in hits, on base percentage, slugging percentage and second-to-last in batting average and runs.

Led by Manager Bo Porter, the Houston Astros won 51 games in 2013. (Sports Illustrated)

From 2011-2014, Houston’s opening day starters, in order by year, were Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and Scott Feldman. Minute Maid Park was empty, as no fans wanted to see this abomination.

In 2017, the Houston Astros won 101 games and are playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The Astros finished first in the AL in runs, hits, batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage

Wait what? Yeah, tanking in baseball actually works.

 

Started from the bottom

So how exactly did the Astros pull this off? In 2013, the Astros threw a team on the field worth $22 million, which was good for dead last in terms of MLB payrolls. To put this into perspective, the Tampa Bay Rays, who ranked 28th that year, had a payroll of close to $58 million. The only player on the Astros roster earning more than $1 million was the 34-year-old lefty, Erik Bedard.

Carlos Correa and Bud Selig, moments after being selected first overall in the 2012 June Draft (MLB.com)

The obvious keys to building a championship team are good draft picks, smart trades, players performing, and a little luck. After their disastrous 2011 season, Houston received the number one pick in the June Draft in 2012. With this pick, the ‘Stros selected a 17-year-old shortstop from Puerto Rico, Carlos Correa. In the history of the MLB, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Correa are the only two shortstops to have at least 390 hits, 80 doubles, 60 home runs, 200 runs and 240 RBIs before turning 23. I think they made the right choice.

The next season, Houston again wound up with the first pick in the draft. The Astros selected Mark Appel, a pitcher from Stanford, who would end up getting traded in a deal for, current Astros closer, Ken Giles.

In 2014, for the third year in a row drafting first, Houston selected Brady Aiken, a top ranked, left-handed, pitching prospect. Due to injuries and contract disputes, Aiken became the first number one overall pick, since 1983, to go unsigned when the July 18th deadline came around. Originally, Aiken was offered a $6.5 million signing bonus, pending his physical.

 

Trust the Process

Once Houston saw his physical, which showed a smaller than normal UCL, they ended up offering Aiken $3.1 million. This was the minimum they could offer and still be granted a replacement pick if Aiken declined. Thankfully, Aiken declined their final offer, which rose to $5 million, and enrolled into a postgraduate school.

Houston was now set up with the second and fifth overall picks for the 2015 draft. With the second overall pick, Houston selected Alex Bregman, who in case you didn’t know, hit a home run off Clayton Kershaw in Game one of the World Series. In the regular season, Bregman hit .284 with 19 home runs and 71 RBIs. The Astros used the fifth overall pick on Kyle Tucker, who, at 20 years old, hit 25 home runs, stole 21 bases, and knocked in 90, while playing a mix of High-A and AA baseball.

Also in 2015, Houston had a later first round pick, 37th overall, and selected outfielder Daz Cameron. Cameron, along with a pair of other minor league players, was later sent to the Detroit Tigers for Justin Verlander. Since joining Houston, the former Cy Young and MVP winner is 9-0 with a 1.23 ERA.

 

Luck mixed with Skill

It should also be noted that former Houston GM, Ed Wade, acquired Jose Altuve, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel. Altuve was originally cut by the Astros after his tryout in Venezuela, mostly due to his height, or lack of. He would attend the next tryout session, and, in 2007, Houston signed him as an undrafted free agent for a $15,000 signing bonus. Altuve has been to five All-Star games, and just became the first player ever to lead to AL or NL in hits for four straight seasons.

George Springer and Jose Altuve. 5 Tool Players. (Zimbio.com)

Dallas Keuchel, who was drafted by the Astros in the 7th round of the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft, was actually on the pitiful 2012 and 2013 Houston squads. In 2012, Keuchel went 3-8 with a 5.27 ERA, and the following year, at age 25, went 6-10 with a 5.15 ERA. Since then, Keuchel has been to two All-Star games, and won the AL CY Young Award in 2015.

In 2011, with the 11th overall pick, Houston selected an outfielder from Connecticut, George Chelston Springer. In 2016, while playing all 162 games, Springer hit 29 home runs and scored 116 runs. This past July, Springer was named a starter for the AL in the 2017 MLB All-Star Game. He would finish the regular season hitting .283, with career highs in home runs (35), and RBIs (85).

 

Patience

Houston rolled the dice on a 5’6” teenager, and stuck with a pitcher who posted a 5.20 ERA in his first two seasons. This past offseason, Houston signed Charlie Morton, who had never had a winning season in his career and was used as a reliever in 2016. Miraculously, Morton went 14-7 for Houston, and was lights out in Game 7 of the ALCS. Marwin Gonzalez, whose previous top WAR season was an abysmal 1.2, hit .303 with 23 home runs and 90 RBIs in 2017.

While they may appear flawless in their rebuild, don’t forget that this is the same Houston Astros team that released JD Martinez in 2014. Anyone that says this was just luck is ignorant. Luck is part of life. Just look at the opposing dugout in the World Series. Justin Turner is a superstar who was designated for assignment by the Baltimore Orioles, and hit .265 in 301 games for the Mets. Chris Taylor did not even make the Dodgers Opening Day roster in 2017.

 

Current Tank Jobs

A team similar to the Astros is the Chicago White Sox. In 2013, they ranked top-10 in payroll, but now sit at 28th. They have not eclipsed 78 wins since 2012, but have traded big name players in order to receive top prospects. Chicago traded Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, which got them young studs like Lucas Giolito, Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Reynaldo Lopez, Eloy Jimenez, and Blake Rutherford.

Kopech, Moncada, Giolito (Youtube)

In the 2017 Draft, Chicago drafted third basemen Jake Burger, who scouts believe has serious potential. They have Tim Anderson and Carlos Rodon locked up for years to come. In May they signed Cuban outfielder Luis Robert, who hit .310 in the 2017 Dominican Summer League. Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia are both free agents after 2019, but could easily resign. I don’t mean to pull a Sports Illustrated or anything, but the Chicago White Sox will win the 2020 World Series.

Nonetheless, you have to tip your cap to the Houston Astros for proving that tanking really works.

Featured image by ABC13 Houston

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