THE ASTROS and their data-driven front office have been commended throughout 2017 for the success of their on-the-fly franchise rebuild. Houston was one game back of the Indians for the AL's best record, going 101--61, after a 51--111 finish in '13. That's some turnaround.
But let's not forget what positioned the Astros for their 2017 achievements: They tanked. They fielded a team with a $22 million payroll in 2013, by far the lowest in baseball. And they would still be wretched in '14 (70--92), the year SPORTS ILLUSTRATED predicted their 2017 championship.
The defiantly noncontending teams that Houston fielded were responsible for some of the lowest moments in recent MLB history. Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and Scott Feldman made Opening Day starts. Games drew record-low TV ratings. Minute Maid Park drew three million people four times from 2000 to '07; from 2012 to '14, attendance didn't top 1.8 million.
What was the Astros' reward for both alienating their fans and producing such ugly baseball? For trying to lose? The No. 1 pick in both the 2013 and the '14 draft (they chose not to sign Brady Aiken) after holding the same pick in '12 (Carlos Correa), and the second and fifth choices in '15. They then used those selections to take third baseman Alex Bregman and as trade chips for pitchers Justin Verlander and Ken Giles. And one more thing—according to Forbes, those 2013 Astros were the most profitable team in history, reaping MLB's huge media revenues while spending like a minor league franchise. What great respect should we have for a club that so recently possessed no respect for us?
Sure, when Jim Crane bought the Astros from Drayton McLane in 2011, they were in the midst of a 56--106 campaign, their third straight below .500. The farm system and major league roster were bare, so some losing was inevitable. And Houston's recent success does indeed testify to the cleverness of GM Jeff Luhnow's organizational road map. But there's something unseemly about how proud the Astros are of their scorched-earth approach, since they needn't have done it to get where they are today.
Winning teams can also acquire elite amateur talent through effective scouting and shrewd trading. That's what Luhnow did in St. Louis. And the analytics-centric regime Luhnow hired in Houston could have brought its insights to bear on a .500 team too.
Thanks in varying degree to the advent of superteams, the public advocacy performed by former Philadelphia 76ers' GM Sam Hinkie and the Cubs' title in 2016—proof positive that tanking works—the sports world has largely made peace with intentional futility, so long as it's temporary. Certainly the whooping, beaming Astros fans have.
What's the fix? While teams will always go through dry spells, the league should do more to discourage shameless bottoming out—which describes what the Padres, Phillies, Reds and White Sox are now doing. As a punishment for sustained, Sixers-style tanking, MLB could withhold revenue-sharing cash. A salary floor would compel even the most hopeless teams to invest in credible veterans. And a lottery to determine the draft order for all nonplayoff teams would limit the spoils of last place.
These, though, are baby steps. The most effective approach remains shame.
What great respect should we have for a club that so recently possessed no respect for us?
BY THE NUMBERS
Combined wins for the Astros in 2016 and '17, third-most in the American League.
Combined wins for Houston from 2011 to '13, the worst three-year stretch in 50 years.