Astros have blueprint to build contender
I love what the Astros are doing. I believe they're constructing a great organization. I also think they may be back in contention a lot more quickly than some people think. That's the hard part.
There's no timetable on young players, and if you don't believe me, check with the A's. Remember, they were supposed to be lousy this season.
Oakland general manager Billy Beane looked at his club last offseason and reached the difficult conclusion that it wasn't good enough to hang with the Rangers and Angels in the American League West.
Instead of selling a silly company line about maybe being competitive if this or that happened, Beane had the guts to do what only the really good ones do. He traded three All-Star pitchers for a bunch of prospects and turned his Spring Training into a tryout camp for the talent he'd collected.
He loved what he saw. He didn't know how quickly the A's would be good again, but he committed to running those young players out there and putting them in the right kind of environment.
He knew that some of them would be good immediately, he knew that some of them might need another year or two in the Minor Leagues and he knew that some of them wouldn't make it.
Regardless of how this season -- or even next -- was to turn out, Beane was committed to his plan, to putting a foundation in place that would sustain the A's for years to come.
Now the A's are one of baseball's surprise teams, with all those kids forming a terrific pitching staff, and young outfielders Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes seemingly on their way to stardom. If Beane had played it safe last winter, he never would have found out about Tom Milone and Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook.
All Beane knew for sure is that he didn't want to be mediocre. He saw no value in being mediocre.
There are all kinds of lessons for the Astros in what Billy Beane did with the A's these last few months. That's because owner Jim Crane saw his club exactly the same way Beane saw the A's last winter. By the time Crane's purchase of the Astros was approved in November, he already had a blueprint mapped out.
Crane was committed to hiring a great GM, and he believes he found him in Cardinals executive Jeff Luhnow, who did a spectacular job with that organization's farm system.
Crane told Luhnow to follow the blueprint of the Rangers, Rays, A's and others. It's the same blueprint Theo Epstein is executing in his first year as president of baseball operations for the Cubs.
Crane wanted no shortcuts. He wanted to build the Astros around player development. He would spend on the Draft and international signings, but he would not throw money at veteran free agents.
Until the Astros have a productive farm system, it will be difficult for them to become competitive. The Yankees and Red Sox can't contend without a pipeline of talent coming from the Minor Leagues, and the Astros can't contend without one either.
Crane didn't know how long it would take, but he was willing to accept some short-term pain because he knew that once the Astros were back, they had a chance to be good for a really long time.
If you're an Astros fan, this should be music to your ears. The Astros didn't get bad overnight, and they aren't going to be fixed overnight. For about five years, the Astros invested in older players. Carlos Lee and Mike Hampton. Kazuo Matsui and Bill Hall. Pedro Feliz and Miguel Tejada.
Former owner Drayton McLane wanted so badly to be competitive that he simply couldn't bring himself to undergo a full-blown reconstruction project. Meanwhile, his baseball staff continued to miss in the Draft.
When McLane hired Ed Wade to be his GM in 2007, he gave him a tough assignment: cut payroll, stay competitive and resurrect the farm system. Wade didn't keep the big league team competitive, but he did elevate the farm system from the bottom of the pack to somewhere around the middle and left it in far better shape than he found it.
All Luhnow has done is speed up the process in recent weeks. In trading Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ and others, he acquired 11 Minor Leaguers who are now scattered throughout his system. If just one of those prospects ends up contributing in 2013 or 2014, Luhnow will have gotten what he wanted out of those trades.
In the wake of those trades, the Astros are left with a young team, an inexperienced team, a team that is overmatched at times. To focus on the 34-67 record is to miss the point.
This is the way out, the only way out. The Astros also have a bunch of guys who play their tails off and might get better. That's far better than three years ago.
There will be more change in the weeks ahead as Luhnow attempts to find out about the talent in his system. There's no way of knowing when the Astros will be back in the playoffs, but there finally are players Astros fans can look at and get excited about, among them second baseman Delino DeShields Jr., first baseman Jonathan Singleton and outfielder George Springer. Luhnow believes that his first-round pick of 2012, 17-year-old Carlos Correa, could be in the Major Leagues in 2015.
Houston long ago showed the world that it's a terrific baseball town. In the Astros' first 12 seasons at Minute Maid Park, they drew 3 million fans four times and at least 2.5 million fans five times. Even with baseball's worst record, they're still on pace to draw more than 2 million.
Luhnow appears to be done with stripping down the Major League roster. Now comes the fun stuff. Fans will have an opportunity to watch a great organization constructed right in front of their eyes as young players get a chance to strut their stuff. The Astros will be good again, too, perhaps sooner rather than later. And when that happens, a little short-term pain will have been worth it.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.