Astros look to future as team sinks to new low
The Houston Astros knew they weren't going to win much this season, so with an eye toward the future they cast off their few pricey veterans before the trade deadline, slashing payroll and restocking their depleted farm system.
It wasn't a blueprint to win now.
Still, new owner Jim Crane didn't think it would be this bad.
The Astros have shed almost $40 million from their opening day roster and have a payroll of just $21.3 million as of last week. Nine players on other teams will make more than that by themselves this season, led by Alex Rodriguez ($30 million).
Houston has had the worst record in baseball for most of the season. But things devolved rapidly since the Astros' rebuilding effort began in earnest when general manager Jeff Luhnow traded Carlos Lee on July 4. Monday night's 7-1 loss at Chicago left them 6-36 since the Lee trade, including a franchise-worst 12-game losing skid.
Houston is the first National League team to lose 34 games in a 38-game span since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, according to STATS LLC, a skid that ended last Friday.
''We made a lot of trades and once we made that decision - Jeff started moving some of the talent - we knew we might slide back a little bit, but we didn't think it would be this bad,'' Crane said.
After Lee, Houston shed pitchers J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, David Carpenter, Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez before wrapping up a busy month by sending third baseman Chris Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
''Some of them, had they gone beyond the trade deadline, we wouldn't have gotten much of anything,'' Crane said. ''I think (Luhnow) got as much as he possibly could. (He) traded hard, and we did pick up a lot of great prospects.''
Houston received 15 players in the recent trades. It's talent that has improved a minor league system many believed was among the worst in baseball heading into the season.
''Our objective is to be competitive consistently as soon as possible,'' Luhnow said. ''And being able to infuse as many prospects into our system as we were able to at the A and Double-A level, you don't have an opportunity to do that in the draft. You get a lot of new prospects in the draft, but they're usually at the rookie-ball level.''
Of course, Houston's focus on the future didn't just begin this season. Stars including Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn all have been dealt in the last two seasons. Of Houston's top 20 minor league prospects, 10 are a product of this year's deals along with the Bourn and Pence trades.
Right-hander Jarred Cosart and third baseman Matt Dominguez, both acquired in trades and playing at Triple-A, are considered Houston's second- and fourth-best prospects. Their greatest area of need was pitching and the recent deals brought several new arms.
The moves will also give the Astros some flexibility to add talent in the offseason.
''Next year with a lot of those salaries gone, we'll have some room to fill in some players when we see what we ended up with,'' Crane said. ''You'll see some more players coming up at the end of the year, and we will continue to see who can play at the big league level.''
Luhnow said he knows it's difficult for fans to get excited about the team as it stands now, but he believes it was the only way for Houston to be successful later.
''Trading our veteran players was the most effective way to (gain talent),'' Luhnow said. ''While short-term it's certainly a loss in terms of what they were able to do on the field, I think in the medium- and long-term it's going to be a real benefit for us. So that was the objective going into it and with every trade, we had that in mind.''
Houston's struggles this season, which include the league's worst road mark along with the worst overall record, have been hard on everyone in the organization, perhaps none more manager Brad Mills.
''When we first got here it was kind of a slow transition, now all of the sudden with the new regime changes and things we decided: `Let's do the whole thing now,''' said Mills, who is in his third season in Houston. ''It definitely puts things in a situation where wins are tougher because you're dealing with a lot of inexperienced individuals.''
In managing the youngest team in the National League, Mills has struggled to help his team find consistency. He has tried to teach the players that doing all the little things right will eventually add up to more wins. He has found he doesn't have to say anything different as the losses piled up.
''They understand where we're going and what we're getting to and it's easy to see and they want to put themselves in a position to be aboard when we move forward,'' Mills said. ''And I think that's a big, motivating factor in itself. To be with the ballclub when it moves forward.''
Indeed, a number of players on the roster are likely to be part of Houston's future as the Astros move to the AL West next season. A key piece is second baseman Jose Altuve, who was named to his first All-Star team this season. The diminutive 22-year-old entered Monday hitting .299 with 128 hits, 30 RBIs and 24 stolen bases.
Brett Wallace is another player the Astros believe will help turn things around. He has alternated between Triple-A and Houston this season, but looks to be up for good now and is hitting .307.
Houston also has seen improvement from young starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Jordan Lyles and Lucas Harrell.
Luhnow's hope is that fans will learn about the up-and-coming players and enjoy watching them develop as major leaguers.
''The next generation of stars are in our minor league system and they're starting to get here to the big leagues, guys like Altuve,'' Luhnow said. ''And those are the guys that we're going to build around and hopefully increase the connection between the fans and those players, so that when we are back in a position to compete for titles, that they feel they know those players and have an affiliation with them.''
The Astros nabbed Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa, whom they believe can become the face of the franchise, with the top pick in the draft and right-hander Lance McCullers with a first-round compensation pick. They'll almost certainly have the No. 1 pick again as they head for their second-straight 100-loss season after finishing a franchise-worst 56-106 last year.
Houston hasn't had a winning season since 2008. Crane, a former athlete turned shipping magnate, hopes things turn around soon.
''We're certainly optimistic that speed can come into the program,'' he said. ''When you look at Oakland, they weren't supposed to be able to compete for a few years, and they are running after a wild card, with a similar situation. ... The good thing about our situation is we'll have a lot more money than they will at the end of the day, so we should be able to build.''