Ascending Astros soar from baseball's bottom to top
HOUSTON (AP) — After losing 100 games in three straight seasons, the Houston Astros are in position to become the first team to win 100 in four consecutive years.
A core of José Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and George Springer has been supplemented with stud starting pitchers Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, the combination leading the Astros to their second World Series appearance in three seasons.
"The ability to recognize when you have a chance to win — and realistically when you have a chance to win and not — I think is one of our most important responsibilities," former Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said ahead of Tuesday's Series opener against Washington. "You can fool yourself one way or the other. Making the wise decisions is extremely important for you to try to win a championship."
Houston went 56-106 in 2011 after dealing stars Lance Berkman, Michael Bourn, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. The team was sold from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane that November, and the new owner fired general manager Ed Wade and replaced him with Jeff Luhnow, who had spent eight seasons in the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Luhnow, a University of Pennsylvania graduate with a Master of Business Administration degree from Northwestern, hoped to build a model of sustained success with a franchise that often acted as a mid-market team but does have the resources from the No. 7 television area in the U.S.
"Now we have two pennants under our belt, but what we really want is two-plus championships," Luhnow said. "The goal was always to put ourselves in a position to win multiple championships. And I'll tell you what, even if we accomplish it this year which I hope we do, it's not going to change our goal. Multiple means two or more so we're going to go for the more after that."
Luhnow inherited Altuve and Springer. Altuve signed as a 16-year-old in 2006 and had made his debut in July 2011, and Springer was selected 11th overall in the 2011 amateur draft.
Houston remained at the bottom of the majors in Luhnow's first two years, going 55-107 and a team-worst 51-111, earning more high draft choices. With three straight No. 1 picks, the Astros selected Correa in 2012 and squandered 2013 on pitcher Mark Appel. They used the third for pitcher Brady Aiken, failed to sign him because of concern over his elbow, then used the compensatory second overall pick in 2015 for Bregman.
Slowly, the turnaround started. The Astros went 70-92 in 2014 and 86-76 in 2015, their first winning record since 2008. They beat the New York Yankees in the AL wild-card game before losing to Kansas City in a five-game Division Series.
After missing the playoffs in 2016, they won 101 games in 2017, sparked by the Aug. 31 acquisition of Verlander from Detroit for three prospects: pitcher Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers. Luhnow recognized the Astros' window to win had arrived.
"Whenever you have the players, you owe it to your fans and everybody else involved to get after it," said Dan Duquette, the former top baseball executive of Montreal, Boston and Baltimore.
Houston beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a seven-game World Series for its first title in 2017, with Springer chosen as the World Series MVP. Just 2 1/2 months later, Luhnow obtained Cole from Pittsburgh for pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, third baseman Colin Moran and outfielder Jason Martin.
A 103-win season in 2018 was followed by a loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS as Altuve struggled with a knee injury that led to surgery, The Astros then set a team record by winning 107 games this year after getting Greinke from Arizona on July 31 for pitchers J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin, outfielder Seth Beer and infielder Joshua Rojas.
Houston's roster includes drafted players (reliever Josh James and outfielder Kyle Tucker), moderately priced free agent signings (outfielders Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick, relievers Héctor Rondón and Joe Smith, and catcher Robinson Chirinos), international free agents (first baseman Yuli Gurriel and pitcher José Urquidy) and a waiver-wire pickup (reliever Will Harris) along with the trade acquisitions.
Payroll, which dropped to a major league low of $29 million in 2013, rose to 18th at $134 million for the 2017 champions and eighth this year at $169 million on Aug. 31. Home attendance, which dipped to 1.6 million in 2012, rose to 2.98 million in 2018 before receding to 2.86 million this year.
It remains to be seen whether they can keep Cole, who is eligible for free agency and is likely to command a contract of $200 million-plus. But the Astros' accomplishment already is substantial. They are just the sixth team with three straight 100-win seasons, joining the Philadelphia Athletics (1929-31), St. Louis Cardinals (1942-44), Baltimore Orioles (1969-71), Atlanta Braves (1997-99) and New York Yankees (2002-04).
Verlander pointed out that in an era where more teams are rebuilding — "tanking" in the view of the players' union — 100 wins may not amount to the achievement it used to be. He cited a "the lack of competitiveness throughout a lot of the league.
"The best teams are going to win a lot of games," Verlander said. "In the American League, how many teams genuinely had a shot? Five? Six?"