The past few weeks have been challenging for the Houston Astros, and that's being kind.
At 37-54, not only is the big league club once again sporting the worst record in all of Major League Baseball after a brief respite in May, but there also was that controversial and embarrassing leaking of reported trade discussions that came with this season's trade deadline merely a month away.
Worse than all of that, however, is the fact that the tear-it-all-down-and-start-from-scratch-again Astros, who went 15-14 in May for their first winning month since September 2010, have been faced with severe struggles and significant injuries to their most prized prospects.
Houston, though, isn't the only team to have such problems.
The Astros, who became the first franchise in MLB history to have three consecutive No. 1 overall selections—losing 106 games or more each of the past three seasons will do that—now have to worry that the players chosen with those very picks suddenly aren't the can't-miss kids they appeared to be.
First came problems for Mark Appel—No. 1 overall in 2013—as the right-hander out of Stanford battled minor ailments, including tendinitis in his right thumb, and failed to adapt well to the Astros' tandem-starter schedule they use for developing pitchers. In that format, pitchers throw every four days instead of five and are followed by another starting pitcher.
The soon-to-be 23-year-old has been better of late, but he's still stuck with an ERA of 8.91 through his first nine starts (32.1 innings) at High-A.
While Appel was bottoming out by allowing 10 runs in just 1.1 innings in an awful outing at the end of May, Carlos Correa—No. 1 overall in 2012—was looking just about ready to advance to Double-A at the tender age of 19.
That's when disaster struck. Again.
Correa, a shortstop, was triple-slashing .325/.416/.510 at the time he suffered a broken fibula as his spike got caught while sliding into third base on a triple in late June. The injury, which required surgery, not only ended his season but also brought his promising development as one of the sport's very best prospects to an abrupt and painful halt.
The latest on the bad news front for the Astros, which Jon Heyman of CBS Sports broke Monday afternoon, is that Brady Aiken, the high school left-hander who was taken at the top of the draft barely a month ago, has a problem with his elbow ligament:
No. 1 pick brady aiken is said to have an elbow ligament issue. astros look to discount deal. story coming on @CBSSports— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) July 7, 2014
Making this Aiken scenario that much more of a gut punch, Heyman writes the following: "The Astros are said to have discovered the issue at a medical exam done just prior to when they were expected to announce a deal."
To be clear, this does not mean that Houston won't still sign Aiken by the July 18 deadline, only that the club has indicated that the initial agreed-upon signing bonus of $6.5 million now will be reduced. Heyman cites sources who claim the Astros are offering $5 million in the wake of this discovery.
Just recently, Aiken had this to say, via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com, upon arriving in Houston with the intention of signing a pro contract prior to any concern over his elbow: "I know all the fans and everyone are looking forward to this, and I'm looking forward to it this just as much as they are. I'm more excited than they are, probably, to be honest with you. I'm really excited to see what the future holds."
All of this goes to show that the future doesn't always hold promise. When it comes to building from within with prospects, even the very elite ones like Appel, Correa and Aiken, the only thing that's predictable is that they—their performance, their health, their development—will be unpredictable.
This is why rebuilding in baseball is often such a long, patience-testing, frustration-filled process: The progression from failure to success is never linear, even with a carefully thought-out and executed plan like the Astros have in place.
Just think about other MLB franchises that have gone through—or are still going through—what the Astros are attempting to do by picking, growing and nurturing talent from the ground up.
It took the Kansas City Royals years under general manager Dayton Moore's seemingly never-ending "process." Even with former top prospects like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon before them, only just last season did the club post its first winning season since 2003. At 46-42 so far this year through Monday, the Royals are chasing after what would be their first postseason appearance since 1985.
The Baltimore Orioles went through a dead decade-plus from 1998 through 2011 without a .500 season, let alone a playoff berth, before all those high draft choices—theirs and those acquired via trades—paid off in the form of Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Chris Tillman.
And sure, the Chicago Cubs look loaded, what with newly acquired Addison Russell added to a pile of position-player prospects that includes, among others, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, the club's top selections in 2011 and 2013, respectively. But that core won't break into the bigs until 2015, and it might not come together until 2016 or 2017, at the earliest.
Time is one factor that can be tricky to estimate. So, too, is performance, as the Boston Red Sox have seen this year, what with young supposed-to-be studs Xander Bogaerts (.675 OPS) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.613) going through serious adjustments in their first full seasons in the majors.
No wonder the team itself, fresh off a 2013 championship, enters play Tuesday in last place in the AL East, in part because so much was put on those perhaps-too-young shoulders.
And of course, there's injury, which is the most impossible factor to project and the most troublesome to endure. Ask the Seattle Mariners about this one.
Although they're in the thick of the playoff race as is, imagine how much better they'd be were it not for losing chunks of time from right-hander Taijuan Walker and lefty Danny Hultzen, a pair of first-rounders from successive drafts (2010 and 2011) who have been dealing with ongoing shoulder problems.
Speaking of prospects and injuries, there have been disabled list stints galore in 2014. Focusing on top-25 prospects alone, according to Baseball America's preseason Top 100, the following names have spent time on the shelf this year:
- Byron Buxton (Twins, No. 1)
- Miguel Sano (Twins, No. 6)
- Carlos Correa (Astros, No. 7)
- Archie Bradley (Diamondbacks, No. 9)
- Taijuan Walker (Mariners, No. 11)
- Francisco Lindor (Indians, No. 13)
- Addison Russell (Athletics/Cubs, No. 14)
- Dylan Bundy (Orioles, No. 15)
- Noah Syndergaard (Mets, No. 16)
- Jameson Taillon (Pirates, No. 22)
- Kyle Zimmer (Royals, No. 23)
- Eddie Butler (Rockies, No. 24)
That's 12 prospects—nearly half of the Top 25—on 11 different teams, so clearly the Astros are not the only organization that has been hit hard on the farm in one way or another this year. But given how much time—and how many losses—they've invested in returning to relevance, their recent misfortune is starting to stick out.
That doesn't mean general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff have made poor decisions or done anything wrong. Rather, it goes to show that between timing, performance and injuries, a lot can—and often does—go wrong when a baseball franchise tries to tear down and push the reset button.
Can the Astros still have success with this approach they've taken, this path they're on? Certainly. Heck, it's even likely. But that must be qualified with "at some point in the future."
And with all that's happened with Appel, Correa and now Aiken over the past few weeks, that future might be a little further off than expected.
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