A philosopher once said that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. If that philosopher had been a baseball fan he would have said the road to hell was paved with free agents. The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles of Anaheim have changed the landscape in the AL West dramatically.
The Rangers have won back to back pennants and are so close to a World Series title that they can smell it. The Angels have a new television contract and immediately went to work on spending those extra funds. The end result is a division with two contenders and three also rans.
The blueprint is obvious to most observers and yet there are three teams using the same blueprint. Free agency is tempting, but many fans don't understand the hill you have to climb with that method. According to total player rating, the Athletics, Mariners and Astros trail the Rangers and Angels by more than 300 runs. The Astros are closer to 400 runs behind.
In real terms, that means that the A's and Mariners trail those teams by at least 20 games and maybe as many as 25. The Astros will be down at least 30 games and could be pushing 40. In terms of free agency, that would require a half dozen impact free agents. In today's market, that would require in the neighborhood of $60 million.
The Right Hire
The Astros started off the road back by making the right hire at general manager. Jeff Luhnow might not be a sexy name, but he has a strong player development background. He has a real track record of building a farm system (the Cardinals) and he is one of the modern minds that are bound to return the team to prominence.
The blueprint for success is to build through the draft and international scouting. However, the Mariners and Athletics will be doing the same. So, simply drafting players is not the answer. They have to be the right players. The Astros record in the draft has been spotty at best.
Sometimes, that is due to bad luck. For instance, Jason Castro just had surgery on his foot which will require him to miss three months. That's bad luck that no one can foresee. Then, you have the moments where you completely miss the boat. The Roy Oswalt trade might have netted three busts along those lines.
Scouting and Analytics
Moneyball made a lot out of how useless they thought scouts were. This is the furthest from the truth. Scouts are the lifeblood of the sport. Sabermetrics go a long way, but they don't know what is inside a player's head and they don't know how a player can develop as he grows. Often, scouting an 18-year-old is half about what he is now and half about what he will be when he is 25.
That being said, sabermetrics is an element that has been missing in the Astros organization for far too long. They say they have used it, but the evidence is right there before your eyes. There is nothing this team does well. Even the worst teams in the league (like the Twins, Orioles and Cubs) can point to one facet of the game they succeed at. The Astros have none.
Scouting amateurs is an art, but scouting professionals is a science. Simply put, if they don't do it down there, they won't do it up here. This is particularly important when trading veterans for young players. Trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were the right moves, but the returns they brought in were mistakes. Jonathan Villar and Jimmy Paredes were the so-called prizes of both deals and both are free-swinging strikeout machines. If they do that down there then they'll do the same up here.
Balancing Skills with Production
People in the business call this kind of analysis performance scouting. That kind of term was used to poke fun at the analysis. Scouts like to project players out and there are certainly areas where that is preferable. For instance, it makes more sense to project a young player's power than to simply look at what he does now.
The problem is that scouts and player development people seem to think that almost everything is teachable. Unfortunately, most players don't see a dramatic change in their strikeout to walks ratios in their careers. You are either selective or you aren't. In effect, plate discipline is a more valuable tool to grade then the so-called ability to hit.
So, the new Astros staff must balance the projections that scouts do with certain areas that are embedded in a player's DNA. When you combine statistics and traditional scouting you get the kind of players you need more often. The Astros need a lot of new players and player development can get that for them.