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They Tanked Like the Sixers; Now the Astros Are MLB's Next Big Powerhouse

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 8, 2017

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, center, Carlos Correa, right, and Alex Bregman (2) celebrate their win over the Baltimore Orioles in a baseball game, Friday, May 26, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

"Trust the process," goes the saying in Philadelphia. As painful as it is to watch the 76ers throw themselves into year after year of bad basketball, surely it will be for the greater good in the long run.

That's about as far as this baseball writer is qualified to remark on that. But what he can say is this: "Trust the process" should have originated with the Houston Astros.

The Astros team that stands before everyone in 2017 is a juggernaut. At 42-18, they're on pace to win 113 games. That would be only three wins shy of the 2001 Seattle Mariners' single-season record.

Are they lucky to have such a great record? Maybe a little.

But lucky to be where they are? Nah.

If it's fair to propose that a perfect Major League Baseball team is one with a blend of youthful and veteran talent up and down its roster, then, well, the Astros are basically a perfect team.

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The veteran talents are mostly newcomers. In a furious flurry of offseason activity, the Astros added Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Nori Aoki and Charlie Morton. Voila! Missing links were found. And two months in, they're all playing their parts.

But the real prize of this Astros team is its core of young superstars.

Per Baseball Reference WAR, their top three hitters are shortstop Carlos Correa, second baseman Jose Altuve and outfielder George Springer. Their top two pitchers are left-hander Dallas Keuchel and right-hander Lance McCullers. All five are 20-somethings who emerged from Houston's farm system.

Throw in 23-year-old third baseman Alex Bregman, and you get a core of homegrown stars that even a grizzled veteran can't help but gawk at.

"I look position by position, and I see guys coming into the prime of their careers," McCann told Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. "And I just hoped they would take their next step forward. Then you see their work ethic and how great they want to be, and we have that recipe. They’re all young. And they’re dynamic. It's very scary."

ARLINGTON, TX - JUNE 4: Carlos Correa #1 and George Springer #4 of the Houston Astros celebrate Springer's home run against the Texas Rangers during the fourth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on June 4, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenki
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Very scary, indeed. But this haunted house of a baseball team wasn't conjured up in one dark and stormy night.

That's a tough spell to cast in any era but especially hard in this era of Major League Baseball. And it's downright impossible in the context of what Jim Crane inherited when—everyone, prepare to enter the Way Back Machine—his purchase of the Astros was finalized in November 2011.

The Astros were a reliable contender in the late 1990s and early 2000s, peaking with a trip to the National League Championship Series in 2004 and an appearance in the World Series in 2005. Then came varying degrees of futility between 2006 and 2010. They bled talent along the way.

By 2011, they flat out sucked.

With that year came 106 losses and the death of whatever pretense the Astros had of being contenders. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn's trades left the big club with a bare minimum of star power. To top it all off, the organization's farm system was in ruin.

Enter Crane and, soon after, Jeff Luhnow in the role of general manager. He came from the St. Louis Cardinals with a hard-won reputation as a scouting and development guru. Just the guy for rebuilding a broken team.

And yet he promised it wouldn't be too ugly.

"The bottom line is, we have a lot of work to do," Luhnow said at his introductory presser. "There's no question about it. We want to build, we don't want to take apart. We want to build on what's here, add complementary pieces and create an advantage so that the Houston Astros can sustain success over the long haul."

Why didn't Luhnow just come out and say, "This will get worse before it gets better"?

That's bad messaging, for one. But also, probably because Houston and the baseball world at large weren't ready to hear it.

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 08:  Jeff Luhnow answers questions from the media as the newly-hired Houston Astros general manager during a press conference at Minute Maid Park on December 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas. Luhnow was vice president with the St. Louis Ca
Bob Levey/Getty Images

"Tanking" was an alien concept in MLB at the time. And for good reason. With no spending limits in either arena, both the draft and international amateur market were the Wild West. Beside, why bank on kids when there were always so many talented veterans available?

But change was afoot by the time Luhnow took the reins.

As FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine highlighted in 2014, MLB's star power had begun to shift from the old to the young. Meanwhile, the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 brought sweeping changes. Among them, there would now be spending limits for the draft and the international market that favored the league's worst teams.

As Rany Jazayerli would later sum it up at Grantland: "[The] way baseball works under the current collective bargaining agreement, sometimes the fastest way for a bad team to get to the top is to take a shortcut through hell."

The Astros sure went through hell over the next few seasons. They lost 107 games in 2012 and 111 games in 2013. They improved in 2014, but only to 92 losses. 

In the meantime, even the real work they were doing didn't go off without a hitch.

In drafting Mark Appel ahead of Kris Bryant in 2013 and failing to sign Brady Aiken in 2014, the Astros whiffed on two of three straight No. 1 picks. Their confidence in slugging first base prospect Jon Singleton went unrewarded. They also let J.D. Martinez and Eric Thames escape their grasp.

But if nothing else, the Astros are proof that a tanking team doesn't need all its schemes to work to get where it wants to go. It only needs most of them to succeed.

Most importantly, they buffed up their decrepit farm system. For Baseball America, it went from a bottom-five unit in 2011 to a top-five unit by 2014. They inherited Altuve, Springer and Keuchel from the previous regime and developed them into stars. And give them credit for nailing the 2012 draft, in which they got Correa at No. 1 (at a below-slot bonus) and McCullers at No. 41 (at an above-slot bonus). 

Also give them credit for being willing to deal from their stockpile of young talent. That's how they got Chris Devenski in 2012, Jake Marisnick in 2014, Evan Gattis, Mike Fiers and Ken Giles in 2015 and McCann this past winter.

And above all, give the Astros credit for leaving no data stones unturned.

Luhnow began his baseball career as a disciple of Moneyball, and it shows. His front office employs several Baseball Prospectus alums (Kevin Goldstein, Colin Wyers and Mike Fast) and a former NASA engineer (Sig Mejdal).

From this front office has sprung a data-fueled revolution on the field. It's hard to rank what trends the Astros are most famous for, but the list is extensive. They're big into defensive shifts. And pitch framing. And spin rate. And so on.

"The front office is really hungry for finding competitive advantages," manager A.J. Hinch told Evan Drellich, then of the Houston Chronicle, last year. "And they'll not stop until they find it."

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 21: Manager A.J. Hinch #14 of the Houston Astros looks on from the dugout during the second inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 21, 2017 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Gett
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The beta test for it all was in 2015. The Astros had the third-best run differential in the league and nabbed a wild-card spot with an 86-76 record. They darn near beat the Kansas City Royals, who went on to win it all, in the American League Division Series.

The step back to 84-78 the Astros took in 2016 exposed where the kinks were. They had the stars. They needed depth. So they got to work tractor-beaming in the aforementioned veterans.

Which brings us to today. The Astros are taking a Sports Illustrated cover story that gave everyone a good chuckle in 2014 and are retconning it as a serious prophecy. They will be the 2017 World Series champions, darn it.

If the Astros don't get it done, oh well. There's always any (or all) of the next several years.

Correa, Springer, McCullers, Bregman, Marisnick, Devenski and Reddick are locked up through at least 2020. Although the Astros will say goodbye to other stars between now and then, they have reinforcements waiting. By Baseball America's reckoning, they came into 2017 with MLB's third-best farm system. 

Because the Chicago Cubs started out on the same path at the same time and have already squeezed a World Series out of it, the Astros don't have the sole claim on being the poster boys for the joy of tanking. That's one of several things they still must earn.

But after years of getting there, they're just about there. If asked to give the 76ers or any other tankers advice, it would probably sound familiar.

Trust the process.

       

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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