What The Orioles Could Learn From The Houston Astros
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a proposed plan the Baltimore Orioles could follow this offseason, with the assumed goal of contending for one more season before Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Adam Jones and Brad Brach hit free agency.
But with the Houston Astros having won the World Series – and proving Sports Illustrated’s bold 2014 prediction to be prescient – it seems like a good time to look at Baltimore’s situation from another angle: What if the Orioles blew everything up right now?
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
What if they did what the Astros, Cubs, Yankees and now White Sox have done, recognizing that the current assets on hand are not going to produce championships and taking on the daunting task of starting over?
It would be difficult to stomach. It would anger fans and drive many away. It would hurt revenue. And if it failed, the Orioles could suddenly find themselves in the black hole of constant rebuilding annually inhabited by franchises in San Diego, Oakland and elsewhere. The horror!
But what if it worked? What if general manager Dan Duquette dealt Machado, Jones, Britton and others for top prospects? What if the losing netted high draft picks? What if resources were shifted from the major league roster toward international scouting and player development?
It would be scary, and it would hurt to see players like Machado star elsewhere, but it would also be exciting. There is a solid case to be made for a rebuild. Yes, the Orioles have made the playoffs in three of the last six seasons, but they have never sniffed the World Series. And that is the goal, is it not?
Keep in mind that the Astros were 74-88 in 2009 and 76-86 in 2010 before they started the self-destruct sequence. The Orioles just finished this season 75-87.
The Astros might not provide a perfect blueprint for the Orioles to follow, but there are some things that can be learned from how Houston built a championship team.
YOU HAVE TO BE NIMBLE
The case for the complete teardown is simple: Whenever you make a personnel move, whether it be a trade, a free agent signing or a draft selection, there is a chance you will get it wrong. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how prepared you are, mistakes will be made. Roster-building is part science and part art, and this is why teams spend millions of dollars on scouting and analytics and the like in an effort to minimize the mistakes.
So you go in expecting to make some missteps along the way. That’s why you can’t only put a toe in the water – you’ve got to jump in.
If you look at how the Astros tore things down just five years after reaching the 2005 World Series, you see a host of mistakes made not only by current general manager Jeff Luhnow but also by his predecessor Ed Wade.
It was Wade who dealt Lance Berkman for Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes. Not bad right? Melancon was later dealt for Jed Lowrie, who would ultimately be part of a four-player deal that netted Brad Peacock. It wasn’t one move that gave the Astros a key reliever for 2017, it was three.
Roy Oswalt was shipped to the Phillies for J.A. Happ, Jonathan Villar and Anthony Gose. The Astros gave up on Villar too soon and traded him for Cy Sneed. They traded Gose for Brett Wallace, who was later released. At least they got something out of Happ, who was part of a 10-player trade that brought in Joe Musgrove. Again, that’s several steps to get a key player for a championship team.
See how hard this is? It gets worse.
Wandy Rodriguez was traded for nothing of note.
Carlos Lee was dealt for Matt Dominguez and Rob Rasmussen.
Hunter Pence was shipped out for Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton, Josh Zeid and PTBNL Domingo Santana.
Michael Bourn was traded for Juan Abreu, Jordan Schafer (both later waived), Paul Clemens (left as a free agent) and Brett Oberholtzer. At least Oberholtzer was later part of a deal (including Mark Appel, more on him in a bit) that brought in Ken Giles.
What’s the point of all this? You have to assume you will make some bad moves along the way, so you have to go all in and stockpile as many assets as possible, including minor league talent, waiver-wire pickups, amateur free agents and draft picks.
Of course at some point you’re going to have to hit on some, which brings us to the next point …
YOU HAVE TO BE BOTH LUCKY AND GOOD
I mentioned Mark Appel above and he is a shining example of the unpredictability of the draft. The Astros were terrible as Luhnow took command, losing at least 106 games from 2011-13. That gave Luhnow the No. 1 pick for three consecutive seasons, which is great, but he really only hit on one of those picks.
That was shortstop Carlos Correa, the No. 1 pick in 2012. Luhnow then took Appel No. 1 overall in ’13. The Cubs, of course, then thanked Luhnow and took Kris Bryant at No. 2.
In 2014, Luhnow made another misstep, picking Brady Aiken No. 1 overall. Aiken didn’t sign, which gave the Astros a compensation pick in 2015. They used the first of their 1st rounders that year (No. 2 overall) to take Alex Bregman.
So while it’s great to stockpile high draft picks, you have to hit on them at some point. Luhnow nabbed two stars in Correa and Bregman, and also selected Lance McCullers (2012) and Derek Fisher (2014) as supplemental first rounders. Despite missing on Appel and Aiken, that’s a good return overall.
Luhnow was also both lucky and good outside the draft. He was fortunate to inherit Jose Altuve, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel, yet smart enough to hold onto them despite some growing pains as he waited for them to develop. He was also lucky enough to get Chris Devenski as a PTBNL in a trade that sent Brett Myers to the White Sox.
And for each personnel mistake he made – releasing J.D. Martinez turned out to be particularly painful – he made up for it with some savvy signings (Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Charlie Morton) and waiver wire pickups (Collin McHugh, Will Harris). He then supplemented the roster with a couple of smart trades (Brian McCann, Evan Gattis) and finally took the plunge with a high-profile deal when he brought in Justin Verlander late this summer.
YOU HAVE TO BE PATIENT AND BELIEVE IN THE PROCESS
This would apply to everyone, from owner Peter Angelos and Duquette, to manager Buck Showalter and whichever young players would survive the purge, to the fans themselves.
The Astros won just 33 percent of their games over a three-year stretch from 2011-13. They were mocked as the “Lastros.” In 2013, they fielded a team with a $14.6 million payroll (the Marlins were second-to-last at $24.7 million) and drew about 20,000 fans per game. It was miserable.
It’s not for the faint of heart and if you don’t stay the course as a franchise, you’ll only delay the rebound process.
“When you’re in the middle of it,” Luhnow said in July, “it seems like it’s never going to end.”
Yet the Astros stuck with it. Kuechel was awful his first two seasons before finding his way in 2014. Altuve sported an OPS+ of 92 after three seasons. Springer struck out 178 times in 2016 and is now the reigning World Series MVP.
Would Duquette be the man to oversee such a project? Would Showalter want to go through it? Would young talents like Jonathan Schoop, Trey Mancini and Chance Sisco (assuming they weren’t traded), be willing to stick it out and set the tone of the franchise for the young talent to eventually join them?
Those are difficult questions and there is no easy answer. But the Astros have laid out a blueprint for how it can be done — if the Orioles find themselves willing.
How the key Astros were acquired:
Via trade: Marwin Gonzalez, Brad Peacock, Evan Gattis, Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, Brian McCann, Justin Verlander, Francisco Liriano.
Via the draft: Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers.
Via waivers: Collin McHugh, Will Harris.
Amateur free agent signings: Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve.
Major league free agent signings: Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Charlie Morton, Luke Gregerson.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!