Friday, February 15, 2013

How I learned to buy in to the rebuild

I'm in.

I'm totally on board with what Jeff Luhnow, Sig Mejdal, Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein, etc. are doing. (Not you, yet, Postolos. I've still got my eye on you.) But before we begin this little writing assignment, we must first examine the alternatives of not buying in to what the Astros are doing.

1. Yell and complain.
2. Become a fan of another team.
3. (...)

That seems to be it. Option 1 is the most rampant and most popular. Soapboxes have been mounted like Trina from 4th period French, yelling about how what the Astros are doing is sullying the pure name of Baseball and how the Astros are ruining the integrity of The Game. And we've mentioned, almost ad nauseum, about how the Astros care not for what the rest of MLB thinks. Nor should they. The Astros shouldn't have to spend an extra $30m in order to keep the Yankees from yelling about how easy the Angels have it.

Option 2 is no option at all. If you bail on the Astros now, you were never an Astros fan to begin with. you just liked Winnin' and that makes you a not-fan. I'm getting to the point where I'm even starting to get over the American League. Some team was going to have to move. And once that team moved to the American League, we were going to have Interleague Play throughout the season, anyway. If you cheat on your significant other as soon as something bad happens, you were going to cheat on them at some point, regardless. That just means you were a latent pudnut, and you're not needed for anything.

So I'm in. But not for reasons that you might expect.

I'm in because the people running this rebuild have far more at stake than we do as fans. Consider the backgrounds of the front office personnel with whom we are at least remotely familiar: MBAs, Ivy Leaguers, Bloggers, Writers, NASA, law.. This is, as you are well aware, not your typical front office.

I bring that up because front office personnel are sort of on a carousel. Ed Wade did not do a great short-term job as General Manager (the long-term evaluation cannot yet be determined). Yet within weeks of his firing as GM, he was back in baseball with the Phillies. This happens across all sports, and isn't surprising. Rather than going out and hiring outside-the-box, owners and CEOs tend to hire a guy who was just determined to be incompetent by a rival.

Yet what the Astros are doing/have done over the last 18 months is unprecedented. It would have been easy enough to not trade Wandy Rodriguez. It would have been easier still to re-sign Lance Berkman this winter. Other major franchise rebuilds have not gone about their business in the way that the Astros have. The Marlins, the fraudulent team with whom every "sports writer" tends to compare the Astros, didn't.

In 1997, the Marlins won the World Series, with Alex Fernandez, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Moises Alou and a total of 12 players who made over $1m. According to Baseball-Reference, the 1997 Marlins paid $48,417,500 in payroll. The 1998 Marlins came off their fire sale winter (the first Winter of Discontent for "Marlins fans") and paid their players $34,694,667, but still paid Alex Fernandez $7m.

No front office has had the balls to do what the Astros are doing right now. We don't have to go over all the trades of the last two seasons, because it would turn a long post into a tl;dr. Here's the point: I have bought into this rebuild, first and foremost, because I don't have a choice. But second of all, if this doesn't work out - and it may take a while to get the result - the front office is going to have a hard time working in baseball ever again, at least not on this level. And smart people don't like to be ruined in the eyes of their chosen field.

The Astros are staking the reputations of the franchise and their front office on the Astros getting good again very soon. If they don't, they are responsible for the destruction of the Astros - and, no, I don't think that's hyperbole.

The Rangers are good, maybe even great. If you are from Houston and are both morally bankrupt and baseball ambivalent, it's really easy to pull the "Texas Forever!" card and just be a Rangers fan. They're on ESPN all the time. They have Nolan Ryan. Now they have Lance Berkman. Every baseball writer you read has played Just The Tip with the Rangers.

Furthermore, the Texans are good enough that if the Astros aren't within spitting distance of the division lead, even Astros fans are going to check out and pay attention to the Texans (this was brought up in the Feb. 11 Baseball America podcast - and it's absolutely correct.) Good luck getting fans on a Friday night in September, competing with high school football.

I've mentioned this on a number of occasions, but Luhnow & Co. are either going to be Branch Rickey Reincarnate, or they're going to be the reason my kid doesn't like the Astros (and there's no way she's going to be a Rangers fan). If the Scorched Earthstro campaign doesn't work, the Astros are set back for years, and not just on the field, but in the stands.

Of course, no promises can be made. Five years ago you never would have been able to guess that Brett Wallace would get platooned. Prospects - for a variety of reasons - sometimes just don't pan out. They kill it in Lancaster, and get released after struggling in Corpus. They can't adjust to the adjustments the league made to them. The Astros have built such minor-league depth that it's almost like they're throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping a few key pieces stick.

The Astros are forcing us as fans to make adjustments to the approach. If the front office is going to stake their reputation on their process, I can certainly respect that.