Tanking is generally considered the practice of actively making the team worse in order to secure a higher draft pick. Occasionally, and most troubling, this will spread to the players and coaches losing on purpose. I don't think anyone has accused the Astros of 2012 and 2013, or the coaching staff, of not giving their all on the field. Instead, the charge is organizational tanking. In other words, intentionally not providing enough talent to regularly compete. When we think back to the lineups from 2012 and 2013, it's easy to see how that charge might stick. Buster Olney summarized the allegation like this
In 2013, the Astros' payroll was projected to be about $25 million at the start of the season, and Houston traded away almost every player making more than $1 million. The Astros finished with a record of 51-111 and picked first in the 2014 draft.This discussion missed a key component, however, and I think this takes Luhnow's strategy out of the definition of "tanking" and into something very different. Luhnow took over the Astros in December of 2011. They were coming off a 106 loss season. Even more, the fire sale had already commenced, with the biggest trades coming at the trade deadline. Hunter Pence, a 28 year old outfielder in the middle of a 5 WAR season, was traded to the Phillies for prospects, and Michael Bourn, a 28 year old outfielder in the middle of a 3 WAR season, was traded to the Braves for "prospects." This left Wandy Rodriquez and Bud Norris as the two best pitchers on the team, and Carlos Lee as the unquestioned leader of the offense.
In 2012, there were only four Astros with greater than 2.0 WAR, which is considered league average. Lucas Harrell, Justin Maxwell, Jed Lowrie and Wilton Lopez. Meaning, the only league average offensive players were acquired by Luhnow in the 2012 offseason. This was not a case of a GM actively trying to lose to secure the #1 draft pick. The #1 draft pick was the natural result of the team he was given. To dig out of the hole through free agency in 2012 or 2013 would have required replacing nearly every position player with a free agent.
So, of course the Astros traded away any and all player who were making money in 2012 and 2013. The truth is, though, those player weren't good enough to prevent the team from losing 100+ games anyway. In his big deals before and during the 2012-2013 seasons, Luhnow traded away Mark Melancon, Carlos Lee, J.A. Happ, David Carpenter, Brandon Lyon, Brett Meyer, Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Johnson, Wilton Lopez, Jed Lowrie, Jose Veras, Justin Maxwell, Bud Norris. Hardly building blocks. If all of these had been kept, the bullpen would have been slightly better, and the Astros would have picked number 1 in the draft. Had Luhnow invested in the free agent market, the Astros would have been burdened with long term, aging contracts, blocked prospects and picked number 1 in the draft.
But you know what happened? More than adding prospects through trade and the draft (Correa and McCullers were the product of the 2011 season, not 2012 and 2013), the miserable 2012 and 2013 seasons allowed the Astros to ride out the down years with Altuve, and see what they had in Dallas Keuchel, and take a flyer on Colin McHugh. The improvements in 2014, plus some prospect development, showed that there was enough of a core that it was time to supplement with free agency. Amazingly, the Astros went from 111 losses to the playoffs in two short years.
Calling what Luhnow did "tanking" grossly oversimplifies the process. He took over a team that was the worst in the majors, and had already traded its most tradeable assets. The farm system was thin, and the best prospects were several years away. Instead of panicking into a desperate, and futile, bid at mediocrity, he showed patience, and that patience was rewarded. I can't really see any other process that could have worked this well, this quickly.
PS. Seems like this is on a lot of people's minds. Chris Perry, over at The Crawfish Boxes, posted a very similar article today. Check it out.