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Houston Astros

Aggressive Astros trying to blast through championship window

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Nov 1, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve celebrates with teammates with the Commissioner's Trophy after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in game seven of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

For many teams, the so-called “window to win” is treated with lukewarm urgency. A reluctance to drastically increase payroll and surrender assets, and a desire to ensure contention for a longer period rather than go all-in for championships in a condensed time frame, are presented as justifications for the hesitation to do what is necessary to win now. Rather than hedging, the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros are doing the exact opposite: aggressively blasting through it with 2018 and 2019 in mind.

The Astros took a deliberate and unabashedly ruthless approach to rebuilding by gutting the entire organization to the point that after Jim Crane bought the team and installed Jeff Luhnow as his general manager, they lost 310 games in their first three years by circumstantial intent. Regardless of how one feels about the lack of competitive veracity of tanking, there is no debating its success in the Astros’ case, culminating with a World Series win. Now that they have achieved their stated goal, they had two choices:

  • Go as deeply into trying to win as they did in trying not to win from 2012 to 2014.
  • Be aggressive within parameters and try to contend without going over the top.

With the acquisition of Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates and their reported pursuit of J.T. Realmuto of the Miami Marlins, they’re choosing the former.

Trading for Justin Verlander in late August was a tacit acknowledgement that they might not have had sufficient starting pitching to win a championship. The rejuvenated Verlander not only got a charge out of being in the middle of a potential title run, but he embraced Houston’s analytics that, among other things, pointed out a subtle change to his wrist position on his slider that drastically improved its movement.

For 2018, the Astros were not viewed as a team that needed another starter with Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh, but there is an allure to Cole that benefits them in myriad ways. The acquisition of Cole – who has struggled for two years running – goes beyond his sheer talent that made him the first pick by the Pirates in 2011.

If the Astros helped a megastar like Verlander and maximized Collin McHugh from journeyman to top-10 finisher in the Cy Young Award voting simply by changing his repertoire based on his curveball spin rate, it’s safe to assume they also spotted something with Cole that they intend to fix, in order to get him back to a status befitting his draft history and past performance in the big leagues. Acquiring him kept him away from one of the Astros’ rivals for American League supremacy, the Yankees. He gives them a young, cost-controlled starter through 2019, and it covers for the potential departure of Keuchel after this season when he will become a free agent.

The pursuit of Realmuto is more of a surprise — his obvious destination was previously seen as the Washington Nationals. Since the Nationals have placed top prospect Victor Robles off limits and the Astros are considering including their highly-rated prospect Kyle Tucker as part of a trade, the chance of a deal coming together is better for the Astros – defending champions – than it is for the Nationals, who have never gotten beyond the first round of any playoff series.

This too is indicative of the priorities. The Nationals have refused to go all-in to the extent the Astros have — it has shown in the results.

Falling in line with how they have run the organization from the time they took command, there’s little if any sentiment involved — they’re taking that to the -nth degree with their current roster construction and objects of interest.

As evidenced by their brutal housecleaning when Crane first took over the team — and the dispatching of former first pick Mark Appel, costly trade acquisition Carlos Gomez, and manager Bo Porter when it became clear that they were not destined to be part of the long-term solution — the Astros have shown no compunction about cutting their losses and moving on. There was no looking back to five years ago in a feeble attempt to justify draftees, acquisitions, and employees who were either redundant or no longer working out.

To say everything that transpired was part of a grand plan formulated from the start is specious at best. No team plans to have first picks bust, make a blockbuster trade that turns disastrous, or hire a manager with the intention of him being there for the long haul and firing him before he completed two seasons, but the plan itself is secondary to adaptability and flexibility within that plan. It’s a fanciful notion to believe that all top draft picks and developmental techniques will work. That notion can doom a front office if it clings too tightly to it at the expense of the greater good.

This is notable: First-round draft picks – especially No. 1 picks – have so much attention directed at them that there are times when teams know they made a mistake and outsiders know they made a mistake, but there will be a continued and desperate attempt to get some use out of them before the inevitable end that was clear almost immediately. Central in the Astros’ method is that there is no desperate attempt to prove themselves right at the expense of the bottom line of winning, as is happening more and more frequently on both sides of the stats vs. scouting debate that still has its holdouts with no interest in an armistice.

This team is fundamentally set through 2019. The Astros can fill in as needed, allow the likes of Keuchel to leave and, if they acquire Realmuto, do the same with Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. As important as McCann and Gattis were to the championship, Realmuto is younger, more of an all-around player, and locked in contractually through 2020.

The intention appears to be to go for it for 2018 and 2019 and then retool as necessary when Verlander, Cole, and Jose Altuve will all be free agents.

The Astros are adept at keeping their plans to themselves. It could be that they’re going for it for 2018 and 2019 and then will repeat the gutting that got the club where it is now with Carlos Correa, Yulieski Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers, et, al. Or they might use a fluctuating core in 2020 and beyond. They’ve created this opportunity by building a strong farm system and giving themselves numerous options.

The easy – and perhaps safe – thing for the Astros to do is to build a club that will contend for a title and perhaps win one or two more in a five-year span. That would fit into the conventional wisdom. However, the Astros took the conventional wisdom and flung it out the window. They’re viewing that same window not as something that is open and should timidly and cautiously crawl through for fear of cutting themselves, but as something they should destroy completely. This aggression with Cole and maybe Realmuto is a step in that direction.

Paul Lebowitz is the author of the novel Breaking Balls and his annual baseball guide. His work has appeared on AllVoices, FanIQ, and his personal site PaulLebowitz.com. He has been linked by Slate, ESPN, Keith Olbermann, Yahoo, and Baseball Think Factory. He lives in New York City.

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