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Last week the Astros traded shortstop Jed Lowrie and reliever Fernando Rodriguez to the A's for two prospects and 26-year-old slugger Chris Carter. The deal, which makes perfect sense given that Lowrie, 28, has never been able to stay healthy and probably can't handle shortstop over a full season, leaves Houston heading into training camp with one of the most inexperienced and inexpensive rosters in recent years—and it gives the team about as much chance at being competitive as Kim Kardashian has of being named the next pope.
The Astros have just two players with at least four years of service: first baseman Carlos Peña and starter Jose Veras. No one earns more than $3 million, and the roster has a guaranteed payroll of just $14.6 million—$5 million of which goes to former starter Wandy Rodriguez, who was shipped to the Pirates last July. Houston's Opening Day payroll will be south of $30 million, lower than any team's since the 2008 Marlins. Given the dearth of long-term solutions on the roster—only 5'5" mighty mite second baseman Jose Altuve is a building block—the '14 and '15 payrolls will fall in that same range.
The reconstruction of the Astros has been more arduous than it needed to be because management tried to squeeze one more run out of the core that won the 2005 NL pennant. Now a new regime is starting from a deep hole because the franchise botched the draft for half a decade. From '05 to '09, Houston's drafts produced a Wins Above Replacement total of negative 0.5—the equivalent of not drafting for five full years—and barely four years ago the team had the worst farm system in baseball. Those deficiencies have combined to produce 106 and 107 losses in consecutive seasons. The team's shallow roster, combined with the move to the high-rent AL West, suggests that the Astros won't approach .500 before 2015—at the earliest.
Things are changing, however. The short-sighted approach advocated by former owner Drayton McLane and executed by general managers Tim Purpura (2005 to '07) and Ed Wade ('07 to '11) has given way to a ground-up rebuilding. New owner Jim Crane has charged G.M. Jeff Luhnow with restocking the farm system, and he's allowed Luhnow to do so without making the kind of cosmetic moves—such as the lowly Twins' off-season signing of pitcher Kevin Correia to a two-year, $10 million deal—that might appease local media, casual fans and the players' association.
There are strong reasons to embrace the pain now. For starters, research shows that a team's inching from, say, 55 to 60 wins means little to the bottom line in the short term or long term. It's just not worth paying bigger salaries to players who can only get you from terrible to slightly less terrible. Fans don't respond by buying tickets, media revenues don't improve and the chances of reaching the postseason remain remote.
More critically, baseball's latest collective bargaining agreement includes strong disincentives against making these kinds of incremental improvements. Beginning in 2012, MLB started tying the amount of money that a team can spend on draft bonuses to the position of its draft picks—particularly its first-round selection. For example, the Astros have the No. 1 pick in the June draft (the order of which is based on the results of 2012) and will have approximately $10.9 million to spend in rounds 1 through 10 according to estimates by Baseball America's Jim Callis. The Twins, choosing three spots later, will have only $7.7 million to spend in the first 10 rounds. That's a 42% edge for Houston over a team that finished with just 11 more wins. The Astros used a similar advantage last year to sign not only the No. 1 pick, 18-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, but also a top 20 talent—righty Lance McCullers Jr.—who slipped to 41st. That kind of monetary advantage, repeated over several years, will eventually be reflected in the standings.
The Astros are taking the right approach given their talent base, the competitive environment and the rules of the game. By the time their draft edge is ready to pay off, around 2016, they'll have a low payroll and be positioned to sign a Justin Upton or a Stephen Strasburg to complement their young, inexpensive core. Theirs is a long road, but as the Rangers and the Rays can attest, it's one that can lead to an extended run at the top of the league.