After yesterday's trade of Jed Lowrie to the Athletics, a new narrative is popping up around the Houston Astros by some mainstream writers: the team is an embarrassment that makes the A's and Marlins look like big spenders. Much is being made about Houston's payroll in 2013, which will likely end up around $25 million on Opening Day. But because the team isn't spending money, are they an embarrassment?
The Astros haven't been to the playoffs since 2005, when they won the NL pennant. Houston hasn't finished above .500 since 2008. In 2009 and 2010, the Astros spent $195 million on payroll, and went 150-174. Over the last two years, the Astros spent $137 million on payroll, and went 111-213. Over the next two years, they'll probably spend about half (or less) than they did from 2011-12, and there's really no way to get worse than 111-213. So if you're the Astros, why *wouldn't* you divert money from the major league payroll to give the team a better future?
All that money Houston spent on their major league roster in 2009 and 2010 came at the expense of their farm system, which was one of the worst in the game before Jeff Luhnow rolled into town. Going into 2013, Houston's farm system was ranked fourth by ESPN's Keith Law. The Astros weren't winning anything with high-priced veterans like Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, and Roy Oswalt. They weren't winning anything with younger players that were getting expensive like Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and Wandy Rodriguez. So why *not* blow it all up and start from scratch?
If you added someone like Kyle Lohse or Michael Bourn, the two best free agents on the market right now, to the 2013 Astros, what's that going to do for them? Neither player is going to transform the team into contenders. Signing players like that under former GM Ed Wade is what got the team into the mess they're in right now. Is there a huge difference between a 55 win Astros team with a $25 million payroll, and a 58 win Astros team with a $35 million payroll? Of course not, except for the $10 million being invested in the major league roster that could be invested in the future instead.
Jeff Luhnow has a plan. While Wade was the guy who dealt Berkman, Oswalt, Pence, and Bourn for varying degrees of prospects, Luhnow is the guy who spun Melancon into Lowrie (and then moved Lowrie a year later for even more talent), and traded guys like Rodriguez, Lee, Brett Myers, and Chris Johnson for packages of quantity rather than quality. Luhnow was also at the helm of the Astros for their stellar 2012 draft after years of boring, disappointing drafts under Wade.
You know what another team that tore everything down and started over was after years of ridiculous spending? The Tampa Bay Rays, who slashed payroll to under $30 million for three straight years between 2003 and 2005 after spending heavily during their first few years in existence and never *not* losing 90 games in a year. Over the last five years, with a new braintrust in place, the Rays have four 90 win seasons, three playoff berths, and haven't finished under .500. Is Carlos Correa going to be Houston's Evan Longoria? Is Lance McCullers going to be the Astros version of David Price? Probably not. But there's a better chance of that happening than there is of the Astros somehow becoming a contender by flushing money down the drain by signing veteran free agents.
The Astros aren't an embarrassment by any stretch of the imagination. Yeah, they're going to have an awful record in 2013, and they probably won't be any good in 2014 either. But an embarrassment? Naw. An embarrassment is when a team like the Red Sox spends $175 million on payroll and loses 93 games. The Astros spent $115 million less than the Red Sox on their major league roster in 2012, and lost 14 more games. I don't call that embarrassing…I call it downright intelligent.