It’s not a secret that baseball fans of all stripes loves prospects; between the lengthy minor league process and the degree of mystery that surrounds even the best young minor league baseball players, baseball’s prospects are different than college football or basketball players or junior hockey players. This phenomenon is not limited to bad small market teams, either — Puigmania swallowed baseball whole last year and I’ve seen Yankee fans get excited about non-prospects like Zolio Almonte and Yangervis Solarte in the last 12 months, just because of the mystery that surrounds unknown baseball quantities.
Prospect-watching takes on an entirely different meaning when you’re the fan of a bad team, though. When it was announced on Tuesday night that George Springer would make his big league debut for the Astros on Wednesday, Astros fans lit up. Astro Twitter went nuts, Astro bloggers proclaimed a holiday, and a fan base that’s been beaten down by three straight 106+ loss seasons took a moment to generally revel in a moment of genuine hopefulness.
This moment of hopefulness is a hard thing to explain to anyone that hasn’t experience the abject misery of a genuinely hopeless baseball team. The truth, as most baseball fans know it, is that George Springer is just one man. If George Springer were to turn into Mike Trout, he’d only be good enough to turn a 51-win team into a 61-win team in absolute isolation. It’s unlikely that George Springer will turn into Mike Trout. What George Springer promises the Astros, though, is something more ephemeral. What he promises them is this:
Maybe the next Astro team that makes the playoffs will have George Springer on it.
Following a baseball team on a trip to the bottom is a tough thing to do. Most baseball teams win somewhere between 70 and 90 games and the honest truth is that there’s not a whole lot that separates a 90-win team and a 90-loss team (think of the difference between a 9-7 NFL team and a 7-9 NFL team), but even small differences bear themselves out quite a bit over the course of a long season. Even a 72-win team will come out on top in 45% of their games, which means that on any given night a fan of that team has a decent shot of seeing them win on TV or in person. A 52-win team, though? That’s something entirely different. The Astros won exactly one full season’s worth of games over the three-year span from 2011-2013, which means that they won an average of just one game in every three-game series that they’ve played since 2011. That sort of badness transcends baseball’s norms; just one year of it is depressing to watch. Three years of it must be downright soul-sapping.
This is where George Springer makes a difference. The Jeff Luhnow era of Astro baseball has been built on the premise that bottoming the team out for a few years will make the rebuild quicker and more complete. Similar approaches helped both the Rays in their initial run to the top of the standings, and last year’s surprise Pirate team. Springer represents the proverbial tip of the iceberg for the Astros; he’s the first prospect Houston’s calling up this year, but he likely won’t be the last. Before the season started, Baseball Prospectus tabbed Springer, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, Mike Foltynewicz, and Jonathan Singleton (all in their pre-season Top 100 prospects) as likely to make 2014 debuts.
George Springer can’t lead the Astros back into contention all by himself, but that’s not why Astros fans are excited by him. They’re excited because his arrival means that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. This doesn’t make the next step less terrifying, because moving players from prospects to productive big leaguers isn’t trivial at all and sometimes it seems to happen without rhyme or reason. It just means that the Astros are indeed moving on to that next step. Instead of the replacement players and square pegs jammed into round holes and guys whose names you legitimately think you might recognize from your beer league softball team, the Astros are going to have real prospects on the field. They’re moving towards something now. Only time will tell us what it is that they’re moving towards, but movement is better than foundering at the bottom.