In July of 2018, a wonderful book by Sports Illustrated senior writer Ben Reiter, called Astroball: The New Way to Win It All, hit newsstands everywhere. It chronicles the historically successful organizational rebuild of the Houston Astros, as the team went from losing 324 games over a three-year span to becoming a team on the cusp of a modern dynasty in winning the 2017 World Series and maintaining most of the aspects of their youthful offensive core and dominant pitching staff.
In hoarding high draft picks, premier prospects, and the cash to set themselves up to make a big trade when necessary (hello, Brian McCann and Justin Verlander), general manager Jeff Luhnow, the Astros, and their fanbase endeared years of losing — in fact, ten consecutive years of missing the postseason after winning the 2005 National League pennant — only to turn it around with young superstars and money to burn.
The Chicago Cubs, behind GM Theo Epstein, followed and perfected the same blueprint, capping off an incredible transformation from an infamously laughable franchise to World Series champs in 2016, with youthful position players, the financial means and top prospects to make big trades, and a commanding pitching staff.
The Astros did it with 2017 American League Most Valuable Player Jose Altuve, 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, and 2018 All-Star Game MVP Alex Bregman, while the Cubs did it with 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant, three-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo, and NLCS MVP Jon Lester. Their players and gameplay style was and is different, but their organizational structure was the same: This team sucks, so let’s go ahead and deal the only good players on the roster, then intentionally suck for 5-7 years, then contend because we’ll have high draft picks, boatloads of money, and top-tier prospects.The @Cubs and @astros have revolutionized baseball with their highly successful rebuilds, but they have played a part in baseball's economic system falling apart.Click To Tweet
Excuse the lengthy italicized name for the strategy, but that’s what it has boiled down to, and this is a different system than Billy Beane‘s famed Moneyball. If you are familiar with the NBA and the Philadelphia 76ers, maybe you can just call it “Trust the Process,” instead.
But while this strategy has proven to be extremely effective and almost always achieving the desired results for those that play their cards right, it is one of many factors contributing to baseball’s broken economic system. The free agency cases of superstar sluggers Bryce Harper and Manny Machado exemplify the detrimental effects of the Astros and Cubs employing the “Trust the Process” system.
There are hundreds of reasons why no team has signed Harper and Machado despite the duo being two of the most talented players ever to hit free agency. One of them, though, is that the true number of teams ready to contend for a pennant and spend money accordingly is very small, because so many teams are following the blueprint laid out by the Cubs and Astros. Every team willing to spend money already has a premier right fielder or shortstop, and the teams with needs at that position aren’t willing to commit to a player already in his prime.
The two most active teams in regards to Harper and Machado have been the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox, who have followed the same model as the Cubs and Astros, and are in the last stages of the rebuild. Both teams have stockpiled elite prospects and top-tier, young MLB staples and are ready to make a push with an outside player, like Chicago’s cross-town rivals did with Lester and Jason Heyward and the Astros did with Verlander.
The White Sox and Phillies don’t have top players at the spots Harper and Machado play and, therefore, have been basically the only teams to be consistently in the hunt for the star players. Otherwise, these two Hall of Fame talents have been abandoned by a market that doesn’t want them, mostly due to the fact that Harper/Machado don’t compute with the only system in place.
It isn’t like tanking and rebuilding is new in baseball, and in sports in general, especially in the NBA, where it has been a fixture of competition for the past 25 years or so. But this is a different brand of tanking and rebuilding, and you can take the Texas Rangers of past and present for example.
Before the 2001 season, Texas signed Alex Rodriguez — one of the greatest players in recent baseball history — to the richest contract in pro sports (10 years, $252 million) despite finishing the 2000 season 71-91 and last in the AL West division. The Rangers continued to struggle while A-Rod put up three MVP-caliber seasons (WARs of 8.3 in 2001, 8.8 in 2002, and 8.4 in 2003, when he actually did win the MVP Award) and eventually they traded the star infielder to the New York Yankees before the 2004 season.
They were terrible and continued to be terrible, never winning more than 73 games with the sport’s most versatile star player, but they didn’t lose that willingness to contend and to put money into their product. Now, with the Rangers’ window of contention expired, they refuse to commit money to big-name free agents and elect to sign replacement level players to set themselves up for designed failure. They could use Harper, Machado, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, or Josh Harrison, but they are choosing to stay out of it all and instead use that money in the future, after they accumulate prospects and high draft picks.
The Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins, and many other teams are instituting the same plan, which has effectively stalled the market because two-thirds of the teams don’t want to spend any money and the teams in the other third already have the roster they need. When the Cubs and Astros went down the drain with their rebuilding plans, it was seen as a bold, somewhat revolutionary move, and now, it’s commonplace for teams with without the weapons to succeed.
Too many teams are “Trusting the Process” and, in turn, the free agent market has been cold all offseason. While the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros got what they wanted in historic World Series titles, the most notable lasting effect of their systemic rebuild is one detrimental to the current and future state of Major League Baseball.