[ESPN 30 FOR 30 VOICE] What if I told you that a Major League Baseball organization that constantly makes short-sighted player movement decisions, including MLB Draft picks, trades, and poor scouting, was still one of the game’s preeminent teams?
This is the Houston Astros in 2018. The defending World Series champions look primed to challenge for another Commissioner’s Trophy in the coming months, with a strong core of young superstars at their disposal. When you look at the timeline of events from their 2011-13 span — in which they lost a combined 324 games in three seasons — it doesn’t look like it should be that way.
Baseball is an unpredictable sport. There are rarely trends to follow over a 162-game season, and every player is so volatile in terms of hot streaks and cold spells that on-the-fly player evaluation is nearly impossible. The Astros have fallen victim to this in numerous ways, all so painfully (yet sweetly) to me, a fan of the ‘Stros.
Maybe the best part of the Astros’ recent run from rebuilding catastrophe, better known as the “DisAstros,” to baseball immortality is that they really don’t belong here from a player development and executive decision-making standpoint. In the weirdest way, the improbability of a team capturing their first world title in the club’s 55-year history, after all the mistakes made, is the best part.
It’s hard to complain about this management staff, which brought Houston pitchers like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in addition to veteran position players Josh Reddick and Brian McCann, but still. Let’s look through the timeline.
JUNE 6, 2013: HOUSTON DRAFTS MARK APPEL #1 OVERALL
The Astros used the number-one overall selection in the 2013 draft on pitcher Mark Appel, a choice general manager Jeff Luhnow dubbed “the most significant investment the Astros have made in their history in an amateur player.” Appel played exactly zero MLB games, and now, at 26, is out of the game entirely.Despite some memorably bad front office moves, the @astros are finding success now and for later.Click To Tweet
The number-two overall pick belonged to the Chicago Cubs, then a National League Central rival experiencing the same rebuilding process. They chose 2016 NL Most Valuable Player and 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, regarded by many as the second-best player in the game behind only Mike Trout.
Bryant has posted 21.7 Baseball-Reference WAR since his MLB debut, along with a .288 batting average, 102 home runs, and 302 RBIs. Appel has accounted for a big, juicy, flame-broiled nothingburger.
MARCH 22, 2014: HOUSTON RELEASES STRUGGLING SLUGGER J.D. MARTINEZ
J.D. Martinez was 26 years old, hitting .167 in spring training, and competing for time in the outfield with George Springer, Robbie Grossman, and others. Why the Astros released Martinez is understandable, but in hindsight, an absolute gut-punch.
Martinez, with the Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks, and now the Boston Red Sox, has hit .302/.363/.581 with 147 home runs, 400 runs batted in, a 151 OPS+, and 17.4 bWAR. This is in contrast to his tenure with the Astros, during which he hit .251 with just 24 home runs in 252 games, for an OPS+ of 88 and a bWAR of -1.2.
The righty has been an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and three times a recipient of MVP votes since Houston released the MLB home runs leader, whose 20 long balls give him a full-season pace of 53. Ugh.
JUNE 5, 2014: THE BRADY AIKEN DEBACLE BEGINS
After taking Appel in 2013 and Carlos Correa in 2012, the Astros found themselves with the first-overall pick for the third-straight year in 2014, and eventually spent that selection on high-school pitcher Brady Aiken. It turned out that Aiken, who had been pitching pain-free and effectively at 17 years old, had an abnormality in his pitching elbow.
Houston and crew, afraid of potential injury concerns in the near future, offered Aiken a signing bonus of $3.168 million, the minimum amount that would guarantee the organization received a compensation pick if Aiken didn’t sign. The Californian lefty who had been compared to Andy Pettitte refused, re-entered the draft, and was picked 17th overall by the Cleveland Indians in 2015.
Though the Astros received a compensation pick for losing Aiken — with which they chose Alex Bregman at number two overall in 2015 — it was a major black eye to the organization. Failing to sign a first-overall selection (which had only occurred twice before 2014) is embarrassing, and if Aiken — only 21 and ranked as a top-25 prospect in the Tribe’s system — makes it to The Show, it’ll only look worse.
JULY 30, 2015: HOUSTON TRADES FOR CARLOS GOMEZ
At the time of this trade, I was jumping for joy. Carlos Gomez had lost a step, but he was an All-Star in the two years that preceded the 2015 season, receiving MVP votes in each campaign. It also showed that Houston, who also netted starter Mike Fiers, was ready to take a playoff shot again. Oh God.
Gomez was terrible with Houston (.221/.277/.342, nine home runs, 42 RBIs, 72 OPS+, 0.1 bWAR), and Fiers, despite his 2015 no-hitter, wasn’t much better (21-19, 4.59 ERA, 0.6 bWAR). Gomez would be DFA’d halfway through the following season and picked up by the Texas Rangers, while Fiers was let go via contract expiration and not re-signed after 2017. Fiers couldn’t crack the postseason roster for the Astros.
Want to know who they gave the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Gomez and Fiers? If you live in south Texas, you probably don’t, but we’re talking about Domingo Santana (30 home runs last season), Brett Phillips (top-10 prospect in Brewers system), Adrian Houser (up-and-coming 25-year-old starter), and — this one really hurts — Josh Hader (basically the best relief pitcher in baseball in 2018).
This is fine.
DECEMBER 12, 2015: HOUSTON TRADES FOR KEN GILES
This one is tricky, because there’s still time for it to pan out, and it really isn’t as bad as the Gomez/Fiers trade. Still, Ken Giles has had an awful 2018 season, piled up on top of a worse 2017 postseason, as a guy who is supposed to be an elite closer.
If you put any stock into the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award, Giles was a nominee last season, and rightfully so: Giles compiled 34 saves with a 2.30 ERA, 83 strikeouts compared to 23 walks, and a 172 ERA+. This season, in a role as a guy whose job is to close things down for the best pitching rotation in MLB, Giles is 0-1, owns a 5.21 ERA, has given up 23 hits in 19 innings, and has an ERA+ of 75.
The prospect haul the Philadelphia Phillies got in return for Giles wasn’t a king’s ransom, but Vince Velasquez has been a useful pitcher for the Phils, while Harold Arauz and Tom Eshelman are working their ways up in the minors. This trade came while other, better closers were on the market. Kelvin Herrera has long been on the trade block, while Brad Hand was bouncing around from team to team.
Having Herrera or Hand, whose ERAs from 2016 on are both under three, would be an upgrade. Instead, the Astros made their bed with a guy who punches himself in the face when he blows a save. I want Giles to bounce back, of course, don’t get me wrong.
Here’s the thing: baseball is a great sport because of its variability. The unpredictable nature of baseball is on full display when you think about the Astros winning a World Series directly after this calamitous set of transactions. The players I mentioned above have combined for 85.3 bWAR since the Astros passed up on them, just 0.1 below the career mark of first-ballot Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. Houston has lost the combined value of Chipper freaking Jones since the 2013 MLB Draft.
And yet, the Astros have made the postseason twice, won their first AL pennant, their only World Series crown, and seen individual accomplishments like Correa winning Rookie of the Year, Dallas Keuchel grabbing the Cy Young Award, and most recently, Jose Altuve being named MVP since the date of that dreadful draft memory. It’s insane, impressive, and very sweet that Houston has seen so much success after some regretful organizational blunders.
If they have Bryant, we don’t get to see Bregman make the 2017 postseason his own personal defensive playground. If they have Martinez, they never acquire Reddick, or allow Marwin Gonzalez to flourish in the outfield, or see DH Evan Gattis hit a pivotal home run in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.
If Appel and Aiken pan out, they don’t see the need for Verlander, and carry on without him. If they have Hader cooking in the minor leagues, they might not have taken a chance on the electric Chris Devenski. If they keep Velasquez, a young gun like Lance McCullers Jr. is probably on the outside looking in with their pitching rotation.
A perfect storm of things happened, and the Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series and find themselves right back into things in 2018, even despite some inexcusable moves. I wouldn’t want it any other way.