Column: Texas baseball has new life after 2015
Texas is and will always be a football state. However, the state’s two Major League Baseball franchises made sports fans across the Lone Star State beam with pride this fall as both found themselves as unlikely participants in the MLB postseason. While both teams can consider their seasons successful, they took very different paths to get there.
From 2011-14, the Houston Astros averaged 104 losses per season. The team was clearly in a rebuilding mode, but the strategies General Manager Jeff Luhnow used during the rebuild rubbed many baseball purists the wrong way.
The Astros traded away veteran players for minor league prospects and dumped payroll in an effort to build for the future. Because of this, many accused the Astros of “tanking,” or intentionally putting a bad product on the field in an effort to earn better draft picks.
What those critics don’t understand is that rebuilding in baseball isn’t like other sports. A couple of draft picks and a free agent signing isn’t going to be enough to turn around a team that has lost over 100 games. It starts at the bottom, and the foundation of every successful MLB franchise is its farm system.
What the Astros did was build a minor league system full of young, talented players with great potential.
Last season, the team began to reap the rewards of their patience when athletic outfielder George Springer made his debut and instantly made an impact for the club. This year, the Astros took things a step further as highly-touted prospects Lance McCullers, Preston Tucker and former No.1 overall pick Carlos Correa not only made their MLB debuts, but served pivotal roles for the Astros in 2015.
Houston was often called out for its reluctance to spend money. In 2013, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez made more than the Astros’ entire big league roster. With that being said, no amount of money the Astros could have invested in the team would have made them a competitive club. Sure, ownership could have thrown millions of dollars at a frontline starter or a middle-of-the-order bat and hoped for the best, but even the best players available via free agency would have had a minimal impact for a club that was completey void of big league talent.
Instead, Luhnow decided to endure the criticism and stick to the process. Now that the Astros have several young, talented players ready to contribute at the big league level, the team can be more aggressive in free agency and wisely assess where to increase spending instead of just aggressively throwing money in a bottomless pit.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Texas Rangers. After four-straight seasons of at least 90 wins, the Rangers took a major step back in 2014 as they mustered only 67 wins and finished last in the AL West. After a similar start to the 2015 season, it seemed the Rangers were facing a total rebuild of their own.
However, General Manager Jon Daniels made a splash at the trade deadline when he acquired left-handed ace Cole Hamels from Philidelphia. The Rangers got on a hot streak and were able to hold off a surge by Houston in order to capture the AL West title.
While the Rangers were able to turn 2015 into a success, their long-term outlook isn’t as bright as Houston’s. The Rangers’ once thriving farm system has taken major hits as the team has traded away prospects for established veterans in recent years. Also, the team doesn’t have the payroll flexibility that Houston does.
While the Astros have strayed away from offering long-term contracts to veteran players, the Rangers currently have five contracts on their payroll that exceed $100 million each and extend through at least 2018. In addition, four of those five players are already over 30 years old.
Even though the Astros might have a better long-term future, the Rangers are poised for another playoff run in 2016. Starting pitcher Yu Darvish will return following Tommy John surgery to join Hamels. That, combined with a lineup featuring the likes of Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre, should give the Rangers one more shot at a World Series run.
While the two clubs have very different identities, the Texas baseball landscape looks bright going into 2016.