The Houston Astros have been assembling one of the most dominant teams in baseball since 2011. They have developed an incredible strategy that is similar to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers’ process. In 2011, the Astros went 56-106, which was the absolute worst in the league. After this horrendous season, the Astros hired a new general manager named Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow was tasked with improving a team that just gathered the most losses in franchise history. Things almost always get worse before they improve, and Luhnow knew that proper drafting was going to be the best way to make a team go from worst to first. And although it would take time, at least the Astros had a plan in place.
The First Steps
The worst team in the league suddenly were granted the number one overall pick. The only way they would be able to jump into contention is if they hit their selection out of the park. Just one year prior, George Springer was selected in the first round, and years later we can see just how much of a superstar he has become. As we can see in other sports, elite drafting is the most effective way to form a dynasty. The Golden State Warriors as well as the New England Patriots saw this.
The worst team in the MLB needed to have similar success with this year’s draft. With the first selection in the 2012 MLB Draft, the dreadful Astros took Carlos Correa. Correa was a big shortstop prospect out of Puerto Rico, and pairing him with the newly debuted, 22-year-old Jose Altuve would be an impressive and strong middle infield tandem that a future could be built around.
Is this Working?
With a season still approaching, the Astros needed to either put together a team to keep fans happy or a team that would lose, a lot. Luckily for current Astros fans, Luhnow decided to use the 76ers strategy, and tank. All veteran players that would help the team win a few games were shipped away for prospects and draft picks. The 2011 Astros had the 26th best farm system in baseball and right before the 2012 draft, they were ranked 18th (Baseball America). After one year of seeing Correa play pro ball, the Houston Astros had moved into the top ten by 2013.
The future was finally looking bright, and although the now talentless major league ball club worsened to 55-107, the minor league systems were looking full of young talent that could soon boost Houston baseball. The few bright spots on the MLB roster were Altuve, J.D. Martinez, and Dallas Keuchel.
The Rise of the ‘Stros
The Astros poor season again granted them the number one pick, which they used on pitcher Mark Appel from Stanford. This selection was not seen as a surprise, as Appel had the potential to develop into the anchor of the rotation. This appalling pitching staff is what led to the Astros worst season yet, where they finished 51-111. For the third straight year, the Astros, who just moved to the AL West from the NL Central, picked first. This year, the first pick off the board was a left-handed pitcher out of high school, Brady Aiken. Aiken almost immediately got hurt and because the Astros couldn’t sign him to a long-term deal, this injury led to a compensation pick that could be used in the 2015 draft. That compensation pick led to Alex Bregman, and after that, the Astros young infield was complete.
The 2014 Astros flashed potential, going 70-92, but still were able to gather the fifth pick. They selected Kyle Tucker, who is yet again a great pick, which reassures us that strong drafting is king. These Astros had the third-best farm system in baseball but all these prospects were ready for the next level. The Astros had completed stage one, or in other words, draft a lot and draft correctly. They were ready for step two, which is also the final step. They needed to acquire top talent to fill holes and contend.
Reaching the Top
The Astros made a drastic improvement in 2015. They jumped 16 wins to 86-76 and were able to nab a wildcard spot. The core lineup led by Altuve, Correa, and Springer, all homegrown players, boosted the Houston Astros offense to sixth. The previously horrific pitching staff broke out, with 2009 and 2012 draftees Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers having very unexpected and successful seasons. McCullers had a strong rookie campaign with a 3.22 ERA, and Keuchel won the Cy Young award. This strong rotation finally earned a playoff berth, but the bullpen imploded, and the Astros lost in the ALDS. The Astros needed to sure up their bullpen and they used a former draft pick to do that. Mark Appel, the 2013 first pick, was struggling and the Astros packaged him among others for lockdown closer Ken Giles, who’s sophomore season was elite with a sub 2.00 ERA in Philadelphia.
2016 was more of the same for the lackluster bullpen. Giles wasn’t as dominant in his third year, and the Astros dropped two wins and out of the playoffs. The process was almost completed, and they were close. A big piece was needed, and the 2017 Astros got two. The first was the addition of Bregman to the major league ballclub. The offense was already stacked and adding the pop of Bregman’s bat, and the lesser talked about emergence of Josh Reddick in right field jumped the Houston Astros to the top offense in the league. The second piece came at the trade deadline where Justin Verlander was acquired. The Tigers’ ace not only won a Cy Young but also an MVP in his time in Detroit. He brought that level of pitching to the Astros staff in 2017, as he was 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA.
Worst to First
These two big acquisitions propelled the ‘Stros to 101 wins, the third most in baseball. Giles bounced back with 34 saves, and reliever Chris Devenski’s outbreak solidified the bullpen. This team didn’t have a huge weakness, and they had an extra strength as the trash cans in Minute Maid Park seemed to have pitch-telling powers. All cheating jokes aside, these Astros assembled a super team in 2017, and they were able to take down the Los Angeles Dodgers in 7 to win the World Series.
The tanking strategy has not yet fully clicked for the 76ers, but after being the worst team in baseball in 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Houston Astros were able to turn it into a World Series win. The X-factor was elite drafting, but also knowing when to bail on draft mistakes such as Appel and Aiken. The front office in Houston showed that patience is needed to rebuild, and it paid off. Although Luhnow was let go among the cheating scandal, his drafting and ability to fill holes was fantastic. The 2017 Astros were special, even if Sports Illustrated predicted it before anyone. Sports Illustrated
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