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The World is Not Enough

2011 September 16
by Brian Goff

Ryan Jazayerli at Grantland offers a thorough and insightful survey of the demise of the Astros in “Rock Bottom in H-Town.” Many turns to the story — hiring of Larry Dierker, an early Sabermetric advocate, the build-up of the minor league system, 14 straight winning seasons, a trip to the World Series, and now a season headed toward near record number of losses for a non-franchise team and with little in the way of help on the roster or minor league system.  My current interest lies in the depletion of minor league players and cash to pursue veterans in the hope of reaching and winning the World Series:

The Astros lost in the first round of the playoffs all four years under Dierker, but in 2004, under Phil Garner, they made it to within a game of the World Series. The following year, the Astros won the NL pennant for the first time in history, then got swept in the World Series by the White Sox…They may not have realized it yet, but by then the Astros had already passed their peak. A decade of developing transcendent talent came to an end when Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt reached the majors in 1999 and 2001, respectively; Houston hasn’t developed a true star since. Over the years, the team relied increasingly on expensive veterans to prop up the team. The 2004 and 2005 Astros coughed up millions for Jeff Kent, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte. Three seasons later, they were all were having their checks signed by other teams, and the Astros had a losing record at 73-89.

Then, the execs exacerbated the decline when,

In 2007, the Astros forfeited their first-round pick (for signing Lee) and their second-round pick (for signing 40-year-old pitcher Woody Williams, who would have a 5.27 ERA and lead the NL in homers allowed in his final season) … [A new GM with a not-so-good record a Philly] was most notable for his apparent fetish for relievers. Of his several bullpen acquisitions, the most regrettable came in 2005, when he traded starting second baseman Placido Polanco for Ugueth Urbina.

In the end they dumped Berkman, Oswalt, and Pence but only jumped from worst in MLB in minor league prospects to middling.

The lure of taking the final step, going from winning to winning-it-all, is large but can push teams on a self-destructive path.   (James Whitney contributed a couple of Economic Inquiry articles, 1988 and 1993, along these lines.  Stefan Szymanski surveys this and related contributions.)  Even if fans will pay a premium in for winning-it-all, not only can diminishing returns to GM efforts to secure the “hump” players set in, but future winning and financial struggles may be the ultimate cost.  Many have died grasping for immortality.

Other teams have walked these same steps.  As a Texas Rangers fan, I’m very concerned about this threat based on recent moves.  In recent years, the team built up a vast resevoir of minor league talent and young major league roster talent.  Last season, they traded Justin Smoak (a 1B prospect with 2 years of AAA OPS’ stats in the 900 to 1000+ range) for a two-month rental of Cliff Lee.  The move very likely netted them a trip to the World Series.  Additionally, the off-season suggests that they strongly believed they would be able to sign Lee to a new contract.  Ok, a one-time deal with the possibility of an extension gets you to the WS.  In 2011, GM Jon Daniels and team owner/president Nolan Ryan signed 3B Adrian Beltre, C Mike Napoli, and C Yorvit Torrealba with the intention of using Napoli at 1B and DH in addition to catching.  These moves not only squeezed longtime, highly productive Michael Young but also extinguished playing time for 1B/3B propsect Chris Davis (with sustained AAA OPS’ numbers above 1000) and fourth outfielder, DH David Murphy.  As the season developed, late-inning relief appeared to be a problem so the team moved Davis and starting pitcher Tommy Hunter to Baltimore for 7th/8th inning specialist Koji Uehara and also traded two AA starting pitchers with very strong numbers to San Diego for 8th inning specialist Mike Adams.  Uehara and Adams’ ERA numbers are impressive, but as I expressed in earlier posts (Closer Madness and How Much v. How Well)  such low-inning numbers are equivalent to pinch hitters.  So, over two seasons the team has moved three starting pitchers and two strong minor league position players for two relievers, who together, pitch less than 150 innings per year?  Talk about diminishing returns.

The tradeoffs between prospective and proven players as well as between winning championships and winning present some of the most difficult choices for team executives.  The Astros saga suggests that even if you reach your objective (or very close), the victories may seem very hollow in the long run.

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