By tanking and stacking top prospects for several seasons, the Astros have turned into a powerhouse, one that the Mariners and the rest of the AL West could be chasing for years to come.
I still remember the prevailing sentiment, since proven to be demonstrably and spectacularly misguided, when the Astros moved from the National League to the AL West in 2013.
The Mariners, the thinking went, were being handed a gift, a new doormat in their division upon whom to siphon off victories. The Lastros, as they were derisively called then, were coming off seasons of 106 and 107 losses, with the worst yet to come – 111 defeats in their first year in the AL, and 92 the next.
But be careful what you wish for. The upside to Houston’s tanking strategy – and they were very strategically rebuilding their team through draft picks and trading off veterans for prospects – was the artful construction of a powerhouse.
And that’s where we stand now as the Astros are in Seattle showing off a rotation top-heavy with aces (with Justin Verlander making his Houston debut on Tuesday) and the best offense in baseball. Never mind the Mariners’ longshot pursuit of a wild-card berth while still desperately juggling their depleted rotation; I think the battle for the Mariners to be most concerned about is the long-term fight for supremacy in the AL West.
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The Astros are winning, decisively. Not just this year, either, though this year has been spectacular for the ’Stros. They have the most comfortable lead in MLB, ahead of even the suddenly struggling Dodgers, and a legitimate shot at the franchise’s first World Series title.
More alarmingly from Seattle’s perspective is that the Astros appear poised to dominate the division for the foreseeable future. With the understanding that any team’s fortunes can take unforeseen twists and turns due to injury and/or under-performance, the Astros have a core of stars (and superstars) all under the age of 30 and locked up for at least the next two years (most of them longer than that). And they have a farm system that keeps churning out players for rejuvenation, depth or trade.
It’s a powerful model, and one that Jerry Dipoto is desperately trying to emulate, minus the tanking part. In April, when the Mariners opened the season in Houston, I talked at length with the general manager about his long-term plans for Seattle, and why he rejected the Houston model of sacrificing some very lean years in exchange for the payoff at the end. He was unwilling to subject fans to a long stretch of deliberately sabotaging contention, believing that they could rebuild and contend at the same time.
They have been moderately successful in that pursuit, still alive for a playoff berth despite being a .500 team, more or less. But an examination of the two rosters, and some comparative statistics, shows just how daunting a task it will be for Seattle to keep up with Houston in the next few years, especially as the Mariners’ core gets older.
The Astros have the likely American League Most Valuable Player in Jose Altuve, who is 27. They have a brilliant shortstop in Carlos Correa, who is all of 22. They have a slugging All-Star outfielder in George Springer, who is 27. Third baseman Alex Bregman, a rising star, is 23. The versatile Marwin Gonzalez is 28. You get the picture. The starting lineup the Astros ran out on Tuesday had a combined WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 27.7, while the one the Mariners countered with was at 16.4. Houston has scored 50 more runs than any other team in the majors and also leads MLB in doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, while striking out fewer than any other team by a margin of 80.
We haven’t even gotten into the pitching staff. The Mariners’ rotation has been in shambles for weeks, almost miraculously piecemealed together by Scott Servais and Dipoto. It projects to be better next year with a healthy James Paxton and Felix Hernandez, but if we’ve learned anything it’s not to count on either scenario.
Meanwhile, the Astros will have a starting core of Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. – two Cy Young winners and a potential contender — to go with a very good bullpen. Houston’s staff is second in the majors to Cleveland in strikeouts (a mere two K’s behind), and that might be a better predictor of success than even earned-run average. The top eight teams in strikeouts are all safely in the playoffs, while only six of the top eight teams in ERA can say that.
The Astros are a team that embodies the philosophy the Mariners have been espousing – “control the zone.” And they also had Baseball America’s third-ranked farm system in 2017, giving them the flexibility to send three touted minor-leaguers to Detroit for Verlander while still keeping their top two prospects – outfielder Kyle Tucker and pitcher Forrest Whitley. They have financial flexibility as well, with Verlander’s the only significant contract on their books.
In the aforementioned April interview, Dipoto laid out his grand vision of inserting a new group of younger players into the Mariners’ lineup around Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager — the likes of Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia.
“The idea is, for as long as our core is still performing like stars, they should have a sustainable group around them,’’ he said. “That sustainable group, by the time they’re in what we’ll call their money years, they become the core while they have this group of achieved mentors to guide them. And by that time, hopefully, we’ve kind of rekindled the farm system to become more productive than it might be right now.”
It’s a workable plan, one that has made some progress in 2017. But it remains largely theoretical, while the Astros are already in the sweet spot of a rebuilding program that has worked to perfection. Meanwhile, the Mariners’ immediate future has been sidetracked by a staggering rash of pitching injuries that leaves them with huge questions in their rotation moving forward.
Dipoto will have to be as bold and creative as he’s ever been this offseason, and ownership almost certainly will have to open its wallets, if they want to close the vast gap between themselves and the Astros in the AL West.