The most famous line in the great film, Apollo 13, can also be used to describe the Astros as of late. But Houston doesn’t just have a single problem, they have many.
Nine years removed from their lone World Series appearance, this team remains entrenched in its culture of failure.
They went from 106 losses in 2011, to 107 in 2012 and ultimately reaching the high (or low) water mark last year: a 51-111 record—the worst in franchise history.
Luckily, the reward for being so putrid is being the recipient of high draft picks. They’ve hit on a few—some who are already providing glimmers of hope on the big league level. They’ve missed on others—including last year’s No. 1 selection, Mark Appel (10.90 ERA this year for Class A Lancaster).
If Mark Appel’s season ended today he would have the worst ERA of any Lancaster pitcher in the past decade (min. 30 IP)
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) July 17, 2014
But this year’s top choice created the most significant—and most recent—fiasco.
As of last Friday, the Astros were still trying to ink three draftees (all pitchers) from the 2014 class—No. 1 pick Brady Aiken, fifth round pick Jacob Nix and 21st round choice Mac Marshall.
After team doctors expressed concern in pitcher Aiken’s throwing elbow during a post-draft physical, they lowered their contract offer by less than half of what their original offer was ($6 million). That price was $3.168 million, coincidently the minimum amount that would guarantee a compensation pick should he not sign. It eventually went up to $5 million, and stayed there until the signing deadline last Friday at 5 p.m. ET.
The deadline passed without Aiken and the Astros agreeing to terms. For the third time ever, a No. 1 pick went unsigned. And due to draft bonus pool system intricacies that would require a Master’s Degree in finance to figure out, the monetary domino effect of the situation meant they failed to nab Nix and Marshall as well. Those two are set to land at UCLA and LSU, respectively.
Aiken, meanwhile, is an uncertainty to join a collegiate squad. He is committed to UCLA also, but the NCAA has a student-athlete representation rule, which means if he becomes a Bruin, he won’t be allowed to enter the MLB Draft again until 2017. He could, instead, opt to go to junior college—thus being eligible for the pros next year.
Of course, it’ll take a while before we know how unfortunate of a situation this will turn out to be for the Astros. If Aiken remains relatively healthy and has a successful stint as a big league pitcher, it’ll be seen as a missed opportunity. If he has arm problems or is unsuccessful, it’s a prudent decision.
However, the major damage done was not due to the inability to sign Aiken. It’s how they went about it—and how they’ve gone about sullying their reputation among the rest of MLB.
The lead driver in this self-image destruction derby is general manager Jeff Luhnow, who took over his current position in December 2011. He’s been locally publicized and widely criticized for his unorthodox strategies.
My unwavering support of Jeff Luhnow has been cult-like since 2011. That ends today. This year’s conduct has been fire-worthy. #realtalk
— jordan (@astrosjordan) July 19, 2014
According to a May 23, 2014 piece by Evan Drellich in the Houston Chronicle, “the Astros shift their defenders into unusual positions to counteract hitter tendencies more than any other team, including in the minor leagues. They schedule minor league starting pitchers on altered and fluctuating rotation schedules, what they call a “modified tandem” system, a development strategy unique in baseball.”
With regards to contract negotiations, Luhnow and company do it “with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach detected by some across their operation.”
This approach has been evident with first-year players and veterans alike.
Despite dominating the minor leagues in 2013 and proving himself during spring training of this year, the club sent George Springer (the No. 11 overall pick in 2011) down to the minors again when he and his agent turned down a seven-year, $23 million contract last fall.
When Scott Kazmir became a free agent last winter, it was a natural choice for the Houston native to latch on with his hometown club. But they passed, and Kazmir is having a career year in Oakland.
The ‘Stros have incurred the wrath from players, agents, fans and fellow teams as they continue to appear more interested in manipulating and penny-pinching than individual well-being and overall success in the standings.
Those on the field are doing a good job trying to reverse this negative trend elsewhere. After Springer left the preverbal doghouse and was allowed to come to the majors in mid-April, he has proven why he deserves a big money contract down the road. In 70 games, Springer has hit 20 homers and driven in 51 runs.
Springer’s raw power is complimented by All-Star Jose Altuve’s blazing speed. In addition to hitting .336 (a team-high), Altuve’s stolen base total this year is 41—to just three times being caught.
On the mound, Jarred Cosart and Dallas Keuchel share the club lead in victories with nine apiece. The latter is most impressive in other statistical categories, nearing 100 strikeouts and posting an ERA of 3.29.
In all, the Astros have a strong nucleus—giving those that have remained in support of the club a reason to believe. Then again, after three consecutive seasons with losses in triple figures, you can only go up from here.
Sports Illustrated was so keen on the Astros that they (half-kiddingly) declared them the 2017 World Series champions and (most certainly) a team to watch in the coming seasons.
But holding them back from any true progress is, unfortunately, the man who holds the keys with regards to player management.
A franchise that is one of the most snake bit in the history of baseball—from the health issues of phenom fireballer J.R. Richard some 34 years ago to the near-misses in 1980 and 1986 to early playoff exits in the late 1990s to coming up short in 2004 and 2005—has now created their own misfortune.
Underachieving first round draft picks, botching contract negotiations and failing in the free agent market aren’t ways for Luhnow to endear himself to a fan base that is being forced to endure a long, long rehabilitation project.
A bit of good news, besides the young stars currently in place, is that Houston receives the No. 2 overall selection in the 2015 draft as compensation. But it’s still to be determined if they’ll conjure up a new way not to botch that up come this time next year.
Houston fans can only hope Jeff Luhnow will soon undergo the same fate as Brady Aiken did on Friday…which is to no longer be associated with the Astros any more.