KISSIMMEE, Fla. —
Jeff Luhnow sat outside on a bright February day at Houston’s spring training complex – the type of morning when anything seems possible.
Even for the Astros. Even for a team that lost more than 200 games the last two seasons.
“Our hope is that the Astros become the example, and in the future people look at a rebuilding process and say, ‘Let’s model it after the Astros. Look at how successful it was,”’ said Luhnow, who took over as Houston’s general manager late in 2011. “That’s our goal.”
In recent years, teams like Tampa Bay and Washington reached the playoffs not long after finishing at the bottom of their divisions. Now, it’s Houston trying to start a similar climb, with a payroll of around $25 million.
Pittsburgh and Kansas City also are at various stages of lengthy rebuilding efforts. The reward will be satisfying if any of these teams return to prominence soon – but nothing is guaranteed.
The Astros are only eight years removed from a trip to the World Series, but their decline was sharp. Houston lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 last season. The Astros spent last year trying to restock their farm system. Houston took shortstop Carlos Correa with the top pick in the draft – and traded Carlos Lee, J.A. Happ, Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez, among others.
The immediate future looks bleak, but this awful stretch doesn’t have to last. Washington lost 102 games in 2008 and 103 the following year. The Nationals won the NL East last season. Tampa Bay lost 101 games in 2006. In fact, that franchise had never accomplished much of anything before reaching the World Series in 2008. Now, the Rays are perennial contenders despite being up against big-market behemoths from New York and Boston in the AL East.
So turnarounds are possible. It may take years of planning, but it doesn’t take long for a team to improve if enough young talent coalesces at the same time.
That’s what Pirates owner Bob Nutting is hoping. Pittsburgh has endured 20 straight losing seasons, but last year’s 79-83 mark equaled the team’s best record in that span.
“We’ve changed the way we’ve brought talent in, we’ve changed the way we developed talent and now we’re really beginning to see those dividends pay at the major league level,” Nutting said. “We began to see it in 2011, last year was an incredibly exciting season and I believe we’re going to take another step forward in 2013. I couldn’t be more excited to see the progression and really the position it puts us in heading into this season.”
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is one of the game’s best players. Is he ready to help Pittsburgh make a legitimate run at the postseason, or have the Pirates failed to put enough talent around him? There’s a decent amount of pressure facing this year’s team.
The same is true for the Royals. Kansas City hasn’t been to the postseason since winning the World Series in 1985. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon have blossomed into productive hitters, and third baseman Mike Moustakas hit 20 home runs last year in his first full season. There’s finally reason for hope in Kansas City, but the Royals went 72-90 in 2012.
For all its young talent, Kansas City still hasn’t made a significant move up the standings, so the Royals acted boldly in the offseason, trading Wil Myers and a package of other top prospects to Tampa Bay for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.
“There’s a sense of urgency for us to set a winning course, and to create a winning culture – you can’t do that unless you have talented players that want to win and know how to win,” General Manager Dayton Moore said. “A lot of players say they want to win, but there’s a commitment level where that’s necessary to occur, it’s not just in preparation, it’s in all aspects.”
Tampa Bay and Washington provided a blueprint. The Rays took third baseman Evan Longoria with the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, and they picked David Price at No. 1 the following year. The latter won the Cy Young Award last season.
The Nationals had the No. 1 overall pick in both 2009 and 2010, and they now have Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to show for it. The Astros hope Correa can become a star, but that could take a while.
One thing Houston isn’t doing is spending a lot of money. It probably isn’t worth it for the Astros to compete for big-name free agents at this stage, but if a team spends too many years losing, it may become a less attractive destination for top players.
Detroit fought that stigma a decade ago. The Tigers lost 106 games in 2002 and 119 in 2003 – then they managed to sign Ivan Rodriguez, the catcher from the World Series champion Florida Marlins, to a $40 million, four-year deal.
Rodriguez didn’t solve Detroit’s problems overnight, but his presence gave the Tigers a little more credibility.
“No doubt,” Detroit General Manager Dave Dombrowski said. “Once somebody like that comes on board ... other players start taking note.”
There may be a time when the Astros are ready to make a splash like that, but for now, the 2013 season is shaping up as an audition for players whose futures aren’t all that certain.
“I think it’s more about, by the end of the season, really having a much better feel for what the team’s going to look like in 2014 – who the emerging players really are,” Luhnow said. “A lot of the question marks that exist today will have been answered.”
Outfielders Justin Maxwell, Fernando Martinez and Brandon Barnes, first baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Jason Castro are all between 24 and 29 years old. The Astros have tried to improve their farm system, but they need to see how many players already in the big leagues can establish themselves as long-term solutions.
Meanwhile, Correa’s development will be worth watching, and outfielder George Springer – a first-round pick in 2011 – will try to take another step after hitting well at Class A last year.
If Houston’s outlook wasn’t daunting enough, the Astros are playing their first season in the American League. They’re in the AL West, which was won by Oakland in 2012 and also includes the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, two teams built to win now.
Still, though the Astros may lose a lot of games this year, Luhnow doesn’t sound intimidated by his team’s new surroundings.
Houston is on a different timetable than Texas and Los Angeles, and the Astros hope in due time that their young talent will peak and their plan will come to fruition – and then maybe it will be someone else’s turn to rebuild.
“It’s not like we’re a small-market team competing in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox, and we’re never going to be able to spend as much as they are,” Luhnow said. “I think we’re going to ultimately, five years from now, be considered the powerhouse in the division. That’s the goal.”