When Losing Is Winning
The Astros’ winless streak in Grapefruit League action has hit fourteen after a double loss in split-squad action today. To hear the players talk, it seems as if no one’s worried. To hear fans of other teams – who don’t follow the Astros regularly – it’s daunting, but they seem so sure that the Astros will turn it around.
And, yes, there are a lot of factors. However, I’m not so sure it’s reasonable to expect April 6th to arrive and see the Astros suddenly start winning.
Were situations reversed, I would not exactly feel as optimistic as I now feel pessimistic. In other words, were the Astros to win their final twenty exhibition games heading into the regular season, I certainly still wouldn’t expect us to finish first in the NL Central this season. So why, after losing or tying fourteen straight (which actually isn’t entirely accurate, as we did beat Panama back on March 5 — with one of our biggest sluggers, Carlos Lee, playing for the other team.
So I remain tempered, but it does lead to one question: If the Astros tank this season, finishing fourth or worst in the Central, is that necessarily a bad thing?
The Astros over-performed in 2008. Of the top 17 teams in the overall standings, only one had a negative run differential: The Astros, with a -31 differential between runs allowed and runs scored. Every other team with a negative run differential finished in the bottom 13.
In other words, 16 teams scored more runs in 2008 than they allowed. 14 teams allowed more than they scored. With one exception – the Astros – the ones that scored more finished on top, and the ones that allowed more finished on the bottom.
The Astros bested their Pythagorean W-L by nine games, finishing third in the NL Central at 86-75. Had they finished at 77-84, as their Pythagorean W-L suggests they should have, they would have been fourth in the Central. Not a big discrepancy, perhaps, but what were the ramifications, ultimately?
The Astros’ over-performance did not lead to a playoff appearance. What it did do, however, was give them 11th-best record in baseball – as opposed to the 18th-best, as their Pythagorean W-L suggests they should have had. In real-world terms, this translates to a #21 draft pick, instead of a #14 pick (the Nationals will receive the #11 pick for failing to sign last year’s pick, Aaron Crow.)
The 2009 draft will feature the longest-ever wait in history between the first pick of the first round and the first pick of the second round. Two teams – the Nats and Yankees – will have additional first-round picks for failure to sign last year’s draft picks. There will be 13 sandwich picks. This means that top-tier talent will be greatly depleted by the time teams begin picking in the second round.
That makes those seven lost spots very key. Not necessarily in the first round, but beginning in the second round especially.
One thing that generally puts the Astros a little higher-up on organizational rankings than other teams with superior farm systems is that, for better or worse, owner Drayton McLane is willing to spend money. They are generally in the top half of the league in payroll. This marks one truism: The team has been willing to trade for veterans at the deadline when it appears that they will be competitive, and sign free agents when they think that they might help the team make a run.
The problem is that those trades have depleted the farm system over the years, and the free agent signings have given away draft picks, which has hindered the re-loading of that farm system. Questionable drafting has not exactly helped. Catcher Jason Castro is the team’s most highly-ranked prospect according to Baseball America at #53 (Justin Smoak, who the Astros skipped over to get to Castro in the draft, is ranked #23 for the Rangers, but never mind…) and he is a legitimate catching prospect who is expected to be solid, though not an All-Star caliber offensive threat.
No other Astros prospect appears in the Top 100.
These are signs that the farm system desperately needs an overhaul. And the only way to do that, shy of dealing established veteran for farmhands, is through the draft. Scouting Director Bobby Heck helped rebuild a struggling Milwaukee Brewers team through the draft, and their system is now littered with the fruits of his efforts.
We seem to have the right guy in place right now. So is now the time to return to our roots and build through the draft? It would certainly seem so.
(Boring math follows. Feel free to skip ahead.)
Were the Astros to add a free agent this offseason, it likely would have been a pitcher, catcher, or third baseman. The third base market was weak, with Casey Blake as the standout. Blake would have added approximately 1.6 wins in 2009 over Geoff Blum, according to FanGraphs, at a salary differential of +5.0.
Ivan Rodriguez, at catcher, would add approximately 1.9 wins over incumbent Humberto Quintero, at a salary differential of +12.0. In other words, in spending a lot of money on Rodriguez and Blake, the Astros would have added a possible 3 wins. Not a small number, but is it worth the cost?
It’s a little different in the pitching department. In 2008, Brandon Backe cost the Astros an estimated 0.8 wins. Adding an inning-eater, such as Jon Garland, would add approximately 2.1 wins, albeit at about ten times the cost.
By not making these three signings, let’s say that the Astros have cost themselves five wins, and saved themselves 15-20 million dollars in salary by sacrificing those five wins.
Five wins is significant. In 2008, five wins would have put the Astros into the NL Wild Card spot. The revenue would have increased as a result, which greatly helps offset the additional money spent. In Houston’s two home games during the 2005 NL Division Series, they had attendance figures of 43,759 and 43,413. Multiplying these numbers by their 2008 average ticket price of $28.73, we get an added revenue in ticket sales alone of $2,504,451.56. This does not include merchandising or concessions, and assumes no price hike in playoff tickets.
Additionally, it stands to reason that a competitive team will receive a higher attendance average than the same team would if they were not competitive. In each of the past three seasons, as the Astros have begun to look less competitive, their attendance has dropped by an average 121,638 fans per season. Assuming a rate of sales from the 2005 season (3,022,763) at the 2008 average ticket price, the it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the Astros would have made about $5,887,294.14 more in the regular season through ticket sales alone.
Added to the added ticket revenue from the first-round playoff games, as well as a liberally-estimated $10m in additional concessions and merchandise sales, they’d stand to make $18,391,745.70 with five more wins – at the cost of $15-20m in additional salaries.
(End of math. Read on with ease.)
There are, of course, other ways to spend that money. Three key areas have been proven over time to drastically increase the number of wins that a team can expect over a sustainable period: Scouting, Development, and Signing Bonuses.
When Castro signed for $2,070,000, it was the second-highest bonus in team history, after Chris Burke’s $2,125,000 in 2001. Of the top five bonuses in team history, three have come since 2005: Castro, Max Sapp ($1,400,000), and Brian Bogusevic ($1,375,000). Not coincidentally, Bogusevic and Castro are among the organization’s top three prospects. Sapp, who was recentl
y hospitalized with viral meningitis, may never play baseball again.
What this means is that several years’ worth of players drafted while the team was “competitive” have not managed to surpass the promise of two players drafted with high draft picks in the past three seasons.
By remaining where they are, and giving up a chance to compete for a Wild Card, the Astros are likely to better place themselves in position to get one, and possibly two top-tier prospects in the 2010 draft. In my opinion, it’s far better to finish fourth or worst and put yourself into a better draft position than it is to finish third – still out of the playoffs, but without the draft pick to show for it.
And for a team whose number one priority has to be re-stocking their farm system, it may be better to underperform than to overperform, provided overperforming doesn’t put them in the playoffs. That’s the tipping point. If you can get into the playoffs, you can win it all. But all teams outside of the playoffs are, for all intents and purposes, on a level playing field. Twenty-two teams don’t make the playoffs every season. If you’re going to be one of those teams, isn’t it better to have not spent $15-20m in the process?
That money, at this point, is better spent on the draft, scouting, and development of prospects, who can then be groomed and called up, giving the organization a far better – and affordable – chance to re-stock their major league talent than free agency can.
In other words, would you rather sign C.C. Sabathia at about $23m or draft David Price with a $5,600,000 bonus and pay him $400,000? In theory, you could have 3 David Prices for the cost of one C.C. Sabathia.
It seems like a no-brainer to me.