After six losing seasons, Astros fans brace for another

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HOUSTON — When Jim Crane bought the Astros in November 2011, optimism swept through a baseball community that had comparatively few reasons to celebrate during the previous four or five decades.

We were not too sorry to see you go, Drayton McLane.  You did give us our only World Series (swept, though the Astros were, by the White Sox in ’05).  You had a good run from the Killer B’s, Bagwell and Biggio, whom you inherited.  But your ownership can best be summarized as ashes to ashes.

When John McMullen sold you the team, it was as stripped-down as a junkyard car.  And by golly, you were determined to leave ’em like you found ’em.  A roster full of fringe veterans and not-ready-for-prime-time youngsters.

You made one smart decision shortly after purchasing the club.  You hired as president Tal Smith, who raided the New York Mets’ front office for baseball’s smartest young executive at the time, Gerry Hunsicker, who became Sporting News Executive of the Year (1998) on the way to building your World Series team.

Too bad you didn’t let general manager Hunsicker fire an underperforming assistant GM, Tim Purpura, as he wanted to do in ’04.

McLane did the kindhearted deed of protecting Purpura, whereupon Hunsicker abruptly quit.  He went on to help rescue the Tampa Bay Rays, who were on life support.  Within three years they were in the World Series. 

Meanwhile, Purpura (Poor-poor-a, he was called by some in the organization) lasted two years as GM before he was replaced by Ed Wade, who had been runner-up behind Hunsicker in the GM competition in 1995.

In McLane’s final five years as a baseball owner, he was 79 games under .500 and never better than third place in his division.  But hey, for a guy who came in not knowing what Earned Run Average is, he did better than we had any right to expect.

We had higher hopes for Crane, who so much unlike McLane entered the baseball business as a baseball fan who even played the game.  He pitched for Division II Central Missouri in the 1970s.

But here we are, the season about to open (Monday at home against Cleveland), and the rebuilding project is nowhere near completion.  All Crane has produced so far are two triple-digit losers, prior to last year’s step up to 70-92 which was enough to escape the cellar of the American League West.

Crane took over a team with a players’ payroll of $63 million and promptly chopped it to $10 million – far below that of any of the other 29 teams.  It didn’t matter that he accepted an extra $70 million from MLB to switch the Astros to the American League – an unpopular move with the fan base.  He didn’t use that windfall to spend on ballplayers.

One Astros executive told me:  “You see lots of teams rebuild, but I don’t think anyone has ever burned the whole thing down like we did.” 

Crane’s plan was to build from the scorched earth up and hope Houston would be patient.  General manager Jeff Luhnow came from the St. Louis Cardinals and replicated their farm system, which has long been the industry standard.

The Astros purged themselves of every veteran they could, even young and talented ones, such as outfielder Hunter Pence, an All-Star at 28 when Luhnow dumped him for prospects who have yet to develop.  Pence was a key force in San Francisco’s World Series championship last October.

It didn’t help Crane’s image that stories circulated in mainstream media that his franchise was one of the most profitable in the sport.

Although attendance at Minute Maid Park sank to 1.7 million a year, and although the Astros have the major leagues’ worst local television contract (over which Crane sued McLane), their labor costs are so low and national TV revenues so high that Crane can make his multimillions while putting out a laughable product.

Such are the economics of major sports, even ones that are steadily slipping in popularity.

Crane promised that when the renovated farm system was ready to harvest, he would stop diving for dollars.  Some fans were thinking this would be the year.  Luhnow has done his part, building a minor-league organization that for the past two years has been ranked by Baseball America among the top five.

The team has young stars.  Jose Altuve, 24, is the shortest player in the majors, at 5-6, but had the most hits, 225.  George Springer, 25, hit 20 home runs in 78 games as a rookie.  Catcher Jason Castro, 27, is solid offensively and defensively. 

Lefty Dallas Keuchel, 27, has a magnificent beard that would be the envy of James Harden, and he heads the pitching staff after a promising 12-9 season (2.93 ERA) with 200 innings. But he lacks the arm of a prototype ace.  He’s more of a No. 2, as is Collin McHugh, also 27, who was 11-9 and 2.73 for the Astros last year.

Veteran Scott Feldman is a decent No. 3 starter, but Brett Oberholzer, 25, and Brad Peacock, 27, who filled out the back end of the rotation, are recovering from injuries and have been raked in spring training.

Luhnow tightened the bullpen by using his very limited budget to sign Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, but closer Chad Qualls does not inspire confidence at 36.

The new manager, A.J. Hinch, is 40 and should relate well with this mostly young team.  He also will go along with Luhnow’s analytics approach, which the previous field manager, Terry Porter, did not fully embrace.

But I don’t see enough here to think the Astros can possibly achieve .500 this season. 

Crane is holding back on spending until a few more young athletes prove they’re big-leaguers.  This year the Astros are projected for $44.5 million in players’ salaries  — again the lowest in the sport.

Imagine if they patterned themselves after the Kansas City Royals, a smaller-market team with an excellent farm system and mid-sized payroll ($91 million), good enough to get them to Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.

While the players union pushes hard against a salary cap, it might do well to demand a salary floor.  Require these bottom-feeders to spend enough to field a competitive ballclub.

The argument against such a measure is that top-dollar free agents won’t go to a hopeless non-contender.  But if the Astros’ payroll had never plunged below, say, $70 million, their situation would not have become so hopeless.  They’ve dug such a hole that they’re still years away from climbing out.  Houston, we have a problem, and it’s long term.

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