"That total rebuild is not something we really believe in, and not something Billy or I want to do. It's not enjoyable to sit through six months of a season and lose 95-100 a games." -David Forst, A's Assistant GM, February 2015
"Our fans have gone through the painful experience of the cycle on the way down, from the World Series in 2005 to basically two 100-loss seasons in a row. This is as far down as it goes. From here going forward, it goes up." -Jeff Luhnow, Astros GM, October 2012 (before a 111-loss season)
Watching the A's and the Astros, I can't help but think about the radically different philosophies of Billy Beane and Houston's General Manager, Jeff Luhnow. Both the A's and the Astros are supposedly exiting a rebuild this year, but the A's' teardown and rebuild took exactly one off-season, whereas the Astros are going on five years now.
Many baseball commenters look at the Astros' rebuild as "the right way." Conventional wisdom does not advocate trading elite prospects like Addison Russell for mid-tier talent, as the A's essentially did via a series of trades, exchanging Russell for what eventually became Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley and Chris Bassitt. If Billy Beane was the Astros' GM, George Springer or Jose Altuve might have been long gone. Jon Singleton would have been traded at the height of his hype. Jason Castro, like Derek Norris, would have been jettisoned after his all-star season, netting a return of four talented big leaguers (or AAA types ready to make the jump).
Jeff Luhnow has played it safe. He had the luxury to do so -- he inherited a losing team, and a new owner that was happy not to spend any money for a few years after shelling out mightily to purchase the team. He has a nice ballpark in the fourth largest city in the nation. Simply put, he had no urgency to win and he ran the team like a man with no urgency.
Most of the Astros' core were drafted by the team or has spent many years in their system:
- Jose Altuve - signed as a young kid out of Venezuela
- George Springer - first round pick
- Jason Castro - first round pick
- Dallas Keuchel - seventh round pick
- Jonathan Villar and Brett Oberholtzer have been in the Astros' system since 2011
Sure, they have their share of free agents; Collin Mchugh was essentially a Beane-style scrap heap pickup. This day and age it's relatively impossible to have an entirely homegrown team. But they've generally stuck with their talent and attempted to amass more young talent (for example, Chris Carter and Robbie Grossman came in via trades of veterans in moribund seasons).
On the flip side, you have the A's, who have exactly two players they drafted that are with the major league team, Sonny Gray and Sean Doolittle. They happen to be the only A's players who have spent any significant time in their Athletics' minor league system at all. Pretty much every player on this team came from somewhere else, and many of them just arrived over the winter.
When the A's had a disappointing 2014 finish and were a team loaded with veterans that they probably could not afford, they had a choice. They could have traded all their good players for prospects, saved some money, got a couple of high draft picks over the next few years, and tried to have a bunch of rising young stars impact the team at the same time.
The other choice is the one that they did make -- don't stop competing. Trade for one year of Ben Zobrist, sign Billy Butler, go with 33 year old Sam Fuld, insist on receiving Brett Lawrie back for Josh Donaldson, grab young players to be immediate contributors like Marcus Semien, Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin and keep going for it. The A's simultaneously got younger and cheaper while remaining defiantly in go-for-it mode. Franklin Barreto is the only young prospect netted in the A's trades of five all-stars over the past year, and they sent out their top 3 prospects.
In the long run, the Astros may end up having a team flush with superstars out of their many high first round draft picks. Maybe they will dominate for years down the road. I don't know. I personally would rather have a competitive team that stays competitive versus a team with absolutely no chance for four seasons that may be turning the corner.
Despite the stark contrast in their lead-up to 2015, both teams are at sort of the same stage at this point. The Astros finally went out and signed some free agents to add to their team, a sign that they expect to be competitive and are trying to step their game up. Astros fans and the baseball world are expecting the team to at least put up a fight this year; most observers and projections seem to have them around .500 or better. That's also where I've seen the A's predicted to finish. Nobody is writing off either team in the AL West. A's fans, staff, coaches, and players have all said that they are not laying down this season and the early going speaks to that.
With two teams in the same division whose philosophies could not be more different, it will be interesting to see which rebuild works out better in 2015.