From Cellar Dweller to Title Contender

It’s April 1st and Opening Day. This date on the calendar means that every single MLB club has a theoretical chance of winning the 2013 World Series, regardless of how much it may seem like a joke.  Nevertheless, there are colossal differences in hype and expectations for each team. For example, the Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Rays, and Washington Nationals are all considered serious contenders for the upcoming campaign while the Houston Astros are expected to toil in mediocrity yet again. However, these teams have more in common than you might think. Since the start of the 2002 season, each of these four franchises has had an unfortunate stretch in which they finished with the worst record in the MLB for consecutive campaigns.

30th 29th 28th
2002 Detroit Tigers Tampa Bay Devil Rays Milwaukee Brewers
2003 Detroit Tigers Tampa Bay Devil Rays San Diego Padres
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks Kansas City Royals Seattle Mariners
2005 Kansas City Royals Pittsburgh Pirates Tampa Bay Devil Rays
2006 Tampa Bay Devil Rays Kansas City Royals Chicago Cubs
2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays Pittsburgh Pirates Kansas City Royals
2008 Washington Nationals Seattle Mariners San Diego Padres
2009 Washington Nationals Pittsburgh Pirates Baltimore Orioles
2010 Pittsburgh Pirates Seattle Mariners Arizona Diamondbacks
2011 Houston Astros Minnesota Twins Seattle Mariners
2012 Houston Astros Chicago Cubs Colorado Rockies

So what have the Tigers, Rays, and Nationals done to transform into title contenders? And can the lowly Astros emulate their strategies to compete in the AL West sooner rather than later? To answer both questions, we have to take an in-depth look into each team’s metamorphosis and then see how Houston stacks up.

Detroit Tigers

The 2002 and 2003 seasons for the Detroit Tigers were among the worst in baseball history. Stretching across both years, they sported an abysmal 98 – 215 record. To put that into perspective, eight teams finished with 98 or more wins during a single season during that timeframe. Although their game was atrocious all around, the Tigers were absolutely anemic at the plate. In 2002, not a single Tiger OPS’d over .800, a fate which would have been shared in 2003 if not for the saving grace of Dmitri Young. After posting the worst record since the 1962 New York Mets, the Tigers were rewarded by being able to select Justin Verlander with the 2nd overall pick in the MLB Draft.

Three short years later, the 2006 Tigers won the AL Pennant but ended up losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. They accomplished this through a series of transactions which all worked out in their favor. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez and outfielder Magglio Ordoñez were signed as free agents while Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco were acquired from the Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies respectively. All were instrumental in the Tigers’ championship chase in 2006, but only one of those transactions still gives the Tigers weight in the AL Central.

Justin Verlander has been nothing short of phenomenal in his time with Detroit so far. He has held other teams to a .232/.295/.356 slash line, making the average opposing batter resemble a backup middle-infielder. This dominance paid off big time for Verlander as the Tigers extended him through the 2019 season for a cool $180 million in late March.

Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays

As the Tigers shot their way out of the cellar in 2006, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays tripped down the stairs and landed there for the next two years. The Devil Rays had the worst ERA in the league during that stretch so whatever offense that could be mustered by Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Carlos Pena was not nearly enough. But after finishing last in 2007, the Rays rocked the baseball word by dropping the ‘Devil’ from their name and finishing 2008 with a 97 – 65 record, good for a 1st place AL East finish. But unlike the Tigers, the Rays built almost their entire team through one method – the draft.

Evan Longoria and David Price were selected by the Rays in the 2006 and 2007 first rounds respectively. Just six games into his MLB career, the Rays extended Longoria to a nine-year deal worth a potential $44 million. It was a huge risk to take but hindsight shows that the Rays’ faith in Longo was well founded. History repeated itself this past offseason when the Rays extended Longoria yet again, this time adding six years and $100 million on top of his contract already in place. Operating in a small market, the Rays need to draft and develop well.

And that is exactly what they have done to continue their success over the past half-decade. All of the Rays’ top talent is either home grown or the product of trades due to a surplus of skill at certain positions, like the trade of James Shields to Kansas City to acquire a potentially dangerous bat in Wil Myers. Billy Beane may have first implemented “Moneyball,” but the Rays are currently employing it to perfection.

Washington Nationals

The move from Montreal had not been kind to the Expos/Nationals franchise. Since the relocation after the 2004 season, the team consisted of an ensemble of journeymen who hadn’t lived up to expectations. The Ronnie Belliards, Christian Guzmans, and Lasting Milledges of the world hit in the heart of the Nationals’ lineup while John Lannan anchored the pitching staff. A lone bright spot for the future shone in the form of Ryan Zimmerman, who finished runner up for Rookie of the Year while driving in 110 runs.

Has there ever been a more fortuitous period to finish two seasons in a row with the worst record? Two “once-in-a-generation” talents, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper fell into the Nationals’ lap and both are living up to the hype. Furthermore, the Nationals have surrounded their superstars with other successful homegrown talents such as Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond. The rest of the core was carefully crafted through free agent signings after the 2010 season (Jayson Werth + Adam LaRoche) or trades (Gio Gonzalez and Wilson Ramos). They locked up original superstar Ryan Zimmerman through the 2020 season and would be foolish to not try the same with Strasburg + Harper.

Houston Astros

Now we arrive back at our subject in question – the reigning two year ‘champs’ of the MLB draft. The current roster of the Astros most closely resembles the Tampa Bay squad circa 2007. That team consisted of a bunch of young guns, many of whom were getting their first real cup of coffee in the big leagues, playing in everyday roles in an attempt to see who stuck. Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Dioner Navarro, Brendan Harris, and Akinori Iwamura are the position players who saw their first consistent big league action while all five starting pitchers, led by James Shields and Scott Kazmir, were under 25 years old.

Houston adopted a similar “see what sticks” strategy for the 2012 season. Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence were shipped out at the previous trade deadline which opened the way for the likes of J.D. Martinez and Justin Maxwell. When Carlos Lee was traded to the Miami Marlins a year later, they received 3B Matt Dominguez – a gold-glove caliber fielder who is now earning his stripes in the batter’s box as well. Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell are MLB-capable pitchers but sit atop of an Astros rotation that lacks a frontline starter. Perhaps the lone star on the Lone Star state squad is 2nd baseman Jose Altuve. The 5’5” speedster hit .290 while swiping 33 bags in his 2012 campaign.

After dissecting the current state of the Astros roster, it is obvious that while comparable to the Rays, the Astros are way further off from being a contender. So far off, in fact, that a 3rd consecutive last place finish seems like a probable destination in 2013.

The farm system is not bursting at the seams with talent like the Rays, a fact that is especially evident when looking at pitching depth. Shortstop Carlos Correa was Houston’s first overall pick last draft and, despite a mediocre stint in rookie league, is still thought of as a potential perennial All-Star, although a few years away from playing in the Show.

June 6th is this year’s First-Year Player Draft and the Astros, yet again, have first crack at the talent pool. Stanford RHP Mark Appel is the consensus best available pitcher and I would be surprised if the Astros don’t pounce on the opportunity to secure a future ace who might just be MLB-ready by the time he is drafted. Appel didn’t sign with the Pirates last year after getting drafted 8th overall, but there should be no signing scare here since there’s not much higher to go than first overall. If they live up to their projections, Correa and Appel could supply the Astros with a Strasburg/Harper-esque tandem to serve as the foundation for a major turnaround in Houston.

The game of baseball is changing. While this change is not necessarily visible on the field, it can clearly be seen in the front offices. Home grown superstars are incredibly important to franchises and they are being treated as such. As we’ve seen with the Tigers, Rays, and Nationals, capitalizing on top draft picks is paramount to a franchise’s progression. The parlay of those selections into young and affordable superstars is the way all three teams have climbed out of the cellar.

The era of winning a World Series through the free agent market has come and gone. The disaster known as the Miami Marlins’ 2012 offseason is living proof. In its place arises a cycle of developing and retaining homegrown talent. The more teams that lock up their players before they hit free agency, the less other teams will be willing to spend in the free agent market. Therefore, they will have more money to extend their own players.

The Astros’ much publicized “cheaper than A-Rod” payroll is actually a blessing. By only spending $25 million on what appears to be a season to forget, down the road the Astros should be able to shell out funds to keep the likes of Altuve, Norris, and Harrell, as well as making preemptive deals with dynamic players like Correa and possibly Appel. While not in a desirable position for 2013, the Houston Astros are on the right track for molding a dangerous team down the line. The Tigers, Rays, and Nationals have proven that rock bottom with great drafting is a good place to start in order to eventually get to the top.

 

Kevin Carter

Georgetown University Class of 2016

Follow GSABR on Twitter: @GtownSports

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