Read the methodology behind the ratings here. Remember that the grading scale is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.
2012 Organizational Rankings
Houston’s 2011 Ranking: #30
2012 Outlook: 26 (30th)
Five position players recorded a WAR above 2.0 (i.e. league average) last season for the Astros, and three of those five (Clint Barmes, Michael Bourn, and Hunter Pence) don’t play for the club anymore. Another (El Caballo himself, Mr. Carlos Lee) benefited greatly from a defensive rating (11.2 UZR) which is almost certainly not representative of his true talent. And the fifth, Brian Bogusevic, benefited not only from defensive runs (12.1 UZR in just 324.0 innings in the corner outfield) but also a .355 BABIP. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the Astros’ present is dim. On the brightish side, J.D. Martinez appears poised to provide value on both sides of the ball, and offseason acquisition Chris Snyder (in tandem with now-less-injured Jason Castro) has a good chance of improving upon the -0.3 WAR for which Houston catchers combined in 2011. But in reality, the 2012 Astros are, on paper, perhaps the worst team in recent baseball history. They might not match the 119 loss season that the 2003 Detroit Tigers put up, but they’re a mortal lock for 90 losses and a pretty good bet for 100. This is just a roster that is not set up to compete against Major League teams.
2013+ Outlook: 31 (30th)
For as poor as the rating here is, it could have conceivably been worse. First-base prospect Jonathan Singleton (ranked No. 1 in the system by our Marc Hulet), right-hander Jarred Cosart (No. 3), left-hander Brett Oberholtzer (No. 4), right-hander Paul Clemens (No. 5), outfielder Domingo Santana (No. 7), and right-hander Kyle Weiland (No. 15) have all been acquired via trade since the middle of the 2011 season. It’s not a premium group of talent (although Singleton and center fielder George Springer, acquired via the most recent draft from Connecticut, have rather high ceilings), but it’s better than what existed for most of GM Ed Wade’s tenure. Of course, the outlook for the future is, in part, informed by present talent, and the Astros don’t have a lot of that in place. The aforementioned Martinez and, if you’re squinting, second baseman Jose Altuve are some combination of talented and cost-controlled. Other young players like Chris Johnson, Jordan Schafer, and Brett Wallace, however, are more or less replacement-level roster filler holding down their respective roles until something more promising comes along. The Astros have the top pick in this summer’s draft, and whoever they select will instantly become the face of the franchise. That’s not fair, but it’s just where the Astros are right now.
Financial Resources: 44 (22nd)
The Astros’ current payroll (ca. $60 million) is a poor barometer for what new principal owner Jim Crane et al. are likely to spend in the future; however, given the club’s muted chances for success this season, there was little reason for GM Jeff Luhnow to participate actively in free agency this offseason. Per Forbes, the Astros are estimated to be the 13th most valuable club in the majors, with a value of $549 million. Per the most recent census, the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is the fifth largest in the United States. Neither figure guarantees that the team will finish, say, in the top half of the league’s payrolls anytime soon — especially considering that there won’t be much of a product on the field — but there’s some potential energy, at least, and reason to believe that the club could approach the organizational high of $103 million from 2009. What the Astros will certainly have in the near future is financial flexibility: only one player (Wandy Rodriguez, $13.5 million) currently on the roster is due to make more than $5 million next season. When the team is ready to spend, they should have the resources to go after the talent they need to acquire.
Baseball Operations: 50 (12th)
According to FanGraphs authors, this is the currently the strength of the Houston organization. Approximately three weeks after his ownership group’s purchase of the Astros became official, Jim Crane hired Jeff Luhnow from the St. Louis Cardinals to serve as his general manager. Though he went by different titles during his tenure with the Cardinals, Luhnow oversaw the club’s amateur draft from 2005 through 2011. Notably, Luhnow also graduated from Univeristy of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics and engineering and then received an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern — all of which suggests the pedigree of the league’s younger, analytical GMs. Among his first hires, Luhnow took Sig Mejdal — who famously plays the role of the Ubernerd in Sam Walker’s book Fantasyland — with him from the Cards, to serve as the club’s director of decision sciences, and then they brought in Mike Fast, one of the premier analysts in the online baseball community.
There’s more to running a baseball team than just hiring smart people, of course, but Luhnow has already had success in putting quality processes in place, and his track record in St. Louis suggests that he understands how to cultivate talent in an organization. Their front office is clearly making steps to change the way the Astros have been managed, and they understand the task ahead of them. That they brought in someone with a long range vision and gave the staff the authority to carry out a necessary rebuilding is a good sign in and of itself, and when you add in Luhnow’s success in St. Louis, it’s easy to see that the Astros are now in good hands.
Overall: 36 (29th)
Given the almost inevitable 100-loss season to come, the Astros’ ranking is (deservedly) poor. There’s little more to say about that. For how poor the team is currently, however, there are reasons for optimism, both from a front office headed by a talented, analytically minded GM and also the ownership group that had the presence of mind to hire him. It’s not going to be an easy road back for Houston, and the next few seasons are going to be fairly painful to watch on a daily basis, but there is a path to success for the team, and the organization is now headed down it. Success will require patience, but for the first time in a while, the Astros are headed in the right direction.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.