A few days ago Wayler send me a post suggestion: Why not talk to the guys at The Crawfish Boxes about how they survived the pain of “rebuilding” now that they have come out the other side. So I sent an email to our friends in Houston and asked them some questions about how they got through the rebuilding years.
The Astros had three seasons of over 100 losses: 2011 (56-106), 2012 (55-107) and 2013 (51-111). Then they started to turn things around with win totals of 70, 86, 84 and then 101 in 2017, when they won their first World Series in franchise history.
For three seasons they were really, really bad. 2019 Blue Jays bad (actually some worse really, but we have time to bridge that gap). I’m hopeful that we won’t have three seasons with 100+ losses, but when you are in the middle of a terrible season, it is hard not get the feeling that the bad play will never end. And sometimes it is hard to believe that any other team has had it as bad, or that the bad times will ever end.
This is the result of our conversation, as written by the staff of The Crawfish Boxes
Dear Blue Jays fans, take it from the Astros, a brutal rebuild can be worth it
Dear Blue Jays fans,
As a duly-nominated representative of the Houston Astros fans who suffered through a dreadful rebuild and rejoiced in the 2017 World Series, I greet you. Our teams remain rivals on the diamond, but baseball can only grow if engaged fans continue to bring their kids to ballgames and watch on TV. And so, in the interest of keeping baseball alive in the great* city of Toronto, I am happy to respond to a desperate query from one of your fan blog overlords.
*note: I have never been to Toronto, but I am calling it great despite my lack of firsthand knowledge, I use the term in the interest of sucking up so you will read the rest of this article.
“Please talk us off the ledge.”
Succinct, and definitely a request born of feeling that I well understand. Allow me to establish my credentials before embarking on a quest to make you believe that being a fan of a rebuilding team is worth your time and stress.
My baseball fandom grew in college, circa 2002, as I was introduced to fantasy baseball and lived with a roommate who avidly watched the Astros from our apartment near Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I had always enjoyed baseball, and grew up occasionally visiting the Astrodome with my family, and I had previously been exposed to the “Killer B’s”. But this was the beginning into my deep dive into full-fledged baseball nerddom.
In 2005, the Astros reached the World Series despite a woeful offense and summarily got their butts handed to them by the Chicago White Sox. Around 2008, I wrote my first blog post, with the title, “Drayton Please Don’t Buy the Hype.” I realized the Astros’ roster was getting old and expensive, and that the house of cards was built on land with no foundation. The farm was atrocious. I pleaded with then-owner Drayton McLane to not spend a fortune on long-contract expensive free agents, and to reinvest in scouting and player development. Drayton ignored me.
The rest is well documented. McLane (blessedly, but unfortunately belatedly) sold the Astros to the Jim Crane-led ownership group, who were strong-armed by MLB into moving the Astros to the AL West as a condition of ownership. This coincided with a dearth of talent at the ML and minor league levels, plus a roster bogged down with monster contracts to aging and declining Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee.
It was a situation without parallel in Major League history, and so the new group, led by General Manager Jeff Luhnow, executed a rebuild without parallel in Major League history. They got rid of everything except the stadium, and invested only in players who could be later traded for younger assets. They heavily invested in decision sciences, drafting, and player development. The resulting three 106+ loss seasons were brutal to watch on TV...but fascinating in other ways. Even during the 51-win 2013 season, it was easy to discern “The Process”.
Throughout this entire rebuild (beginning in 2012) and up through the 2017 World Series victory (the first in franchise history) I wrote over four hundred articles for The Crawfish Boxes, and so I have a personal investment that gives me a rare perspective on just the questions you now face.
Here are the questions submitted to me:
1. My Jays are in the first year of a rebuild and we are going to lose a lot of games this year. More than I expected. The Astros have been through that and have come out the other side. How did you get through that first 100 loss season without tearing all your hair out?
Well, many Astros fans actually are now bald after wading through that nonsense.
For me, understanding the off-field narratives was the key to finding enjoyment during the 100-loss seasons. While I didn’t watch much Minor League Baseball, I did find excitement in checking up on the performance of key prospects in the Houston system - George Springer, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Jr, etc. It was fun to see them succeed and reach the Major Leagues for the first time.
Be aware though, that heartache looms on the all-prospect path of fandom as well. Jon Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and yes, Mark Appel are illustrations that you should never consider YOUR favorite prospect to be a can’t-miss.
So focus on more than the prospects. Understanding the team’s financial situation can actually drive some enjoyment in following the off-field activities. Did a trade free up cash? That’s good, even if the cash is not spent this year or the next. Paying down stadium debt, for example, is the most boring thing in the world to get enthused about, but lower debt potentially means more future spending - when the time is right.
Finally, keep watching the baseball. Losing sucks. But even in the worst year, the Astros won 51 games and the excitement of an underdog worst-team-in-baseball pulling out an unlikely victory on the backs of unlikely heroes like Justin Maxwell and Matt Dominguez was actually kind of fun. And you may discover some new favorite players (like TROOGGGDOOOORRRR!!!) along the way.
2. During the first year of the rebuild, were you able to keep your hopes up that it was going to get better, or did you just kind of wallow in the sadness brought by the daily thumpings?
The key is keeping the eye on the prize. It would have been more depressing for me if during all the losing, my front office had been making bonehead moves.
I am reminded of the rebuilding Royals from the mid-aughts. A clearly non-playoff contender that needed to invest heavily in developing its farm (containing Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Mike Montgomery, and a host of promising prospects), and yet they still spent fortunes on Gil Meche and Jose Guillen at the major league level, signing those aging players to unmovable contracts.
OK so maybe those moves led to the Royals winning 72 games instead of...say...68, but really, who gives a crap? It would have made me furious to see my club making bad financial and baseball decisions because it would have boded poorly for the long-term health of the franchise. It would not have made me feel like the front office could make good decisions later on down the road, either.
And my skepticism of the Royals proved correct...2009 through 2012 was a disaster for that franchise, and though they won a World Series in 2015 with a 95-win team, the franchise was not set up for long-term success, and has since been completely irrelevant. Anybody who tells you that one World Series is worth two decades of futility, that’s a fan who has never experienced a long period of futility.
Eye on the prize. And the prize isn’t one World Series, it should be sustained playoff success with occasional World Series appearances with the hope of a win. Every year.
3. Did the Astros’ fanbase have confidence in the front office during the rebuild or did they tend to think they were a bunch of incompetents?
What felt like a small subset of Astros fans who had been longtime readers of Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and The Hardball Times were utterly thrilled with the Front Office almost from day one.
However, judging from MLB.com message boards and comments here at TCB, it was not a view shared by a majority of fans.
You would not believe the arguments I had on this subject. McLane, the previous owner, was a cult hero among many Astros fans for bringing the World Series to Houston in 2005. They did not want to hear about the disastrous decade of drafts, of the shuttering of international developmental complexes, of ill-advised contracts, of driving off a fantastic GM in Gerry Hunsicker who went on to build the Rays into a model franchise, of croney-ing up to Bud Selig, of stubborn adherence to clearly outdated models of building a club during the Moneyball era, etc.
Fans loved McLane and hated Crane and Luhnow. McLane brought us the Killer B’s! McLane SPENT MONEY! And Crane refused to—that cheapskate!
Ugh. Just thinking about it makes me want to vomit.
I don’t have any advice for you on this one, except if you happen to be in the very lucrative fan blogging industry, as I was, please patiently explain the issues that led up to the rebuild, and what is happening behind the scenes to fix the issues inherited from past regimes.
4. In the three seasons your Astros lost 100 games, was there a point where you thought, “OK, this is going to work out?” Would you have been surprised if someone had told you it was going to lead to a World Series win?
When the Astros started dominating Top Prospect lists even after Springer, Correa, and McCullers reached the majors. When the Astros successfully developed fringey players like Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel into bona fide stars through a smart blending of analytics and coaching. When the 2014 Astros made a 20-win gain in the standings...that’s when my faith in The Process started to feel validated.
For most other fans (those not closely watching the farm and laughing over repeated lopsided trades in Houston’s favor) the revelation came when the Astros shockingly made the playoffs in 2015, which most fans considered a year or two early.
Honestly, from the get-go, because I am interested in ALL things baseball and Astros, not just what happens on the Major League field, I started to believe that The Process could lead to a World Series, or actually multiple of them, fairly early on, starting with when the Astros turned a large draft bonus pool into picks of Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, Jr (who was regarded as nigh-unsignable at the time). It took just a couple years for my belief to turn into high confidence.
5. What else should we know about a rebuild? What is the best way to survive a bad baseball team?
Truth be told, talking about and analyzing a bad club is more fun than talking about and analyzing a good one, although a good club is infinitely more enjoyable to watch. So embrace what is going on and dig into reading about your farm, about the draft, and in speculating on trading and future rosters.
One thing the Astros had going for them that ended up being surprising was the complete ineptitude of the rest of the AL West. The Rangers were a house of cards similar to the 2005 Astros, with success that could not be supported by its foundation. The Angels somehow continue to fail at exactly everything except owning the greatest player any of us will ever see. The A’s almost seem lost in the past, experimenting without a plan in order to recapture the Moneyball vibe. And the Mariners’ front office can’t seem to get out of its own way.
For the Blue Jays, unfortunately, you have to compete against the front offices of the Yankees, the Rays, and now, the Astros-disciple-led Orioles. That’s a tough hill to climb. Note that I excluded the Red Sox. They are a great team now, but I have little faith in the staying power of a Dombrowski-led club, after the spectacular implosion of the Tigers that was brought about by making the Farm a sacrificial lamb (The Red Sox have the worst farm system in MLB according to most or all ranking outlets).
The institution of harsh luxury tax penalties helps the Jays. (this is the type of factoid that will help struggling fans make sense and have hope in a rebuild) Gone are the days that the Yankees will out-spend everybody, because the penalties are more than financial. The Astros (and Rays, to an extent) have proven that high draft picks are too valuable to sacrifice under most circumstances. New York has shown no inclination over the past few years to challenge the luxury tax threshold.
And so the playing field in the AL East is actually more level than ever. So while the division is currently dominated by Judges and Bettses and Martinii and so forth...who cares? The Jays aren’t going to seriously contend for a couple years anyway, and in the meantime, those players will age or move on.
The Jays do have some monster assets that the Astros never had when embarking on their own rebuild. Good grief. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Bo Bichette. Even Cavan Biggio, a flawed player with a couple big tools, is a far better young player than anything the Astros had at the time, outside of Springer.
The Blue Jays also have exactly zero terrible contracts, which was perhaps the Astros’ second-largest issue after a lack of system talent. The Jays can keep or trade Grichuk if they choose, and he’s the only player on the books beyond 2019 with a salary of more than $10 million. Gone will be Smoak, Richard, Buchholz, Jackson. The Blue Jays, if they choose, will have the ability to make plays for Gerritt Cole, Anthony Rendon, J.D. Martinez, Marcell Ozuna, Zack Wheeler, Yasmani Grandal, Didi Gregorius, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu...whew! What a free agent class. They can hold out another season for Marcus Semien, Joc Pederson, or perhaps Betts or Springer...or Giancarlo Stanton! Remember, in two seasons, Vlad will still be VERY cheap.
The Jays’ path to competitiveness is a lot more clear than the Astros’ was. Be patient. In 2021, the Jays roster could be something like:
Fun thought exercises like that are what helps to get through a rebuild. It builds excitement for the future.
The Jays are in a good spot for the long haul; they just need to make smart moves and could be among the division contenders in a few short years.
Thanks Crawfish Boxes for doing this.
There are a lot of parallels, we get told how cheap Rogers is because they won’t spring for a pitcher who might make the team 3 or 4 games better this year. The last front office were gods for putting together a team (a team that I loved) that made made the playoffs, with older players who weren’t going to keep us at the top of the division for an extended period. We knew that going in, even if they aged quicker than we would have hoped. The new management has been trying to rebuild the farm system and are, they say, trying to build a winner which can stay competitive for a long time (whether they can do it or not is another question).
Anyway, reading this has made me feel better about the current lousy team, and made me a little more hopeful that the corner can be turned.