This is the conclusion to last week's series, and picks up directly where the last entry left off. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here.
-Preseason: Traded Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes for Dexter Fowler; Released JD Martinez; Signed Chad Qualls, Collin McHugh, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain, Tony Sipp, Scott Feldman, Jerome Williams
-Midseason: Traded away Kiké Hernandez and Jarred Cosart
This was actually a really busy offseason for the Astros. For those who don’t remember, just the season before, Jesse Crain had been an All-Star reliever, and Scott Feldman had been a hot trading chip at the deadline; both were considered some of the top free agents of the winter (although Crain had injuries concerns at the end of 2013 that made him more of a bet on upside than a reliable signing).
Qualls, Albers, and Williams weren’t as high-profile, but they were all still signings, as part of the over $40 million Houston spent on free agents, easily the team’s biggest foray into the market in years (whether you go by total expenditure or quality of top signings). And the Fowler trade was similarly notable; he hadn’t yet reached his peak, but Fowler was still already an above-average everyday player, and the team was giving up on their former top prospect in Lyles to acquire him. At the very least, it sure looked like a “win now” move, compared to the kinds of moves they had been making the last few years.
Unfortunately, they didn’t all pan out. Williams was cut early in the season, Crain never played another game in the Majors, and the Astros had yet another losing season. However, this did end their streak of 100-loss, last-place finishes, with the team improving to fourth place and 72 wins.
The Tony Sipp, Collin McHugh, and JD Martinez moves weren’t as notable at the time, but they wound up big in retrospect (although obviously, one of them was actually a net negative for the team). And the mid-season Jarred Cosart trade was another one that seemed questionable to some at the time, but which clearly paid off; Cosart never looked as good as he did in his 2013 debut, and the Marlins traded away Hernandez after the season. In return, the Astros got Jake Marisnick, Colin Moran (who was the other half of the package they used to acquire Gerrit Cole), and a 2015 first round pick that they used on Daz Cameron (who was later traded for Justin Verlander). Which serves another reminder: a big part of having a good farm system is using the extra depth to acquire players when you need them!
-Preseason: Pedro Severino leaves as a free agent; Signed Jordan Lyles, Rougned Odor (presumably more TBA)
We’ll soon see how the rest of this offseason plays out after the lockout is over (fingers crossed), but so far, the present-day Orioles haven’t looked nearly as busy as the 2014 Astros. They didn’t sound like they were going to sign any of the notable free agents of the winter prior to the lockout (not even the B-tier ones like Feldman and Crain), and we’ve instead been hearing rumors about them listening to offers on John Means and Cedric Mullins.*
*I’ve focused less on the Mullins news, partly because it came out after I started drafting this piece and before it grew in length, and partly because it has sounded less serious than the Means rumors, more along the lines of “anyone is available for the right price”. Taken as part of a larger picture, though, it’s definitely a little worrisome.
It might also be worth comparing where both teams were. The Astros at the time had a decent core in place, with pre-tanking acquisitions Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel spending most of 2011-2014 on the Major League roster, 2010 first round pick George Springer getting called up during the 2014 season, Collin McHugh having a breakout campaign, and 2012 first round picks Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers on the horizon (both would debut in 2015). It’s not hard to see similar promise in 2021 Orioles players like Means, Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini, Austin Hays, Adley Rutschman…
If your goal is to be competing in the next season or two with a young core, it would obviously help to be signing any free agents you need to supplement that core now. For most of the best ones, you’ll be offering multi-year deals anyway, so it’s not like they should be leaving before you’re ready. Plus, that way, you won’t be relying on other teams failing to re-sign their players or outbid you on free agents (both of which are basically guaranteed to happen at least some of the time). So, do the current Orioles think they’re further away from competing than the 2014 Astros? Maybe, but I suppose they wouldn’t say so even if they did believe that, let alone explain why they reached that conclusion.
-Preseason: Signed Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Roberto Hernandez, Joe Thatcher, and Will Harris (waivers); Traded Dexter Fowler for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily; Traded prospects for Evan Gattis, James Hoyt, and Hank Conger
The next offseason would be even busier for the Astros. Adding Colby Rasmus and bringing back Jed Lowrie was an even bigger pair of free agency signings to start with than Feldman and Crain, and their free agency spending for this winter surpassed the previous year’s total, at over $60 million.
The team was also busy on the trade front. Fowler had been decent in 2016, but was entering his final year of free agency, so the team swapped him for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. The late Valbuena was an above-average third baseman with two years of team control remaining, but he was about to be blocked by Kris Bryant; he’d go on to have two nice seasons in Houston (while Straily, who was a perpetual dark horse prospect, never quite put it all together). They would also bring in Hank Conger, a back-up catcher with an above-average bat.
But the big trade was for Evan Gattis, a move that cost them three solid prospects. Gattis wasn’t a star or anything, but he was an above-average bat who could play catcher, and even with the high asking price, it’s hard to argue that they would have been better off not pulling the trigger. Andrew Thurman never made it to AA, Rio Ruiz has been the definition of a replacement player, and Mike Foltynewicz’s best season wouldn’t come until 2018 (and still looks rather singular). Once again, if you play your cards right, one of the key benefits of having a strong farm system is trading them for already-good players.
Some commenters at the time believed the Astros were jumping the gun; after all, they hadn’t lost fewer than 90 games for four years at this point, and some people had them pegged for competing finally in 2016 or 2017. But instead, they were one of the best teams in the league, sixth-best in the league in both runs scored and runs allowed, and they were making trades as buyers come midseason. The end result was an 86-win season (with the run differential of a 93-win team) and their first playoff berth since 2005.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of potential complications in this comparison. Maybe one team was especially good or lucky when it came to drafting and developing talent, or the other especially unlucky in either way. After all, there were some useful players involved in those Astros moves I posted, but most of their best players came to the team through other avenues. That’s the single biggest difference I think, but there are so many other factors that might be throwing things off in one way or the other.*
*One pet theory that I’ve had for some time (but don’t really know how to confirm, let alone measure the exact impact of) is that the Astros (and Cubs, who employed a similar strategy concurrently) benefitted from the lack of other teams trying to tank at the same time, leaving them a wide-open lane. With the extra Wild Card slot, more teams were going for it in the early 2010s, making it more of a sellers market.
I also think it’s notable that the other front office to spin out of the 2010s Astros, the post-2015 Brewers under David Stearns, went in a very different route, trading for Christian Yelich and signing a bunch of good free agents while they worked on developing their young talent. So many teams seemed to be trying to copy the Astros/Cubs model, and it left an opening to splurge on high-end free agents and pick up relatively known quantities.
In the six seasons since then, the Brewers have made the playoffs four times and won their division twice. I’m not sure if the Orioles had the option to go that route given the rough state of the team at the time (they were in much more dire straits than most of the other teams going through extreme rebuilds over the last few seasons), but it still might apply. Granted, even if this was an added difficulty for the Orioles, I’m not sure how big of a disadvantage it would be, compared to something like the Elias regime getting an extra year at the start of their rebuild that the Astros under Lunhow didn’t get.
But either way, Baltimore is clearly following that model. And going by the Astros’ timeline, the Orioles are still not “behind schedule” on building a winning team, but there are still caveats to that. The winning years for Houston were in sight, and the team acted like it, bringing in new players and spending money. It’s not impossible that the Orioles will shift to doing this post-lockout, but there are enough signs that make me doubt it, between past penny-pinching on stuff like not keeping Villar, and current rumblings of trades.
They are at the very least past the point when the Astros were actively dealing away good players; the best players on the 2014 team basically all stayed in place through the start of their playoff run, if not longer. Which is what makes the Means and Mullins news concerning coming from a rebuilding team. Going by Baseball-Reference, the only players on their roster scheduled to hit free agency before the 2025 season are Mancini and Odor. As a reminder, that would correspond to the 2016-2017 free agency period for the Astros’ rebuild.
The big acquisitions of the rebuild aren’t on the major league roster yet, but drafting and developing players takes time. You still need to recognize your best talent from the time before the rebuild, develop it, and build around it so when the new blood starts to arrive, it’s not joining a total AAA squad. Even the best established-talent-for-prospects trades will miss on prospects a lot, and giving up on the established talent you have now doesn’t guarantee you’ll get more down the line. That type of deal makes sense if you don’t think you’ll be competing for another three years or so, but going by the precedent we have, that’s the exact opposite of where Baltimore should be in their process right now.