In 2008 and 2009, the Washington Nationals finished with the worst record in baseball. While there were many of us who loved the Nats and saw that there was a bright future developing, they were the punchline of an awful lot of jokes back then. As some of the minor league depth started to come up and two top prospects began to develop into stars, the Nats showed some gradual improvement. They added ten wins to their total in 2010. They'd add another eleven wins in 2011, finishing a half game short of .500 and making us wish that a game that was rained out against the Dodgers could have been made up. Then 2012 happened... It was glorious.
The Houston Astros have dealt with similar struggles in recent years. They finished with the worst record in baseball three years in a row from 2011 through 2013. For the past five years, their fans have been watching quite a few players who probably actually belonged in the minor leagues. Outside of a handful of players, even a lot of their legit major leaguers were guys who probably belonged in backup roles. The Astros did make a charge up the standings in 2014 as some of their youngsters showed some development, adding nineteen wins to their previous season's win total. They currently sport the best record in the AL and lead last year's best team in baseball by 5.5 games in the AL West.
Given how the Nats rose from the ashes in 2012 and the Astros seem to be doing so now, are there any similarities we can point to?
The Regime Change
In the 2011-12 offseason, after four years of Ed Wade struggling to improve the farm system, the Astros new ownership group replaced him with former Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow. Much like Mike Rizzo replacing Jim Bowden, Luhnow went to Houston with a plan. His first few seasons weren't going to be very productive at the big league level, but the plan was to restock the farm system and start developing more talent from within. The seeming "tanking" at the big league level would hurt them in the short-term (predominantly their attendance), but....
- It would yield higher draft picks
- With the changing system, it would give Houston more of a budget with their bonus money in both the draft and international free agent market
- It would lower the temptation to rush a prospect through the system because they filled a need with the big club
Luhnow incorporated some ideas that were a bit more radical than anything that Rizzo did with the Nats organization. The Astros started using the tandem starter system in the minor leagues. This meant that they would pair starters together, with each expected to throw a certain amount of pitches (regardless of innings count, game situations, etc.) when their turn(s) came up. It could give the organization more of an opportunity to evaluate a larger group of starting pitchers, as each level in the minor league system would have eight starters (some of whom would undoubtedly end up becoming relievers at some point) getting more regular work instead of five. The idea did have some merit... particularly at the lower levels of the system. Still, the experiment didn't last long.
The change in regimes has helped Houston along, though. While their success this season certainly isn't completely due to the farm system, their chances of sustaining that success may well revolve around some current minor leaguers' contributions. A few homegrown products (George Springer, Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Dallas Keuchel) have been key contributors while some of Luhnow's other buy low maneuvers (Tony Sipp, Chris Carter, Collin McHugh) have been very good as well.
Let's have a look at some of the Astros roster and see if we can compare them to some of the 2012 Nats. We may not always be going position for position, but.......
The phenom: George Springer (Bryce Harper)
It might be a little bit of a stretch to compare Springer to Bryce Harper. When Springer was called up in 2014, he was two years older than Harper is right now. Still, Springer is the type of young talent that just about every organization in baseball wants to build around. He rated 15th on John Sickels' Top 100 prospect list prior to last season and 18th on Basball America's Top 100. The Astros made it clear that they wanted to build around him prior to the beginning of the 2014 campaign, offering him a seven year, $23 million deal. Springer didn't bite, but did come up in late April of last season once the Astros were able to assure themselves an extra year of club control.
Springer's game does certainly share some characteristics with Harper. He has game-changing power. The 25-year-old hit 37 homers between AA and AAA in 2013 and hit 20 (in just 78 games!) as a rookie last season in Houston. Springer does incorporate speed into his game a bit more than Harper... He stole 45 bases in the minors in that same 2013 campaign and has stolen ten bases already. Then again, Bryce did steal 29 bases in his first two season himself, so it's not like Harper can't bring that added dimension.
Harper's greatest advantage over Springer is that he seems more capable of hitting for average. Springer carried a massive strikeout rate with him as he ascended through the minors, finishing with a strikeout rate of 24.4% or higher at each of his stops outside of rookie ball since 2012. Harper does strike out a fair amount himself, but his career strikeout rate of 21.6% is 9.9% lower than Springer's rate thus far. Springer does make up for his subpar average-hitting skills with a pretty extreme walk rate, though. He walked in 14% of his plate appearances between AA and AAA in 2013, and that skill has carried over to the majors... He walked 11.3% of the time last season and has walked a ridiculous 17.2% of the time so far in 2015.
If Springer can maintain/improve upon his current skill set, he'll end up being a unique talent. He has a chance to become one of the biggest three true outcomes players in the league. Unlike most three true outcomes guys, though, he's a threat to run any time he's on base.
The overachieving homegrown star: Jose Altuve (Ian Desmond)
Desmond profiled as a big league regular when in the Expos and Nats systems, but very few saw him turning into a three time member of the 20/20 club or a three time Silver Slugger. Altuve was supposed to be a tiny average-hitting dynamo with good speed.... a poor man's Dustin Pedroia, if you will. He ended up winning the 2014 AL batting average title (.341) and led the league in stolen bases (56). Both were considered to be guys who would develop into regulars, but they both went onto stardom instead.
The guy who came out of nowhere: Collin McHugh (Mike Morse)
McHugh had brief stints in the majors with the Mets and Rockies in 2012 and 2013. In those stints, he'd amassed an 8.94 career ERA and 1.80 WHIP in 47.1 innings. New York dealt him for one-dimensional speedster Eric Young, Jr. in June of 2013. The Rockies lost him on waivers to Houston in the offseason. McHugh came up with little fanfare last April when injuries had struck the Astros rotation. All he did was strike out 12 Mariners in 6.2 shutout innings in his Astros debut. He'd go on to follow that outing up with a near whitewashing of an Oakland A's team that finished April with a +61 run differential, allowing just one run in 8.2 innings of work.
McHugh didn't stop there. He remained in the rotation the rest of the way for Houston, finishing with a 2.73 ERA (3.11 FIP), a 1.02 WHIP, and 157 strikeouts in 154.2 innings. He still qualified as a rookie (less than 50 career big league innings entering last season), and went on to finish fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. McHugh and left-hander Dallas Keuchel both busted out last season and finally gave Houston a couple of starting pitchers they could depend upon near the top of their rotation... they'd claimed him off waivers over the offseason.
The Nats version of McHugh was obviously Mike Morse. Morse was acquired straight up from the Mariners for Ryan Langerhans. The Mariners were showered with praise for prying Langerhans, a strong defender who finished his career with a .226/.333/.371 line, from the Nats for a player who was generally considered to be minor league depth. Morse ended up being quite the success story for the Nats, batting .296/.345/.516 with 64 HR from 2010-2012 before being traded back to the Mariners in a three team trade that yielded a couple of young pitchers currently on the Nats 25 man roster.
I suppose we could add last year's Astros home run leader Chris Carter in this category as well, but Houston actually gave up real assets (Jed Lowrie and Francisco Rodriguez) to acquire Carter. Still, Carter has busted out with 73 homers since the start of the 2013 campaign after failing to stick in the majors a few times in his past.
The big trade acquisition: Evan Gattis/Jake Marisnick/Luis Valbuena (Gio Gonzalez)
I feel like the Gattis acquisition was the Astros big swing for the fences move this offseason, but it hasn't panned out particularly well. They dealt former first rounder Mike Foltynewicz and two other prospects to Atlanta to get Gattis to take over left field. Gattis does seem to have brought his power game over to Houston (8 HR, .210 ISO), but that's been his only real positive contribution to the club so far. He's had some poor BABIP luck (.196) and maintained his high strikeout rate (24.1%, right in line with last season [24.2%]), so he's certainly not hitting for average. Gattis was never a big walker in Atlanta, but he's actually been even worse so far this year (3.4%) than he was in either of his first two seasons (5.5%). This has led to an uninspiring .196/.221/.406 line from him so far this season.
Marisnick was actually picked up in a trade last season at the trade deadline, but he's played a significant role in Houston's hot start. The 24-year-old outfielder, acquired for Jared Cosart, has hit .299/.339/.453, primarily batting low in the order in the old "second leadoff" spot we often hear about. Marisnick isn't just hitting for average, but he's also flashing a little pop (3 HR, 10 XBH) and quite a bit of speed (9 for 12 in SB attempts) to go along with an above average glove in center field.
The acquisition of Marisnick at the deadline last season (and Gattis early in the offseason) made Dexter Fowler expendable. The club took advantage of that by sending him to the Cubs for Dan Strailly and Luis Valbuena. Valbuena may have been one of the better under the radar additions by any team in the offseason. He doesn't get a lot of hype, but he's a nice power and patience third baseman who hit .249/.341/.435 with 16 HR for the Cubs last season. Valbuena hasn't hit for average in Houston this season (.210), but he does lead the club with 10 HR so far and has given them a nice left-handed bat to add to the mix.
The steady climbing starting pitcher: Dallas Keuchel (Jordan Zimmermann)
Hey... Jordan Zimmermann was terrific in the minor leagues, but (even before TJ surgery) he took a couple of years to translate that to big league success. Zimmermann had a 4.71 ERA in his first couple of seasons before taking a big step forward in his first full season back from TJ surgery in 2011. Zimmermann broke out that year, finishing with a 3.18 ERA (3.16 FIP) and a 1.15 WHIP. In the years since, he's sustained that level of performance, even improving upon it a bit.
Dallas Keuchel's first two years in the majors weren't real pretty either. The 27-year-old had a 5.20 ERA between 2012 and 2013 despite looking like a guy who might develop into a middle of the rotation type in the minors. Last season, the light clicked on for Keuchel. His ground ball rate shot up from 55 to 63% and his numbers improved dramatically. He finished 2014 with a 2.93 ERA (3.21 FIP) and 1.18 WHIP. 2015 has gone even better for Keuchel. Through nine starts, Keuchel has a 1.67 ERA (2.83 FIP) and 0.97 WHIP.
The mercenary: Luke Gregerson/Pat Neshek/Jed Lowrie/Colby Rasmus (Edwin Jackson/Adam LaRoche)
Four guys? I questioned putting bullpen arms in here at all, but Gregerson and Neshek have been pretty meaningful additions to a team that hasn't had much stability in the end game for a while. Houston tied for the major league lead in Blown Saves in both 2013 (29) and 2014 (26). So far this season, they're nineteenth in the category with just four blown saves. Gregerson hasn't exactly been tremendous in May (8.10 ERA, three outings of 2+ ER in seven appearances), but he's an established reliever they feel comfortable with in leverage spots. Neshek hasn't been as insanely dominant as he was in 2014 with St. Louis, but he's stabilized a leverage spot with a 2.81 ERA thus far. Both joined the club as free agents this winter, though neither really broke the bank.
Lowrie actually returned to Houston after they shipped him off to Oakland a few years ago. He was off to a really nice start (.300/.432/.567) in April before suffering the same injury that Bryce Harper did last season... a torn UCL in his thumb. He'll be out until the All Star break, which has prompted some discussion about whether or not Houston could promote another phenom, former top overall pick Carlos Correa.
Rasmus never really developed into the star he was supposed to become, but he adds nice power, some patience, and a decent corner outfield glove. With the depth that the Astros had in the outfield, Rasmus seemed like a bit of an odd fit in Houston, but who knew that Marisnick would play as well as he has?
The Astros are doing things quite a bit differently than the Nats did in 2012. Houston's strength seems to be its offense, which currently leads the league in home runs and is fifth in runs. The two teams do both show extreme depth when it comes to power. The 2012 Nats had six regulars finish with 17 or more HR, and Tyler Moore had 10 off the bench that year. Through May 21, the Astros have seven hitters with 5 or more HR (roughly a 20 HR pace), and Lowrie had four himself before missing the past month due to injury. The 2012 Nats were a much better average hitting team than Houston, who currently ranks 29th in MLB with a .230 average.
Houston's pitching has been above average, and I would say that it's largely responsible for their move up the standings. However, it's not the dominant force that it was for the Nats when they emerged in 2012. Based on expected performance, I have a hard time comparing Keuchel and McHugh to Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann, but Keuchel and McHugh have been terrific. Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona) and Scott Feldman have been fairly steady, but the rotation depth just isn't there compared to the 2012 Nats.
Still, one of the driving forces behind the Nats emergence in 2012 was their hot start. I can't speak for the entire Nats fanbase, but the expectation that I remember is that they would contend for a wildcard spot in 2012 after a hot September in 2011 pushed them to an 80-81 finish. They got out of the gate at 14-8 in April that season and were able to remain atop the division despite average performances in the early summer months before catching fire again in July.
Houston got out of the gate fast as well, going 15-7 in April and now sit at 12-8 with a week and a half to go in May. They've established a 5.5 game lead over an Angels team that finished with the best record in baseball last season, but hasn't been all that impressive in 2015. Particularly for a team with as much young talent as the Astros have, knowing that you're riding a hot start and seeing your name atop the standings helps to build confidence. It also inspires the front office to go out and try and improve the team (for this year) around the trade deadline. Much like the 2012 Nats, the Astros appear to be a bit ahead of schedule, but I think they've arrived.