The Art of the Tank

The Astros got their rebuilding process started early by trading Roy Oswalt. (via Yeeland)

The Astros got their rebuilding process started early by trading Roy Oswalt. (via Yeeland)

A little over a month ago, Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer Mike Sielski wrote a satirical story on the Phillies’ Dec. 10 trade of closer Ken Giles to the Houston Astros. A surprising number of readers didn’t get it. Even though satire is kind of his thing.

For readers who doubted Sielski wrote the piece with tongue firmly in cheek, the jig should have been up in the third paragraph, where he wrote this about the deal, which netted the Phils five pitchers, including big league right-hander Vincent Velasquez and lefty Brett Oberholtzer:

And what did they get in return? Two pitchers whose earned-run averages weren’t nearly as good as Giles’ was? A pitching prospect and an outfield prospect — two guys who haven’t even played in the majors yet? None of these players is Carlos Correa or Evan Gattis, which means I can tell you something with certainty right now: This trade was pointless. It won’t help the Phillies next season, and it only might help them two or three years from now. Who has time to wait that long? The Phillies were 81-81 in 2012. They won 73 games in 2013 and 73 games in 2014 before plummeting to 63-99 last season. Why waste more years waiting? Fans in this town have suffered enough, and this front office wants them to suffer more?

The giveaway there? Gattis, the lumberjack of a designated hitter who slashed a meh .246/.285/.463 last year, when he played the bulk of his games in that bandbox called Minute Maid Park. He wasn’t the answer for Houston. He’s not the answer for anyone else. And yet, many proceeded to troll Sielski mercilessly, as if there’s any other way. Which made the whole thing even funnier.

The Phils are now in the tank, fielding a glorified Triple-A squad for 2016. At least they have good examples to follow. Giles’ new team is one. The other, of course, is the Chicago Cubs, which this winter beat their arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals at their own game of using tradition and winning to coax big free agents. If that doesn’t represent a sea change for the Cubs franchise, nothing does.

So take heed, Phillies management. And Cincinnati Reds management. And Atlanta Braves management. To borrow from Gordon Gecko, tanking is good. Tanking is right. Tanking works. But only if it’s done properly.

Step One: Dive In

Back in March of 2010, Ed Wade was beginning his third season as the general manager of the Houston Astros. Drayton McLane still owned the team back then, but he was already committed to selling it.

Wade had already been ripped apart by fans and the media during his tenure as the Phillies’ general manager. And now the fans and media in Houston were piling on after two blah seasons of playoff-less baseball.

The Astros were still in the National League Central, a division commanded by the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, who by the end of the year would have the National League MVP in first baseman Joey Votto. Even the Milwaukee Brewers were good and getting better.

The Astros roster, meanwhile, was filled with underperforming players, whether because of injuries (Lance Berkman), a total lack of motivation (Carlos Lee), a one-dimensional game (Michael Bourn) or simply declining skills (Roy Oswalt).

Wade was the easy scapegoat, but it wasn’t his fault. His marching orders from McLane were pretty clear.

“It’s got to be to try to win now,” Wade said before the 2010 season, when the ‘Stros would finish fourth in their division and 10 games under .500. “There is an ongoing cultural change where it’s instant gratification. When we say we’re trying to emphasize our scouting and player development side, that doesn’t answer the bell today. I want my first World Series ring, and I want our fans to feel that it all begins today. We’re not saying wait three years for us. If that was the case, the composition of the team would be vastly different.”

Yep. It’d look a whole lot like the team Jeff Luhnow put together in his first year as Astros GM two years later, when McLane was out and new owner Jim Crane had bought into Luhnow’s plan to completely tear down the organization.

How much had Crane bought in? Even after three straight seasons with win totals in the 50s, Crane extended Luhnow’s contract.

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“You’d always like to make better progress, but what everyone can see is we’ve got the farm system in much better shape and we made some nice improvements last year, and what he’s trying to do now will get us closer to where we want to be, if not make a run pretty soon,” Crane told MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart last December.

And now, of course, both men look like geniuses.

Up north in Chicago, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein came into the job in October of 2011 with more clout than Luhnow initially had in Houston, but Epstein’s situation was virtually the same. His boss, a relatively new owner in Tom Ricketts, gave Epstein the keys to the franchise and trusted him fully with a massive rebuild.

Step Two: Be Honest

Unlike poor Wade, neither Luhnow nor Epstein were forced to apply lipstick to pigs. The Cubs introduced Epstein in an offseason in which the archrival St. Louis Cardinals were in danger of losing their top offensive player (sound familiar)? But the time wasn’t right to sign then-free agent first baseman Albert Pujols.

Another power-hitting payroll suck, Prince Fielder, was on the market, as well. Reporters at Esptein’s introductory press conference asked asked him about both, and according to a report from ESPN Chicago he answered like a true oracle.

“The key is to pay for future performance, not past performance,” he said.

Tigers and Angels fans can drink to that. Epstein talked more about building a “foundation” and a “winning culture” and about creating an endless pipeline of talent to the big leagues. Basically, he was laying his own foundation with the fans and media, consistently suggesting the Cubs were in rebuilding mode and wouldn’t win right away.

Meanwhile, over in Houston, Luhnow’s mere hire told fans all they needed to know about the immediate future of their team. Team president and CEO George Postolos said this in a statement the team issued after the deal was done.

Jeff is the perfect fit for the Astros because of his track record in scouting and player development during his eight-plus seasons with the Cardinals.”

Nothing in there about winning at the big league level.

For his part, Luhnow did his best to cheerlead the franchise and its fans, conceding that the team was in rebuilding mode while promising a brighter future to any reporter, blogger or podcast host who would listen.

“We’d like to (watch) it go as fast as it can without making promises on any time frame,” he told the Houston Chronicle after his first season at the helm. “This city deserves a baseball team that they’re not only proud of, they’re excited to come to the ballpark and watch. And I don’t think we’re that far away from being able to deliver.”

It depends on how you define “far away,” which Luhnow didn’t, by the way. Unbridled optimism with no specifics.

Houston suffered through two more 50s-win seasons before light finally shone at the end of that tunnel.

Step Three: Win the Deadline

It’s not like Epstein and Jed Hoyer really wanted to dump Jeff Samardzija in 2014. The two parties had been flirting with each other over a contract extension for the better part of two seasons.

Alas, the heart wants what the heart wants, and Samardzija pined to be paid more than the $85 million over five years the Cubs reportedly offered him that June.

As all of us now know, this wasn’t a bad thing at all for Hoyer and Epstein. Once Samardzija gave them the cold shoulder, they found themselves holding onto one of the biggest bargaining chips entering the July trade deadline.

Here’s what makes this particular situation notable. The Cubs didn’t mess around, “waiting for the market to develop,” as so many outlets like to report during trade windows. No, Epstein and Hoyer played their hand early, maximizing the irrationality that so often fuels deadline deals.

Because let’s be real. What did Billy Beane really get when he traded for Samardzija and Jason Hammel on July 5, 2014, sending two top prospects and a scrub pitcher to the Cubs in return? Thanks to his dalliance with Notre Dame football, the Shark was, at age 29, relatively old for his experience.

And to that point, Samardzija really had only two frontline-starter-worthy months as a pro, April and May of that season. His June 2014 ERA, on the other hand, was a brutal 5.45. Pulling the trigger was a no-brainer for Epstein and Co. when Beane offered up outfielder Billy Mckinney and shortstop Addison Russell.

Oh, right. The Cubs also got right-hander Dan Straily, whom they then flipped with Mendoza-liner Luis Valbuena to the Houston Astros for last year’s Opening Day center fielder, Dexter Fowler. Not too shabby.

Had Epstein and Hoyer “waited for the market to develop,” they probably would have been the Boston Red Sox, who hung onto their jilted ace, Jon Lester, for dear life until the bitter end. And then? On July 31, Beane gave them Yoenis Cespedes, who certainly helped the Sox offense in the short term but really gave them nothing for the long term.

The message here for, say, Walt Jocketty, is that if star third baseman Todd Frazier, who, like Samardzija is also relatively old for his experience, has another great first ha — oh, wait. That’s right. He’s already traded Frazier for, essentially, a bag of baseballs this winter. Bad example.

Step Four: Go with the Flow

This year’s trade deadline, of course, was much different for both the Astros and the Cubs. For once, they were buyers. Big time.

Houston took advantage of the Mets and acquired center fielder Carlos Gomez from the Milwaukee Brewers. It cost the Astros, though. Right fielder Domingo Santana has pop (and, naturally, lots of Ks) and was a major league-ready commodity. Double-A outfielder Brett Phillips joined the Brewers and instantly became their second-best prospect.

But the ‘Stros also got a serviceable starter in Mike Fiers in the deal, plus they’ll have control of Gomez for another season. But that’s not really the point here. Because the Astros, said the media, were way ahead of schedule in their rebuilding process. Yet, Luhnow shifted gears and shipped off young talent for big leaguers at the deadline. The Cubs got into the act too, upgrading their pitching staff with the acquisitions of Dan Haren and Tommy Hunter.

I know. This sounds like a “Well, duh!” kind of situation, but we’re talking about major league baseball, where the overriding mindset is steeped in tradition like a fine Earl Grey. You do things by the book. The way it’s always been done.

How do we know this? Beane is still derided in some circles. Oh, and how about this past Hall-of-Fame vote? No one ever has been a unanimous vote-getter. No one. And yet, this year a number of writers thought Ken Griffey Jr. just might have been that guy. Say what you want about him wearing his baseball cap backwards all the time, Griffey was the player who really ushered the game into the highlight-reel age. But no, Griffey could never get every single vote. Not because he didn’t deserve it; it’s just never been done before. The former Mariners, Reds and White Sox outfielder got the highest percentage of votes ever, but three left him off. (Facepalm.)

Back to this story. While ballplayers exhort the value of adapting to in-game situations all the time, the same can be said for the people in the front office. Kudos to Luhnow last year for resisting the urge to “trust the process” (ugh) and go all Gollum with his top prospects (my precious!). His team was ready for the postseason.

And just a few years after being the laughingstock of the American League — and, really, all of baseball — the Astros look ready to make a push once again. Of course, perhaps this course of events was simply their destiny. Not everyone agrees that teams are tanking, but for the Astros, there were certainly a lot of down years, and the Phillies may be faced with that now. Thank goodness they made that Giles trade, right Mike Sielski?


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Richie
Guest
Richie

Actually, if that paragraph is a typical example of Sielski’s satire, it ain’t his thing. Gattis is the only indication it’s satirical. Unless he ran it under a picture of him with an arrow through his head, perfectly reasonable for anyone not particularly familiar with his work to conclude ‘gee, that’s what this bozo thinks of the trade? Look at what newspapers hire!’

Richie
Guest
Richie

With what Beane offered, I can’t imagine anyone waiting 1 single second further for that market to develop. (“Quick, sign before whomever’s holding the second-best available pitcher asks him for way less than that!”) Otherwise, thank you for the article, Chris. 🙂