When you think of the Houston Astros and turmoil, it's almost always in regard to their product on the field. After all, they haven't won more than 56 games since 2010. That should all change this year, even slightly, unless they somehow fail to win nine games the rest of the way.
But it was understood that this team would lose a lot when general manager Jeff Luhnow took over in 2011. He had a grand, long-term rebuilding plan that was sure to test even the most loyal of fans. Fast forward to the present and it's still moving forward, albeit slowly.
The front office has been relatively solid over that short span by grooming an excellent farm system, trading off sure-to-be-departing MLB talent for more prospects, and finally this season, holding on to their own while still adding one or two players that could contribute immediately rather than a couple years down the road.
Yet from top prospect Jon Singleton's rash call up to the majors followed by an immediate long-term contract, to failing to sign first overall pick Brady Aiken, which brought with it a grievance from the MLBPA—not to mention leaked trade information and questionable promotion of Mark Appel along the way—this has been a strange season for Houston's front office. Should fans be worried? Or, for the most part, do the people at the top know what they're doing?
Springer and Singleton: The Future?
In mid-April, it was reported that Houston was set to call up 24-year-old outfielder George Springer from Double-A. He had hit .319 (15-for-47), notched three doubles, and popped two home runs. Between time at Double- and Triple-A last season, he registered a slash line of .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases.
He was so highly regarded by the organization that they offered him a seven-year, $23 million contract a month earlier, and before he had ever appeared in a big league game. Springer rejected the offer, which could be seen one of two different ways:
He has the potential to make more than that during his arbitration years, depending on how he performs until then.
On the other hand, there's always the chance that a “can't miss” prospect turns into a bust. He could have all of the potential in the world but that doesn't discount the chance of him failing at the major league level.
Currently, Springer is hitting .231/.336/.468 with a strikeout rate of 33 percent over 78 games. While 20 home runs is a promising return, if he were to stay around this level of production at the plate, he wouldn't stand to make much more than the original offer. Hypothetically speaking, of course. That said, it's early for him and I have a feeling that he'll outplay the unprecedented long-term offer he received in March.
Either that, or a team that isn't the Astros will overpay for him. As we'd soon learn, though, this wouldn't be the first time the Astros offered this kind of contract to a top prospect.
Jon Singleton, 22, was called up at the beginning of June while agreeing to a five-year, $10 million contract in the process. What this means for the first baseman is the following: there are three club options that could increase the payout to $30 million over eight years, and a maximum of $35 million when you include bonuses and awards. It runs through 2018.
As it stands, Singleton has struggled mightily through 53 games, hitting just .195/.282/.405 with a strikeout rate of almost 35 percent. That's a far cry from his 54 games at Triple-A last season which saw him hit .267/.397/.544 with 14 home runs. His power doesn't seem to have abandoned him entirely at the big league level though, as he's managed to hit 10 homers thus far.
Again, he's only 22 and like Springer, possesses massive potential. It's about time the Astros started keeping and promoting their own top prospects. Now, brace yourselves for interesting turns.
Trade Information Leaks
Yes, that's exactly what it sounds like.
Roughly two years ago, the Astros constructed an easy-to-use online database for their front office to utilize. They named it “Ground Control,” and it gave executives “instant access to player statistics, video, and communications with other front offices around baseball.”
Then something very strange and unfortunate happened: 10 months of trade conversations leaked, and gave us all an inside look at how baseball business is conducted at the operational level. The information was split up between last year's trade deadline and the following off-season. The linked article above contains major talking points from the organization, including discussions of possibly acquiring Miami's Giancarlo Stanton and aggressively shopping pitcher Bud Norris around.
The Astros released a statement shortly after the fact:
“Last month, we were made aware that proprietary information held on Astros' servers and in Astros' applications had been illegally obtained. Upon learning of the security breach, we immediately notified MLB security who, in turn, notified the FBI. Since that time, we have been working closely with MLB security and the FBI to the[sic] determine the party, or parties, responsible. This information was illegally obtained and published, and we intend to prosecute those involved to the fullest extent.
It is unfortunate and extremely disappointing that an outside source has illegally obtained confidential information. While it does appear that some of the content released was based on trade conversations, a portion of the material was embellished or completely fabricated."
Matters could only get better from here, right? Well, not so fast.
Aiken Refuses to Sign, MLBPA Files Grievance
This is a complicated one, to say the least. Brady Aiken was taken first overall in the amateur draft earlier this season. Initially, the two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but negotiations fell apart “after medical reports showed a small abnormality near the ligament in his left elbow,” prompting Houston to immediately rescind its offer.
The Astros lowered their offer all the way down to $1 million, which seemed a bit harsh, before throwing out a $5 million offer on the last day of negotiations. Aiken and his camp didn't budge, he remained unsigned, and Houston “became the first team in 31 years to fail to sign the first overall pick in the draft.”
Aiken's advisor—agent Casey Close—and the MLBPA didn't particularly like how the negotiations went down, and a grievance was filed against the Astros because of it. Union executive director Tony Clark even went as far as to say, “Today, two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of being major league players. Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not.”
That's incredibly melodramatic and over the top, at least with regard to Aiken. Jacob Nix (fifth round) and Mac Marshall (21st round) also went unsigned. Now, I can't explain the draft rules too well, but Matt Snyder of CBS Sports breaks it down for you here:
In failing to sign Aiken, they also couldn't sign Nix to the agreement they had in place because that money no longer existed.
“...the MLB Players Association has filed a grievance against the club for manipulating the draft system.
With the draft's current setup, each club has a total pool of money to be used on draft picks in the first 10 rounds, with each individual pick having a "slot value." If a club can sign a player for less than the slot value, they're able to spend more money to lock up other draftees. This is where things happened with regard to the Houston draft.”
Houston offered $6.5 million to Aiken, which was well under the slot value and meant that they could then go over the value (if necessary) to sign Nix. As we all know, the Aiken deal fell apart, so what did that mean for Nix? Well...
“If a player doesn't sign, the pool just acts like there was no pick and, hence, no slot money -- the Astros couldn't afford to go over slot for Nix without going over their pool for the first 10 rounds.”
So there you have it—in failing to sign Aiken, they also couldn't sign Nix to the agreement they had in place because that money no longer existed. Really what this comes down to is plenty of speculation. The Astros decided they didn't want to risk signing Aiken given the abnormality they discovered, and the MLBPA think Houston manipulated the system and screwed a couple kids out of a big league career for the time being.
My favorite part of all this is the excerpt from the aforementioned article above: “Aiken, who was throwing 98 mph the last time he pitched, was examined by doctors on his own, and said he was fine.”
Well to be fair, if I was an athlete and had $6.5 million on the line, I'd probably say anything to make sure the deal went through. Athletes will often say they are “fine” when the really aren't, and the whole “examined by doctors on his own” bit makes it slightly more odd, as if that were possible in this case.
Perhaps if the MLBPA allowed physicals before a contract needed to be in place/agreed upon for draftees, things like this wouldn't happen. For me, it's simple: Houston didn't want to take a risk, and still ended up offering Aiken $5 million to sign. Instead of taking that wonderful sum of guaranteed money, Close's client now will have to return to college for a couple of years before he can be drafted again.
Some people will call that “sticking to your guns,” which is all well and good. I call it stupid. Just take the money.
Appel and his Apparent Preferential Treatment
Still with me? Good. I've got one more fun story for you, depending on your definition of the word “fun”.
Mark Appel is a 23-year-old pitcher who was taken first overall in the 2013 amateur player draft. He was mediocre at short-season and regular single-A ball, posting an ERA of 3.79 over the course of 10 starts while striking out 33 and walking nine.
He started the 2014 season at advanced Single-A and was horrendous over 12 starts. Despite his strikeout total (44) and walk total (15) remaining more or less respectable, Appel posted an obscene ERA of 9.74. That is why it was a bit strange to many when Appel was promoted to Double-A about a week and a half ago.
In fact, some players were downright pissed off:
Another player just approached me to complain about Appel's promotion and bullpen session. Multiple expletives were dropped. Not good.— Jose de Jesus Ortiz (@OrtizKicks) July 27, 2014
d be to aim for a little less drama.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs