Houston Astros: From whipping boys to World Series champs

The Houston Astros have come a long way since losing 111 games four years ago.

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The Houston Astros are the 2017 World Series champions, and what a ride it has been. From moving to the American League from the National League in 2013 and coming out of nowhere to become a contender in recent years, the team has been one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball in recent memory.

To say this year’s magical championship run of a possible dynasty in the making would be an understatement. Houston lost 111 games in its first AL season and, as a result, nobody really took them seriously.

My, how the tables have turned on a trip over five years in the making.

No strangers to contending

To say the Houston Astros were nothing but lovable losers prior to this year would be incorrect. In fact, the team had its fair share of playoff contenders prior to this season. The 1980 team got as far as the decisive Game 5 of that year’s National League Championship Series against the eventual champion Philadelphia Phillies, and again in 1986 against a New York Mets team bound for destiny.

In the new Wild Card era, the Astros also made four trips to the National League Division Series in five years between 1997 and 2001 and made the NLCS once again in 2004, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. Houston rode a wave of momentum to the 2005 World Series but suffered a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox.

That said, though they were the whipping boys and butt of lots of baseball’s jokes five years ago, it’s not as though the Houston Astros were the Doink the Clown of the baseball world.

The post-2005 fall

Much of Houston’s fall down baseball’s rabbit hole is because of one man’s actions: former general manager Ed Wade. Then-owner Drayton McLane hired Wade in 2007 in spite of his rocky history as the Philadelphia Phillies’ GM from 1998-2005, when he handed out massive contracts to players on the decline in Mike Lieberthal and David Bell and also provided no-trade clauses in similar contracts to Jim Thome while trading away ace Curt Schilling to the Arizona Diamondbacks for practically nothing.

Wade made a few good moves in the City of Brotherly Love, like drafting future stars in Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels, but the Phillies didn’t make the playoffs once during his tenure and he was let go.

Wade did not fare much better in Houston. Though he traded rocky closer Brad Lidge to the Phillies for speedy outfield prospect Michael Bourn, who twice led the NL in steals in an Astros uniform and won two Gold Gloves, Lidge would win a World Series with Philly in 2008 and give Wade a healthy dose of egg on his face.

Wade would then trade a number of talented young players for shortstop Miguel Tejada prior to the 2008 season, only for Tejada to be named as a possible steroid user in the Mitchell Report the very next day. The final straw was trading pitcher Roy Oswalt and popular outfielder Hunter Pence to the Phillies in 2010 and 2011, respectively, and new owner Jim Crane fired Wade after the team lost 106 games in the 2011 season.

Life with Luhnow

Houston’s turnaround began shortly afterward when Crane hired Jeff Luhnow as the new GM. Luhnow had spent the previous eight years with the Astros’ then-NL Central rival St. Louis Cardinals as the vice president of player procurement, and was credited with helping GM John Mozeliak build the 2011 roster that won that year’s World Series.

This is largely because Luhnow, who had never worked in baseball prior to getting hired by St. Louis, was the first analytics guy to join the Cardinals’ front office since the dawn of the Moneyball approach used by the Oakland A’s in 2002. Rather than scout players based on traditional stats, he looked at the deeper data, turning the Cardinals into a regular contender with a strong minor league system, so strong that if a player got hurt, it was as though the injury never happened and the team kept rolling along.

Luhnow brought this same approach to the Astros, and the results spoke for themselves. In 2012, with Houston holding the first overall pick in the draft, he selected shortstop Carlos Correa. Later on, he would pick pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. In 2015, with the second overall pick received as compensation for not signing first overall pick Brady Aiken the previous year, Luhnow would draft infielder Alex Bregman out of LSU before taking high school sensation Kyle Tucker with the fifth pick.

Success at last

The rest, as they say, is history. Luhnow continued painting his long-term portrait of what he wanted the Astros to be even after the move to the American League in 2013 and subsequent 111-loss season. Using his analytical approach combined with his preferred coaching staff, Wade prospects George Springer and Dallas Keuchel turned into two of the most important players on the team.

Everything came full circle in 2015 when the Astros clinched the second AL Wild Card spot and manhandled the New York Yankees to progress to the ALDS, losing to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals. Still, Keuchel went 20-8 that season and won the AL Cy Young Award, and the Astros made the postseason with an active payroll of just $64.8m under the watch of first-year manager AJ Hinch.

2016 was a step back, and the Astros didn’t make the playoffs, but that had a lot to do with injuries ravaging the roster and 2017 proved it. 101 wins, a Jose Altuve batting title, multiple clutch Alex Bregman defensive plays, and a hard-fought World Series Game 7 win later, the Houston Astros are now at the top of the MLB food chain and not just the whipping boys like in years past.

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