Houston’s Last Stand in the Central?

by Steven Goldman

The certification of Jim Crane’s bid to buy the Houston Astros has now gone on longer than the Vietnam War, albeit with fewer casualties, and seems to have just as much hope of wrapping up early. Yesterday, a Houston Fox outlet reported why: the commissioner is waiting on Crane to commit to moving the 49-year-old franchise to the American League West.

If the move is a potential deal-breaker for the commissioner (the article perplexingly suggests both that it is and it isn’t), you would think Crane would give the nod—better to have a baseball team in the AL West than to not have one at all. That said, moving the Astros to the American League has implications for the franchise’s value in terms of how much it will cost to put a representative team on the field, and we’re talking about more than the salary of a competent designated hitter.

Certainly the expectations are higher. Since 1996, the first full season under the three-division alignment, it has taken an average of 95 wins to earn the division title. The division has also seen five 100-game winners. The NL Central required an average of 93 wins and has had just three 100-game winners, and the requirement has been dropping—the average for the last five seasons (2006-2010) is just 89 with only one team, the 2008 Cubs, winning more than 91 games.

The way to the postseason via the wild card route is also more difficult in the American League. From 1996 through 2010, the AL wild card winner averaged 95 wins and came out of the American League East in 12 of 15 seasons. In practice, winning the AL wild card has come to mean having a better record than the high-spending Yankees or Red Sox. The NL wild card winner has averaged just 92 wins, and no team or division has put a stranglehold on it the way the two AL East juggernauts have—six have come from the NL Central, five from the NL East, and four from the NL West. Winning an American League wild card berth might cost you between $150 and $200 million. The 2011 Braves won’t spend $100 million on theirs.

The Astros have never spent more than $103 million on any team. Drayton McLane has often been criticized for penury, but there is some defense for his tightfistedness: despite leaving the Astrodome for a modern park in 2000, the team has never been a great draw relative to the rest of the National League, topping out at fifth-highest in three seasons, most recently 2004. Conditions changed last fall, however, when McLane signed an agreement with Comcast to start a regional television network, Comcast SportsNet Houston, to broadcast Astros games beginning with the 2013 season. This should mean an increase in revenues for the club.

This might be just enough to make the Astros the big-spenders in the AL West. While an AL wildcard is expensive, an AL West title is considerably less so. The average payroll in the AL West from 1996 to present has been just $68.1 million, with the average postseason team spending a little less than that, though the average payroll has risen to $84.4 million since 2005, thanks in large part to the Angels and Mariners. Those teams may spend, but not always competently—last year’s Rangers team spent just $55.2 million. Even so, contention in the division shouldn’t cost any more than it would have to front a team that could compete with the Reds, Brewers, and Cardinals.

The question is if Crane had anticipated doing that, if his bid was formulated with the expectation that he would have to spend more to keep up with a more committed set of teams than have typically been occupying the nether-reaches of the NL Central. Another question would be if he would be ready to do that spending right now. The team he is attempting to buy will go down in history as one of the game’s worst. They are currently on a pace for 108 losses, and it would take just a couple of bad hops for them to lose 110—a total only 15 previous teams have achieved or surpassed. Their current .336 winning percentage ranks among the 25-worst of the postwar era. Despite solid play by latecomers Jose AltuveJ.D. Martinez,Brian BogusevicJimmy Paredes, and Jordan Schafer, the Astros are not going to improve quickly without help, and even with it, they might continue to suffer for a number of years. Martinez and Altuve can hit, but the other three are over their heads, which means the Astros still have work to do at six (or if in the AL, seven) positions, not to mention the pitching staff, which remains a concept.

It wouldn’t do to show up and have the new neighbors see you at your worst, to slot into the division beneath the Mariners. Yet, even if Crane were to break the bank on the top free agents, there won’t be enough decisive talents available on the market for him to inflate the team into a one-off conqueror the way the 1997 Marlins were with their cast of high-priced mercenaries-for-a-moment. It’s simply not a good time. If Crane counted on taking his time learning the ropes in the way the Ricketts have (“learning the ropes”—a new way of saying “aimlessness), an AL-bound team would mean that he lacks the luxury to do so but also the levers to pull to make a difference.

There is no other strong argument with which the Astros can cling to the NL Central. An expansion team that has already played under two names in two divisions and three stadiums, the Astros have won no championships, have had few enduring stars, have earned just one MVP and two Cy Young awards, and would leave behind little in the way of historic rivalries, whereas in the American League they could play the Rangers far more often than interleague play allows.

Hey, if the Astros were able to let go of those hideous yellow and orange-striped uniforms that had for years induced seizures not just in epileptics but in everybody, they can say goodbye to the NL Central, which over the years has proved to be far less colorful than those misbegotten double-knits.

Source: Baseball Prospectus

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