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The Houston Astros are building a team backwards

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Jeff Lunhow is spending on relievers because...

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Other than the richest teams in baseball, there’s a general order when it comes to building a successful major league team. More often that not, it begins with the drafting process and developing talent from within. Cost controlled players are a big piece of constructing a contender because it allows teams to spend on impact free agents; step two in the process.

If all of this goes according to plan, it’s finally time to fine-tune the rest of the 25-man roster, specifically the bullpen. Relievers are the most volatile players in the game, and consequently don’t receive long term contracts like all-star position players and starting pitchers. Because of this, it’s relatively easy to sign or trade for bullpen pieces once a team is ready to make a playoff push.

Relievers are dealt from losers to contenders every season because most GM's understand that it's not in their club's best interest to retain above-average and sometimes expensive relief arms if they're not in the running for a playoff spot. Put another way, investing in step three, and fine tuning a team that isn't going anywhere is a waste of money; which brings us to the 2015 Houston Astros.

After watching the Kansas City Royals dominate the late innings all season, and specifically in October, teams are taking up the "fast-follower" approach to replicating that success. Relievers are suddenly getting higher AAV's than they had in the past, and looks more like the beginning of a trend rather than a one-year fad.

Total Contract Years AAV
David Robertson (CHW) $46 million 4 $11.5 million
Andrew Miller (NYY) $36 million 4 $9 million
Luke Gregerson (HOU) $18.5 million 3 $6.16 million
Zach Duke (CHW) $15 million 3 $5 million
Sergio Romo (SF) $15 million 2 $7.5 million
Pat Neshek (HOU) $12.5 million 2 $6.25 million
Jason Grilli (ATL) $8.3 million 2 $4.15 million

For most the teams listed, these contracts are logical because of where they are in the building process. Thanks to some aggressive moves by the White Sox, having shutdown relievers like Robertson and Duke will be very valuable; The Yankees now have a fearsome duo with Miller and Dellin Betances; Romo remains at home with the defending World Series Champions; and Grilli joins a formidable bullpen core in Atlanta. But Neshek and Gregerson signing with Houston just doesn't make any sense.

The Astros finished the 2014 season with a dismal 70-92 record, and according to FanGraphs, is projected to wind up with only six more wins in 2015. The AL West looks like it will be a very competitive division with the Mariners, Angels, and A’s locked in a season long struggle, but the Astros don’t seem to be a big part of that fight. With 2015 looking like another long season for Houston, it would make sense for them to save money rather than spend it; but instead of sticking to the plan of developing young talent, then moving on to big name free agents, the Astros skipped over both steps and went straight to fine-tuning.

Their starting rotation is set to look like Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Brett Oberholtzer, and Brad Peacock. Steamer projects Keuchel and McHugh to put up above average fWARs, but isn’t very optimistic on the other three.

2015 Steamer IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP fWAR
Scott Feldman 189 5.68 2.62 4.91 4.49 1.6
Dallas Keuchel 192 6.62 2.66 3.82 3.61 2.7
Collin McHugh 192 7.95 2.70 4.09 3.96 2.1
Brett Oberholtzer 153 6.03 2.29 4.70 4.64 0.6
Brad Peacock 153 7.56 4.05 4.88 4.82 0.4

Flame throwing righty Mike Foltynewicz could step into the rotation if needed (he’s projected as a starter long-term), but he’s currently slotted for a role in the bullpen. Even if he did, and pitched like an ace, this starting five isn't built for a playoff run, and shouldn't be expected to perform like one. This is a rotation is built mainly on "innings eaters", and not shutdown starters.

As for the lineup, the Astros are currently set to trot out Jason Castro (if he isn’t traded), Jon Singleton, Jose Altuve, Jed Lowrie, Matt Dominguez, Dexter Fowler, George SpringerChris Carter, and some combination of Robbie Grossman and Alex Presley. There are some bright spots and promising young sluggers, but like the rotation, the overall lineup is weak.

2015 Steamer PA BB% K% ISO wOBA wRC+ fWAR
Jason Castro 465 8.5% 26.5% .147 .291 84 1.6
Jon Singleton 588 13.2% 28.6% .180 .283 79 0.4
Jose Altuve 667 5.6% 9.2% .111 .331 113 3.2
Jed Lowrie 560 8.5% 15.0% .139 .319 105 2.1
Matt Dominguez 564 5.7% 17.4% .151 .292 85 0.8
Robbie Grossman 145 11.3% 22.7% .113 .306 95 0.3
Alex Presley 244 6.4% 18.0% .132 .311 99 0.5
Dexter Fowler 618 12.9% 22.3% .129 .325 109 1.8
George Springer 610 10.6% 29.3% .209 .339 118 2.6
Chris Carter 572 11.0% 31.6% .230 .336 116 1.4

The lineup lacks a lot of power, and in 2014, three of the listed players produced negative fWARs (Singleton, Dominguez, and Presley). For the Astros to continue building towards the future, Springer needs to get a full season's worth of experience under his belt, and Singleton must improve on his rookie season. His K% of 37% is incredibly high, and he made far less contact (55.2%) than the MLB average of 66%.

Astros fans deserve a good team on the field, and their future looks promising with their young talent; but 2015 is not the time to spend on the bullpen. While $11.5 million per year on two relievers doesn't seem to be that big of a deal, it amounts to roughly 20% of the entire 2015 payroll; money that could have been saved for when their club is actually competitive. Über prospect Carlos Correa’s ETA is pegged for 2017, and most of their up and coming players are projected for the same.

Baseball America Top 10 Fangraphs' ETA
Carlos Correa 2017
Mark Appel 2017
Mike Foltynewicz 2016 (Already reached MLB)
Vincent Velasquez 2017
Michael Feliz 2018
Brett Phillips 2017
Colin Moran 2017
Rio Ruiz 2017
Teoscar Hernandez 2017
Josh Hader 2017

While Foltynewicz’s ETA is set for 2016, he’s already reached the big league club and is a good bet to win a spot in the bullpen for 2015. As for the rest of the top 10, none of the players has reached anything above AA, and won’t be helping the major league team anytime soon. Mark Appel seems like the best bet among the remaining prospects to beat the 2017 timeline, but he needs to show that he can have prolonged success against higher minor league competition.

Compounding the Astros’ issues is the fact that Luhnow completely butchered the 2014 draft process. By failing to sign overall first round pick Brady Aiken, whom he deemed "the most advanced high school pitcher [he’d] ever seen in [his] entire career", and his 6th round pick Jacob Nix, Luhnow pushed back the progression of his club even farther. Second rounder A.J. Reed has the ability to become an impact player and has tremendous power, but his ETA isn’t soon and hasn’t played above A-ball. Nothing can ever be certain when it comes to baseball, but the Astros not being good for at least a couple seasons seems like a pretty safe bet.

With contention not in the immediate future, signing a couple of sought after relievers for two and three-year deals is mind boggling. With only 76 projected wins for the next season, there won't be much of a need for premier relievers in Houston, and there's also the issue of timing. If 2017 is the year that the Astros re-enter the playoff hunt, Neshek’s deal will have already expired, and Gregerson will be entering the final year of his contract; meaning that Luhnow will have to go out and pick up new arms once they're really needed.

With relievers being valued commodities among playoff contenders, it’s possible that one or both could be traded before the life of their deals are over; but regardless of the outcome, spending money on relievers just doesn’t make sense for the Astros. Luhnow needs to commit to the plan of developing Houston's young core and surrounding them with high impact free agents when the time is right.

The Cubs aren’t normally used as a good example, but the plan that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have implemented in Chicago is a perfect blueprint for the Astros. They’ve developed a young core of fantastic prospects, begun to surround them with high-priced talent, and all while building an inexpensive bullpen. In 2014, they spent roughly $9.78 million on seven relievers; $1.72 million dollars less than what Luhnow dolled out for just Neshek and Gregerson. Now that the Cubs are ready to contend, they can start the fine-tuning process, jettisoning their subpar relievers, and replacing them with shutdown arms.

The Astros have been a perennially bad team since 2009, and while nobody likes losing, pretending to be in the "winner" phase of building a team doesn’t help. Sticking to a plan is just as important as coming up with one in the first place, which means that the bullpen should be the least of Luhnow’s worries right now.