The other day on the Baseball Tonight podcast, ESPN’s Buster Olney spoke with Astros beat writer Jesus Ortiz about the mess in Houston. Olney said that people are beginning to “cast them as a losing team.”
Funny how people will do that with the Astros after three straight 100 loss seasons and all but certain for a fourth this year.
Ortiz talked about Astros owner Jim Crane being fed up with losing, not wanting to hear about the minor league system and is impatient. And with Nolan Ryan now bending Mr. Crane’s ear, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow must be wondering how long he can continue his massive overhaul of the team’s roster.
This entire situation brings to mind the great 1998 movie A Simple Plan. And be warned, I am going to write a lot of spoilers for a movie that came out 16 years ago!
Directed by Sam Raimi a few years before he hit paydirt with Spider-Man (not to be confused with The Amazing Spider-Man), the film follows Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and the underrated Brent Briscoe as three men who find a crashed airplane that contains a bag with $4.4 million inside it.
They live in rural Minnesota where the money would support them for the rest of their lives. But Paxton’s character, college educated and forward thinking, realizes that whomever the money rightfully belongs to will come looking for it. So they concoct a plan to keep the money secret and not spend any until enough time had passed and they would not look suspicious.
And of course very little goes as planned. Paxton’s wife, played by Bridget Fonda, finds out and wants to use the money to start a new life. An innocent man is killed and Thornton, who plays Paxton’s dim witted brother, helps cover up the murder. Briscoe owes money and pulls a gun on his friends to get his share. He gets shot. Briscoe’s wife gets shot. An FBI man gets killed. The brilliant actor Gary Cole arrives looking for the money.
And as the body count rises and the desperation ensues, Paxton continues to preach being calm and sticking with the plan.
Eventually, Thornton’s character can not deal with the body count and the blood on his hands and has his brother kill him to end the ordeal.
Afterwards, Paxton realizes the money has been marked and is traceable. He burns the money, making the whole plan moot.
It is a great movie. Not fun, but great. And Astros fans had better hope the parallels to their team are all in my head.
Luhnow is clearly Paxton in this scenario. He has the plan to tear the team down to its bare bones and start again. And like Paxton’s strategy, it makes sense. Luhnow traded away anyone with big league experience, a move I appreciated in an article for Bleacher Report.
The Astros were going to be bad Not just bad, but be really bad. But along the way, they were going to develop players, acquire minor leaguers in bulk, get the first over all pick in the draft and develop an entirely new farm system and roster.
Luhnow was going to build a team like the Cardinals, the organization where he came from. The bad days would eventually give way to a sea of new superstars and glory days for an organization that has yet to win a single World Series GAME.
As with the movie, the plan seemed so simple and smart, and yet rife with pain, second guessing and a disappointed Bridget Fonda. (That final detail is not yet confirmed.)
Houston has been so bad that calling their product a major league team is almost insulting to the other 29 franchises.
The season of the great purging was 2012. That ended with 107 losses for Houston and the end of Brad Mills’ run as manager.
2013 saw the Astros shift to the American League and introduce new manager Bo Porter. The results on the field were worse. They piled up 111 losses, their third straight 100 loss season and soon they were inviting comparisons with the inept Mets of the early 1960’s.
But remember that Mets team hit bottom before stunning everyone by winning the 1969 World Series. And some positive results started trickling to Houston in 2013. Jose Altuve is a solid big leaguer. Matt Dominguez, acquired in one of the purge trades, is an effective major league third baseman. George Springer, Jonathan Villar and Jarred Cosart are all young and contributing. Hard hitting Jonathan Singleton appears to be on the way.
Plus the draft plugged Carlos Correa and Mark Appel into their system. They have the number one overall pick in this year’s draft and another bad year would mean another potential star. If the scouting department and farm system does not whiff this year and next, the Astros could have a foundation of top young players.
But like the movie, impatience and mistrust seems to be the root of their problems. The fan base has dwindled to a precious few. The rest of the sport fans of Houston, who so embraced the team in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, are in a state worse than anger: They have apathy.
Official television ratings for the game have sometimes been listed at 0.0. Their television deal is a disaster. The revenue streams are non existent. Manager Bo Porter is fed up with the constant losing. And Nolan Ryan, who helped turn the Texas Rangers around, probably feels like the process is taking too long.
Like Briscoe’s character demanding his share of the money at gunpoint, ownership wants the rebuilding to speed up. Like Paxton, preaching patience even while covering up a murder, Luhnow is standing by his strategy. The likes of Correa, Appel, Singleton, Lance McCullers Jr and Vince Velasquez are on their way.
If everyone is patient and just a little more losing is tolerated, the Astros will come out the other end with a potential championship team under contractual control.
After all, teams like the Nationals and Rays and Pirates stunk for a long time before turning it around. And a big part of those squad’s renaissance were the quality draft picks who blossomed at the same time.
Luhnow has to go for broke. He trashed two entire seasons for his plan. If the Astros trade away the young talent now, the 2012 and 2013 seasons were destroyed in vain. He will not stand for that any more than Paxton would let anyone know they had the money before the time was right,.
Like Billy Bob Thornton’s dim witted but tortured character, Jim Crane has had enough of making bad memories. The main difference between Thornton and Crane is the former sought relief through his own death. Crane will probably drop the hammer on Luhnow, who has more pressure on him than the overwhelmed Porter.
If the Astros start the process of rebuilding again without Luhnow, those wasted years would be burned like Paxton’s millions of dollars.
Crane owns the team and it is his money. This will probably be their fourth straight 100 loss season. That is the equivalent of a Presidential term. And Crane has seen teams like the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox turn their fortunes around in a quicker time frame,
But whatever plan is implemented will not be simple. No plan ever is.
At least Billy Bob Thornton got a much deserved Oscar nomination for his work in A Simple Plan. What will the Astros get?