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December 29, 2011

Painting the Black

You Must Be This Old to Enter October

by R.J. Anderson

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On the regular season’s final night, the Cardinals defeated the Astros. It would have been difficult to find two more dissimilar teams. While the Cardinals won the World Series, the Astros’ most notable victory involved securing the number-one pick in next June’s draft. The Cardinals had arguably the best player in baseball; the Astros did not have a position player finish in the top-75 in Wins Above Replacement Player. And so on. Under new ownership, the Astros acknowledged the gap between the teams and elected to pluck an executive from the Cardinals’ nest to lead them to the promised land.

Jeff Luhnow is quickly becoming a popular figure around these parts, as he came up during Ben Lindbergh’s masterful argument that being smart is no longer enough to separate a general manager from his peers. Lindbergh granted Luhnow status as a well-received hire with a history of success. Yet in juxtaposing Luhnow with Neal Huntington, Lindbergh made it clear that commercials advertising young, progressive-minded general managers should include disclaimers at the bottom that read, “Andrew Friedman-like results are not typical.”

If Luhnow ever gets the results, they could be a few years in coming. Despite the Astros’ lifeless record, the team relied on older players. Even so, they almost gave more plate appearances to players aged 23 or younger during that final game (11) than the Cardinals did during the entire season (22, all to Pete Kozma). The reasoning for this phenomenon has a name that longtime readers should be familiar with—success cycles. Whether real or imagined, the cycles seem logical and can provide hope to those fan bases down on their luck while giving teams time to rebuild—and after all, you’re either selling wins or you’re selling hope. These Astros are selling hope by the bundle.

The problem is that Houston’s real hope is going to be in the minors for most of the 2011 season. Kevin Goldstein listed 2012 arrival times for just two of the Astros’ top 11 prospects, with another two fitting into the 2013 season. The other seven are projected to be at least two seasons away. Houston will still serve youth, as Bradley Ankrom noted that the Astros project to have one player older than 28 in their everyday lineup, making this a team that is about to become reliant on young players for the foreseeable future—just not in the most desirable sense. The Astros’ youth is attributable more to a need to fill out the roster without many established players than to having a passel of prospects maturing together.

Nevertheless, fans tend to be more excited about watching a young and mediocre squad than an old and mediocre squad, particularly after exposure to old and rickety rosters, like the ones that plagued Houston over the past few seasons. As Houston embarks on this five-year plan, it provides a chance to ask the question: Why is the beginning of the success cycle more desirable than the end of it? Take a look at the teams from 2000-to-2009 that were dependent on giving players 25 and younger tons of plate appearances, and how long it took them to reach the playoffs:

Team – Next playoff appearance
2000 Expos – None
2008 Braves – 2010
2000 Marlins – 2003
2006 Marlins – None
2009 Diamondbacks – 2011
2007 Diamondbacks - 2007
2007 Brewers -2008
2003 Indians - 2007
2006 Devil Rays – 2008
2005 Royals - None

Of those teams that played youngsters the most, 70 percent made the postseason within five years. Now compare that rate to the teams that were least reliant upon youngsters, and when they next made the postseason:

Team – Next playoff appearance
2002 Red Sox – 2003
2004 Yankees – 2004
2004 Astros – 2004
2005 Red Sox – 2005
2003 Red Sox – 2003
2000 Yankees – 2000
2001 Mets –2006
2002 Diamondbacks –2002
2001 Diamondbacks – 2001
2009 Astros - None

That would be 80 percent making the playoffs within two years. Even if you strip out the Red Sox and Yankees, you get these 10 teams:

Team – Next playoff appearance
2004 Astros – 2004
2001 Mets –2006
2002 Diamondbacks –2002
2001 Diamondbacks – 2001
2009 Astros - None
2001 Giants – 2002
2009 Phillies – 2009
2009 Cubs – None
2003 Astros – 2004
2004 Angels - 2004

Leaving 70 percent in the playoffs within two years—or equal to the teams reliant on youth. If the old teams make the playoffs as often as the young teams, but in smaller windows, then why get hung up on wanting a young team? Is it because of how the game is covered now, when no day is complete without Kevin Goldstein’s update from the minors? Prospecting is the game’s oldest forecasting system. Surplus value becoming a staple in transaction analysis means young, cost-controlled players are the way to go for general managers looking to have fictitious awards named in their honor.

Or is watching greatness bloom an intrinsic desire? In This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes that his protagonist’s dreams are always about the becoming, never the being. That seems true in baseball. When good teams are young, you can dream about what they could be, whereas with good old teams, you can think only about what they are.  Everyone wants the good, young team rather than the good, old team; the ring is the goal, but a dynasty is the dream.

As a result, youth become synonymous with potential, and teams that rely on young players can became overrated in the short term, while teams that rely on old players can be unfairly discounted. Just because the Phillies are old does not mean they cannot win another World Series or two. Likewise, just because the Astros figure to be young does not mean their roster brims with potential. Talent tends to win out and make the success cycles go round, and talent will ultimately raise the Astros back to the top. Without it, it won’t matter how young they are.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Houston Astros,  2001 Diamondbacks

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