The blackboards, you’d imagine, all look the same. Maybe they’re buried in some dark corner of every spring training facility in Florida and Arizona. Maybe they pock the underbellies of rookie-ball parks. Like a scene out of a '90s movie about mischievous boarding school students, they are covered in a single line, repeated in the wearying handwriting of those submitting to the mantra: We’re taking it one game at a time.
Surely this is the only way a single thought could become so pervasive in the ballplayer and general Baseball Man culture—systematic indoctrination. And just as surely as that bit of language endures in the baseball-bred players and managers, it has become less resonant in increasingly Ivy League-educated front offices.
This isn’t any huge surprise, and there are bigger reasons than the demographics. More information on minor leaguers and amateurs means a better, or at least better-seeming, ability to plan. The shifting of the game’s aging curve means a greater priority is placed on younger players who have to be identified and acquired further in advance. Thus, the contemporary tear-down strategy.
No one took this route more stridently than the Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow. And in 2015, when the first fruits of that ugly rebuild suddenly appeared, they bought Carlos Gomez from the Brewers after the tearful Mets saga. And they got burned by that deal and the pinball-style machinations of postseason play. It happens.
Now, in what you’d assume was already a Year of Contention in the grand Astros plan, with a young hitting core over-delivering on even the wildest of rebuild dreams, Luhnow and company are drawing fire for doing little at the trade deadline to supplement a pitching staff that started off questionable and has recently looked quite thin. Why would this Astros team behave differently than the recent Cubs and Indians teams or the present Dodgers—young clubs with legitimate World Series aspirations that moved urgently, sacrificing some future value, to capitalize?
What with the Gomez trade, and the Astros’ famously process-oriented modus operandi, it’s easy to see it as Luhnow shying away from another potential busted move. But compare the thought processes to the title-parched Cubs and Indians or the highly scrutinized Dodgers, and the recent decision-making reads less like timidity and more like oversized ambition.
Are the Astros worrying about their second or third World Series before securing their first?
What follows is a list of things that have gone right for the Astros this year that don’t seem particularly likely to repeat themselves:
– Swiss army knife utility man Marwin Gonzalez up and decided to hit like the star the Astros didn’t even need. He’s likely going to double his previous career home run mark, and has already demolished his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection.
– Brad Peacock discovered his inner strikeout king at age 29. He’s sent 31.2 percent of the batters he’s faced—in more than 80 innings—back to the dugout with their bats. That ranks sixth out of pitchers who have thrown at least 60 frames in 2017, behind, and in front of, a whole bunch of names you’ve heard a lot more often than Brad Peacock.
– The Rangers, Angels, and Mariners mustered about 1.5 good, healthy starting pitchers between them.
– Charlie Morton, a slick signing, has maintained the velocity he flashed before getting injured in Philadelphia, and mostly managed to stay on the mound. Mostly.
– Josh Reddick, a 30-year-old signed in free agency, is posting a career-year. And that’s great! But we know what happens after that.
– Yulieski Gurriel solved the longstanding first base problem.
– Jose Altuve, in his age-27 season, is somehow reaching for an even higher peak, and an MVP award. Doubting Altuve seems futile, but it feels unlikely they will get a better season from him.
Here’s a thing that I believe, with what I think is good reason: Baseball’s front office bosses—be they general managers or presidents of baseball ops—are intense, proud workaholics each pursuing their own vision of the best baseball team. While that calls up trophy-carrying conquerors and parades from your mental card catalog, it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It could mean the best or winningest team since 2010! It could refer to the best team between August 2013 and May 2017. I don’t why it would, but it could!
What’s more: It means something different to GMs. Like your stubborn father insisting upon the compass in his own head, these are 30 smart people who know they need to head west and a little south. They clearly know there are multiple routes—backroads from Little Rock, draft position players, turn left at Amarillo, develop flame-throwing pitchers—but in terms of picking a year and a way to win a World Series, they’re flying blind. Locating the place is going to require some guesswork once they get close.
Which is to say that vague, outsized goals almost have to be the original intention of every front office, especially rebuilding ones. All full speed ahead and open space. Just go and see where you end up.
Delivering that team to its ultimate destination, that’s harder. Eventually, though, all clubs that get as far as the Astros have to pick a moment to exit the rebuild and navigate the messy surface roads—all one-way streets and unforgiving 90-degree turns. It’s tempting to have a vision for what they’ll find there, to have the result mirror what was foreseen—a crowd of homegrown talent sharing a trophy. But as other clubs have seen their teams reach this moment earlier than expected, they have accelerated into it.
For all the benefits of planning, the exaggerated nature of the “one game at a time” coach-speak, and the risks of the win-now approach in the current postseason landscape, there is a legitimate question to be asked of the Astros here: Could a slightly different version of their plan noticeably improve their already pretty good chances at winning a World Series this season? And how much better will their chances ever be?
The arguments to hold on to Derek Fisher or Francis Martes or Kyle Tucker are much the same as the ones for Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier. In addition to the potential surplus value of the individual players and their contracts, you could assert that simply being a postseason-caliber team for as many years as possible is the best way to win a World Series. There is undoubtedly some truth to that idea in our current era. But on top of being a difficult idea to justify to the players involved (not a new issue for the Astros), it underestimates the risk involved in every cog of the machine listed above, plus all the others that may break down without warning.
Yes, it’s gotten them this far, but the success of the Astros' rebuild doesn’t portend further success any more than the Cubs’ dominance in 2016 guaranteed dominance in 2017. It might mean the opposite. This could be as good as it gets. And if it is, the Astros won’t have any excuse for not realizing this: You have to take it one World Series at a time.