Houston, we have a problem. Fifty-one years after debuting as a franchise, the Astros are poised to enter this season as an expansion team for the second time. Not only is Houston coming off consecutive seasons that easily rank as the two worst in franchise history, but the team is also moving up in class by relocating to the American League. In other words, the Astros will likely remain grounded in 2013.
Most Losses in a Three-Year Span, 1901-2012
So, just how bad will the Astros be this season? The answer to that question is kind of like the punchline to a joke, which is basically what the Astros have been for the past two seasons. After going its first 50 years without a 100-loss season, Houston has since made up for lost time, dropping 106 and 107 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Only five other franchises on seven other occasions have lost as many games in two straight years (the Mets did it consecutively from 1962 to 1965). The Astros have been so bad of late, it’s hard to imagine they could get any worse. However, there are many reasons to expect another long year in Houston…about 25 million to be exact.
By the time the Astros take the field in April, baseball-reference.com estimates the team’s payroll will be approximately $25 million, which is low enough to make even the Marlins blush. The situation in Houston is so dire that general manager Jeff Luhnow has all but conceded any chance of having a competitive season, opting instead to shift fans’ expectations toward the future. The good news is the Astros have gradually built one of the best farm systems in baseball, but patience has its limits. Not only do the Astros have to worry about the erosion of its fan base, but if the team continues to maintain a paltry payroll, the players’ association may start getting anxious as well.
The Astros are going to be a very bad team in 2013, but instead of trying to estimate the extent of their futility, a more pertinent question is what impact will their struggles have on the rest of the American League? Over the last two seasons, Houston has gone 10-20 in interleague play, which doesn’t bode well for a schedule that will now contain 142 games against junior circuit teams. However, every team won’t get the same opportunity to welcome the Astros to the American League. Because of the unbalanced schedule, A.L. West opponents will face Houston a whopping 19 times, versus six or seven for everyone else. So, if the Angels, Rangers and Athletics can make the most of this sweetheart schedule, wild card contenders in other divisions could be singing the blues even more loudly than the Astros.
Will one small step for Houston lead to a giant leap for the rest of the A.L. West? Considering the division came close to sending three teams to the playoffs in 2012, that question is probably foremost on the minds of the Yankees, Tigers, Rays and Orioles, who are now faced with another obstacle as they chart their own course to the postseason. Houston is a very big problem indeed.