Yesterday, Forbes caused a minor ripple in the Major League Baseball world when it claimed the Houston Astros, the team with the worst record in the league, are also the most profitable in the history of the sport. The Astros, according to Forbes, are “on pace to rake in an estimated $99 million in operating income this season.” The team responded with a statement calling the figure “significantly inaccurate.” Whatever the exact numbers, the Astros are the most dramatic example yet of the losing-to-win strategy now common in professional sports.
Houston entered this season with the lowest payroll in baseball at about $25 million and have cut back since then. The basic plan is to unload expensive big-league talent in return for prospects and draft picks. While those young players develop, the team builds a war chest to spend on free agents when the time comes to make a run. Revenue keeps coming thanks to league-wide media contracts and the strange economics of cable sports. “You have to be patient and work the process, and that’s what we’re doing,” Astros owner Jim Crane told the Houston Chronicle in July. “It does wear on you, and I think it does wear on everybody.”
Crane’s public appeal is not all that different from that of Jeffrey Loria, the owner of the Miami Marlins, who, in an open letter to fans in February, wrote that the team’s management “needed to start from scratch quickly to build this team from the ground up.” The Marlins had spent the second half of the previous season trading away their best players. Both clubs, if you trust the experts, are on solid footing strategically. Yet Loria is widely reviled, while Crane generally gets a pass.
The difference is expectations. While reporting for a feature on the Marlins mess in April, I spoke with former Cleveland Indians General Manager John Hart, who oversaw that club’s bust and boom in the 1990s. Hart divided baseball between teams that have the latitude to cut all the way to the bone and those that don’t. “You look at Oakland last year and really over the past 10-plus years,” Hart said. “They can very easily redo their club because there are economic issues there. I think people certainly expect that.” In marquee markets such as Boston and New York, he added, “you have to piecemeal it a little bit because the fan expectations are so high.”
When the Marlins convinced Miami’s county and city officials to pitch in almost $500 million for a new stadium, the team moved into the marquee category. The new ballpark, as Hart put it, “meant the idea that the Marlins were going to be an annually competitive ball club.” The Astros, despite calling the fifth-most populous metro area in the U.S. home, still have permission to fail. They fly under the radar in the heart of football country. Long-term plans, however, have a way of sliding endlessly toward the horizon. The Astros have been bad for three seasons now. Fans probably won’t wait another three to see progress.