As with every other team to line up opposite the Orioles over the past few months, the defending champion Houston Astros are rightfully seen as possible examples for their hosts this weekend at Camden Yards.
In this case, it's even more apt. At the beginning of this decade, the Astros were a veteran team that began the season trying to hang onto something and ended up losing 106 games in 2011. After that offseason, they replaced general manager Ed Wade with Jeff Luhnow, who oversaw a franchise overhaul using scouting and analytics that's not unlike what the Orioles hope to undertake. Manager Brad Mills didn't finish the next season.
And perhaps most pertinent to the present-day Orioles, those who will play this weekend against an Astros team primed to defend its title should take note of just who is out there doing so for Houston. Hardly anyone from the Astros team that was so bad it required a full-scale rebuild is still around to see the fruits of it, and most of it came down to being fortunate for who replaced them.
“A lot of them didn't take the opportunity to heart,” said Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who was in the farm system at the time and debuted in 2012. “They expected to be there just because of what was going on. And if you don't make adjustments to the big leagues, it's going to eat you alive, and that's kind of the warning sign for a lot of teams that are trying to do what we did. You have to hit on draft picks. I guess in the Orioles' case, it's going to have to be a lot, because the AL East is a lot different from the AL West three, four years ago, and even right now. You've got the Red Sox and the Yankees continually trying to be behemoths, with Toronto having all of Canada behind them. It's a tough division.
“You're going to have to hit quick on some of those players, and what happened with us — we got really lucky. I'm not saying that our front office isn't smart and very calculated with what they do and good at what they do, but you have to be really lucky. And we got really lucky.”
Looking at the Astros' 2011 roster, there's only one player that celebrated last year at Dodger Stadium that saw the bad old days that necessitated such widespread change: José Altuve, then a 21-year-old infielder who came up that July.
Since then, Altuve has appeared in six All-Star Games, won the American League MVP award in 2017, and won a Gold Glove in 2015. He entered Friday a career .316 hitter who has done nothing but hit since he arrived in 2011, and saw countless rounds of roster turnover in the lean years before the team turned things around.
Likewise, hardly any of the Astros’ World Series core was even in the farm system at that time. They'd just selected future All-Star outfielder George Springer out of UConn, and he's blossomed into a two-time All-Star who was their third-ranked prospect in Baseball America's 2012 rankings.
Their top prospect at the time was slugger Jonathan Singleton, who hit all the way through the minors but hasn't been able to stick in the majors. Singleton and Jarred Cosart took the top two spots in the Baseball America rankings after coming from the Philadelphia Phillies in a deadline trade for Hunter Pence, as did 2012 No. 6 prospect Domingo Santana. Springer was No. 3, and infielder Jonathan Villar — now with the Orioles — was No. 4. Two of their other top-10 prospects that year — pitchers Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer — came in a trade with the Atlanta Braves that sent out Michael Bourn.
Villar broke in and played well with the Astros, but was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers after the 2015 season, right after the Astros broke through to the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Missing from those 2012 top-10 rankings, however, was a key piece — Keuchel. He was ranked No. 21 as a touch-and-feel left-hander with back-end rotation potential. He's far exceeded that, and won the 2015 AL Cy Young Award.
But all those trades, of players who Keuchel referred to as those who had “winning left in them,” only brought into focus what the Astros were still lacking at the time.
“It was, 'Well, we don't really have a lot quality prospects in the minor league system, so if I do get up there, who am I going to win with?’ ” Keuchel said. “It's going to be a difficult road. I obviously knew that we had traded off a few guys, a few big leaguers that had any winning left in them. And I knew it was going to be a grind, but it correlated with how I was trying to get to the big leagues, which was by trial and error and seeing if I could make the necessary adjustments.”
So the Astros had a future MVP and a future Cy Young winner in their ranks as they began what will go down as one of the best rebuilds in the game, along with what the Chicago Cubs did at the same time. The rest of it took losing, and losing a lot. They spent the ensuing years trying to develop players only to trade them for long-term upgrades, and subsequent drafts yielded the likes of Carlos Correa (2012 first round) and Alex Bregman (2015 first round). They’ve likewise used a stacked farm system to trade for the likes of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. But they lost a lot of games before that, losing 310 from 2012 to 2014 in the first three years after initially tearing down.
"That's why they were drafting No. 1," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "They got Correa. When it was Chicago and them both in it, you go back through how all those players were acquired."