By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) I was rooting for the Houston Astros once the Chicago Cubs were eliminated from the postseason. Part of this was I know Kevin Goldstein, the special assistant to Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow, and Goldstein is a smart, funny and most importantly good person who for no good reason at all asked the people at Baseball Prospectus, where he’s a former god, to have me write a piece for them. They never asked me back, but stuff like that doesn’t get forgotten by the unwashed like myself. Knowing someone who earned a ring is cooler, and knowing that person really deserves it is even cooler.
But I’m a pseudo-Astros fan because they’re a sort of bridge between the continuance of the Cubs and the start of a progression of the White Sox in the New School of baseball operations. The Astros created and followed a step-by-step plan over a few years that prioritized development over money. They would go on to defeat the three highest MLB payrolls in the postseason to win the World Series.
Houston was bad when Luhnow took over in December 2011 and seemingly without much direction prior. The team averaged 74.5 wins from 2006 to then. The front office then changed, as did the vision. And that involved commitment and ignoring the skeptical sportswriters and Veruca Salts wearing your team’s merchandise.
Theo Epstein was hired by the Cubs two months prior to Luhnow in Houston, and his new team had averaged 76.3 wins between his hire and its last postseason appearance. The Cubs, too, were an organization that was largely a joke, with a long World Series drought and a team that once in a while bought its way into a chance to exit the playoffs early.
The White Sox promoted Rick Hahn to general manager after the 2012 season, but he never quite seemed free of strings being manipulated above him until years later. Now he’s finally been allowed to blow the team up and rebuild, bottoming out first as the Cubs and Astros did before while acquiring key future talent in trades and the draft.
George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Yuli Gurriel — Houston’s one through five hitters — and starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. were all draftees or international signees of the Astros themselves. The core is homegrown. Starting outfielder Marwin Gonzalez was acquired in the Rule 5 draft.Relievers Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove and Brad Peacock were all acquired as minor leaguers in trades years ago. Just five players on the Houston playoff roster were free-agent signings, with Josh Reddick being the most impactful.
A year after the Cubs’ championship, a team with almost the same blueprint also has taken home the hardware. The plan was to build, acquire and sign reasonable free agents as placeholders while continuing to build and save money for big spending when you’re ready. The White Sox are now following in those footsteps, with Hahn gutting the big league roster in the past 11 months to turn the farm system into one that’s at or near the top in most respectable rankings. The baseball with the big club on the South Side was bleak last season and will likely be so in 2018, but beyond that, there appears to be a clear path to success, a la the Astros a la the Cubs.
The White Sox look to have a core in 2019 and beyond that includes Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert and Jake Berger like the Cubs’ group of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras who will be staples for a period of “sustained success” on the North Side. The same goes for the Astros, who aren’t finished contending for more titles.
I may like the Astros most because their process hasn’t been perfect. They drafted Mark Appel ahead of Bryant in 2013. He’s in the minors for the Philadelphia Phillies. They cut J.D. Martinez in 2014, and he slashed .303/.376/.690 with 45 home runs for the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks this season. Those two gigantic retrospective boners still didn’t prevent Houston from succeeding with its plan, and the Astros show that again a team with a statistically progressive approach to building a winner can and will screw up along the way.
Remember before the Cubs won the World Series that Epstein and Jed Hoyer were going to forever be tattooed with the shameful mark of the Edwin Jackson contract, right? Prepare for some trade or signing that won’t pan out and will shake faith in Hahn. Building a winner in baseball isn’t bowling a perfect game.
So I’m glad the Astros are the champions. It speaks to patience and intelligence. And it lends itself to Chicago baseball recent past, present and near future.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.