The Astros, international scouting, and the new frontier

Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE

The Astros have a roster that makes less than Barry Zito, but they just might know what they're doing.

The Astros are going in the right direction. We can all agree on that, right? Sure, we've had plenty of fun at their expense before, but they're getting better.The farm system used to be wretched; now it's in the top third of the 30 teams. They have a widely respected new GM who comes from a winning organization. Their new direction is like Martin Scorsese showing up on the set of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever midway through shooting. It's not going to be a good movie by the end of the week. Give it time.

There were a few columns needling the Astros for their low payroll, though, most coming after Mike Oz pointed out there are dozens of players who make more than the Astros' roster. But as Crawfish Boxes points out, there was no way for the Astros to be contenders this year, even if they bumped payroll to $130 million. So why would they just throw money down a hole?

The problem wasn't the Astros. The problem was that the new CBA made it so that there were two places for a team like the Astros to put their money: They could either spend more on payroll (which would serve only to hurt their draft standing, if everything went right) or they could look cheap. It used to be that a team could invest less in payroll so they could invest more in international signings or buy out the college commitments of high-school players who fell in the draft. The new caps on amateur spending make that impossible.

If the Astros signed Ryan Ludwick and Joe Saunders, they wouldn't look as cheap to the undiscerning eye, but it's not like anything would get better for the team. An extra two or three wins might even move them out of the top draft slot in 2014, which in some years can be the difference between Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley. Spending more on payroll just to spend isn't only throwing money away, it could actually be counterproductive.

So it was down a payroll-shaped hole or into the owners' pockets. At least, that's what I figured as an outsider.

This article about the Astros from Richard Justice, then, is something of an eye-opener. The paradigm was never "spend on major-league players, spend on amateur players, or pocket the money." It might have been operating like that by default, but when MLB removed the ability to spend on amateur players, the smart teams figured out ways to do smart things with the money. Here's Jeff Luhnow, the Astros GM, explaining what the Astros are doing:

"There's analytic work you can do to help focus your resources. Should we be investing in Australia? Taiwan? Brazil? What has history shown about how these markets develop? A lot of what we did wasn't to put numbers into a computer and see what we learned. There are 30 clubs in baseball. That means there are 30 different ways of doing everything.

"Let's take Venezuela as an example. Let's look at all 30 clubs' approach to Venezuela. Which clubs have been the most successful? What's their approach? Do they have four area scouts, five area scouts? How do they carve up the regions? Do they have a cross-checker? Do they send their American scouts down there? Do they have a dedicated guy down there? Do they send their Venezuelan players to the Dominican? Do they send them directly to the States?

Maybe this seems obvious to you, but it was an epiphany for me. Sabermetrics for player development. Stats for scouting departments. It's almost as counterintuitive as scouting numbers ("The '1' in Mike Trout's '10.7' WAR was the smoothest, cleanest '1' I've ever seen. Remarkably well-proportioned to the adjacent '0'"), but when Jeff Luhnow explains it, it makes sense. Can teams quantify what makes an effective player-development factory?

And while there's a temptation to suggest this is going to be the next big wave of baseball analysis, it's probably been here for a while. Plenty of teams are probably running similar studies, figuring out which approaches to amateur development are the most successful. We just don't hear or read about them. I wish we did, but I understand why we don't.

How much better off would the Royals be if they took the $12 million they're going to pay Ervin Santana, and built a baseball academy in Johannesburg? I don't know. I'm genuinely curious. What would the cost/benefit be for something like that? Or how about doing it in a more established baseball area, like Australia or Taiwan? How about doing it in a place where baseball isn't close to popular, like India or Argentina?

Even if I were smart enough to figure that out, I wouldn't have the resources. Baseball teams do, of course, especially now that they're limited in what they can actually spend on the players they do find. And if I were a betting man, I'd bet that more and more of the teams that used to spend big in the draft will suddenly have a presence in a country you wouldn't expect. The Rays have a baseball academy in Brazil, for example, and that probably means we're not too far away from a Rangers academy in Italy, or a Dodgers academy in South Africa.

In a decade, there will be a homegrown player on the Astros doing good things, and he'll be there because they didn't want to spend $40 million on the 2013 payroll just to make a point. The paradigm isn't to spend on players or keep the money, which is what I thought it was. It's spend on players, keep the money, or other. I'll guess that "other" is going to be something of a trend.

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