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The Astros are in a perfect spot

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Signing Michael Brantley is something that baseball teams do when the porridge is just right.

Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Houston Astros agreed to sign outfielder Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million contract on Monday, giving them yet another potent bat in an already stacked lineup. Brantley hits for average, runs well, controls the strike zone, and can be an absolute doubles machine. He unquestionably makes his new team better, which is why he’ll be making $16 million a year, a salary that seems like an old-market wage. This is what the talented veterans used to get, by gum. Maybe there won’t be a strike after all.

It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s the Astros handing out a spendy win-now contract like this. They shouldn’t be worried about their window closing just yet, but every team that’s good now should definitely have some urgency. The future of baseball is pain. It’s always pain. Winning now is always a great idea, because you never know when you’ll be unable to win later. This is why everyone hates the Yankees so much; they don’t follow the rules.

What the Astros are, then, is a team that is firmly in the third stage of baseball utopia. We talked about how everyone wants to be the Atlanta Braves, but I’m not sure if they’re entirely in the third stage. They’re transitioning to the third stage now that they’re spending money on win-now players like Josh Donaldson, surely, but they’re still new to this whole contending thing. They still have one foot firmly planted in their young-team incarnation, in which they’re almost still more focused on good they can be, not how good they actually are.

The Astros know this is probably as good as they’ll get for a while. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that this could be the best team they’ll see for a century. The White Sox have been around for 118 seasons, for example, and they’ve never won more than 100 games. It’s more likely that the Astros, like every team, will have cyclical periods of success and failure, but the Church of Joaquín Andújar has but one lesson, verily: You never know.

Looking at you, Indians.

The stages of baseball team-building go something like this:

Stage one is where the team is absolutely abominable ... but abominable and cheap. The 2013 Astros lost 111 games, and their highest-paid player was Carlos Peña, who made $2.9 million. The next-highest were Erik Bedard and Ronny Cedeño, who tied with $1.15 million. After that, Philip Humber made $800,000, and Jose Altuve was fifth on the team with a $505,700 salary.

Again, Altuve was the fifth-highest paid player on the 2013 Astros, even though he made just $15,700 more than the major-league minimum.

But while this is going on, the team is sucking and saving, sucking and saving, weathering the dreadful attendance and miserable television ratings so that they can accumulate high draft picks and stash money under their mattress for a sunny day.

Stage two is where the team says, “Saaaaay, we might have something here.” The high draft picks and accumulated prospects start to take the form of something resembling a contending team. There’s usually a breakthrough season that catches pundits off guard, just like what the Astros did in 2015.

This is the stage where the team is suddenly trading some of their prospect cache for veterans at the deadline, a concept that some teams will always struggle with. For what is the point of baseball, if not to hoard the stockpile prospects forever and ever? They might form the basis of a good team one day, you know, which means it’s silly to trade them to supplement a good team now. Most teams, though, go ahead and move ahead with their plan to make their team relevant again.

In the offseason, a stage-two team will spend some money and make some waves. They’re the nouveau riche trying to fit in at the country club, rubbing elbows with the people who fascinated them from a distance just a short while ago.

Stage three is the current state of the Astros, and it’s probably the best possible place for a franchise to be. Characteristics include:

  • An established pattern of success, such as a championship, pennant, or several years of postseason appearances
  • Young players who aren’t all that cheap anymore
  • A willingness to trade for big contracts
  • A willingness to spend more than in the past

But the biggest sign of a stage-three team is a signing like Brantley. This is the move that a team makes when they’re absolutely uninterested in screwing around and looking for angles. This is not a transaction cooked up in the comments of a particularly creative blog post. This is not, “If you look at the second-half exit velocity of Darmon Schenectady with the Grizzlies, you’ll see a progression that hints at immediate major-league success. If I’m the Astros, I’m rolling the dice.” This is obvious and brainless. This is the Astros mashing the Good Player Now button, over and over again, because they can.

Stage three is all about mashing the Good Player Now button. Sure, there might be a creative way to approximate Brantley’s production if you’re clever and maybe a little lucky, using two underappreciated players to form a platoon and reallocating the savings to improve the bullpen, say. Or you could mash that button repeatedly with sweaty hands. Go on, baby, give it a whirl. You’ve earned it.

Stage four is overpaying familiar veterans and billionaire owners deciding that they need to stop mashing that button so much. Stage five is the Giants, and you shouldn’t watch it while eating. But the cycle of life takes it right back to stage one, eventually. Though for the rich teams, there’s never really a super-pure stage one. It’s more of a stage twone, with the occasional veteran or fan favorite kept around, but that’s not the point.

The point is that the Astros are where every team wants to be, even more so than a super-young team like the Braves. However, like the Braves, we run into the numbers game where not every team is going to get to the top of this pyramid scheme. Some of them will fall right into stage one, over and over again, alienating their fans and turning a seemingly sound strategy into a brutal decade of irrelevance.

It could have happened to the Astros, but it didn’t. Now they’re, yet again, on the very short list of the best team in baseball, and they should stay there for a while.

If there’s any consolation, just be glad that they aren’t the ‘00s Yankees mashing the Great Player Now button.