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Are the Astros going to win the 2017 World Series?

Sports Illustrated thinks so. Here's why it's not as silly as it sounds.

Scott Halleran

There are a lot of options if you're looking for the lowest moment in the last three miserable years of the Houston Astros. This moment from last September, however, would be my pick:

That's Jonathan Villar a) out by 15 feet when b) trying to stretch a double while trailing by four runs, and c) sliding face-first into a butt. There have been a lot of Dammit, Astros! moments. This one might have been the most pure, a clear nadir.

Flash to nine months later, and the Astros are on the cover of Sports Illustrated:

Things are looking up for the Astros. For SB Nation's 2014 season preview, I mentioned the Astros just a couple times. Here's how I started one of the mentions:

In 2017, when you first hear the Cubs are facing in the Astros in the World Series ...

There's something about that three-year window for a bad team that makes sense. This is the year they improve and stop losing 100 games. Next year is the season they graduate a couple prospects and flirt with .500. The following year, more prospects come up, and they finish over .500. That fourth year is the season it all comes together, with free-agent support and trades filling in the gaps that the farm can't. The formerly bad team becomes a fully armed and operational battle station.

According to Baseball America, the Astros have the No. 2 farm system in baseball. Let's explore what happens to bad teams four seasons after a top-five farm ranking. We'll use Baseball America because they're something of an industry standard and probably the least likely to have counterintuitive rankings, and we're picking four years because that's the window that SI is giving the Astros

Team Ranking Record season prior Record four seasons after Playoffs within four years?
'04 Brewers 1 68-94 83-79 No
'04 Angels 3 77-85 94-68 Yes
'05 Brewers 3 67-94 90-72 Yes
'06 D-Backs 1 77-85 70-92 Yes
'06 Dodgers 2 71-91 95-67 Yes
'07 Rays 1 61-101 96-66 Yes
'07 D-Backs 2 76-86 83-79 Yes
'07 D-Backs 3 76-86 65-97 Yes
'08 Rays 1 66-96 91-71 Yes
'08 Reds 3 72-90 79-83 Yes
'08 Rangers 4 75-87 96-66 Yes
'09 Rangers 1 79-83 93-69 Yes
'09 A's 3 75-86 94-68 Yes
'09 Giants 5 72-90 94-68 Yes
'10 Indians 3 65-97 92-70 Yes

We're dealing with a small sample -- just 15 teams. But in the last decade, there have been 15 teams who placed in the top five of a Baseball America farm-system ranking, and only one of them didn't make the playoffs within four seasons. The one that didn't made it in the fifth season. Only three of the 15 weren't over .500 four seasons later.

I was more than a little surprised by the results. Correlation isn't causation, as the Internet likes to remind you, and some of those organizational rankings were filled with prospects who didn't work out. Prospects like Brandon Wood didn't ... wait, let me check ... yeah, no, some of them didn't pan out. But for all of those teams -- every single one -- there were brighter times ahead.

It doesn't have to be about the prospects, necessarily. A top-five organizational ranking is just proof of an organization doing something right. It's evidence of a franchise pointed in the right direction in the short-term.

The other mention of the Astros in that preview was just a sentence, but it said a lot more than some of the paragraphs surrounding it:

Everyone laughed at the 1991 Indians, too.

The 1991 Indians were lousy. The 1995 Indians were one of the greatest teams of the last few decades.

The 2013 Astros were lousy. The 2014 Astros are a little surprising, but still lousy. The 2017 Astros, though, could be mighty interesting. If your initial reaction was to scoff at the SI cover, rethink it. You don't need an organizational ranking to know if a team is pointed in the right direction, but it certainly helps.