The Houston Astros have been the team I have most wished the Kansas City Royals would have emulated in regards to the current rebuild. The Astros did it right: they recognized that a mediocre team had no shot at the playoffs and that it would behoove them to go all in on a rebuild. That meant sacrificing the Major League team’s ability to win now to win in the future.
It worked. Since 2014, they’ve posted a winning season every year—with three 100-win campaigns over the last year—and won a combined 28 playoff games en route to an American League pennant and a World Series championship. They are the most talented team in their division entering 2021. And they have done this in the exact opposite way that Kansas City is doing now.
The Astros jettisoned all their veteran talent in exchange for prospects. The Royals have refused to trade their best assets. The Astros purged payroll of long-term obligations. The Royals are considering inking the soon-to-be-28-year-old Jorge Soler to a pricey extension and haven’t traded Danny Duffy or Salvador Perez. The Astros threw stuff at the wall to see if it stuck. The Royals are going to re-sign Alex Gordon for millions instead of turning to players with upside. The Astros averaged 108 losses from 2011 to 2013 but came out of it with one of the best farm systems in baseball. The Royals averaged 103 losses over the last two years and still have a below average farm system.
But, of course, there’s a not insignificant difference between the two. The Astros were exposed for being cheats and liars in a scheme that violated the Major League Baseball rules, a violation that MLB determined was worth the most significant sanctions levied against a single club in recent memory and a violation that will permanently poison how their big league success and World Series victory will be viewed through the lens of history.
The Royals did not.
There are enough complexities in this story that it is impossible to determine the exact extent to which the sign stealing propelled their team to victory. It is clear that the Astros are a talented big league club. Furthermore, a reading of Ben Reiter’s now somewhat ironically-titled Astroball reveals that the organization effectively carried out both their vision and execution from top to bottom. The cutting-edge analysis didn’t evaporate the moment some big leaguers started banging a trash can.
However, it is abundantly clear that the Astros’ sign stealing operation was a feature of the organization philosophy and not a bug. That feature: win at all costs. Reiter notes how ruthless Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow was in his installation of his guys in the organization, and Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik note in The MVP Machine that the Astros have been bleeding front office talent, in part due to a cutthroat organizational culture, for years.
The consequences of this philosophy? A World Series, yes, an AL pennant, yes, a revitalized fanbase and a well-built organization and an indelible imprint on how baseball operates, yes, yes, yes. But also a cloud that hovers over all of it. A nagging doubt attached as an asterisk—an Astrosisk, if you want to be particularly snarky—attached to every feat accomplished by a group of wildly talented players. Fuel for every other baseball fan to rebut an Astros 2017 World Series hat with a mocking laugh and a “yeah, but.”
I still wish the Royals would have emulated the good and smart parts of the Astros. The organization’s sin was, ultimately, that they were too efficient. They determined that cheating was just another competitive advantage that was available—just like focusing on spin rates, catcher framing, and optimal launch angles when no one else was. The Royals’ main problem is that they are content to sit around, bask in their fading glory, and hope they’ll be good soon rather than to do something about it. The Astros would never.
But I can’t help but feel thankful about general manager Dayton Moore’s focus on integrity. It is a trait that is unavoidable and often infuriating. In his book Moore Than a Season, Moore outlined that the first trait he looked for in any front office or coaching role was not skill or a desire to innovate, but the ability “to apply moral principles in their lives.” Ned Yost said about Moore that “He is so full of integrity, it’s unbelievable.” Time and time again, players, coaches, and industry sources will rave about Moore and the organization he has built.
I’ve scoffed at Moore’s focus on integrity and morality before his focus on winning. But, as the Astros have shown, that is important. Yes, Moore could and should do a better job with efficiency when it comes to winning—just not at the expense of integrity. The 2014-2015 Royals runs aren’t sullied by a cheating scandal. The 2014-2018 Astros runs are. That difference is worth something.