HOUSTON — Brian Cashman’s drive-by rebuild, if you will, already has been celebrated for the speed with which the Yankees have returned to power, but it looks all the more remarkable when you consider how long the Astros tanked to get to this position in the ALCS.
Starting in 2012, the Astros picked first in the amateur draft three straight years, the result of having the worst record in the majors, and then second in 2015.
That’s a lot of tanking, as the ‘Stros carried out a long and painful rebuild under GM Jeff Luhnow, who took over in December of 2011 after a 55-win season.
Remarkably, they essentially whiffed on two of those three No. 1 overall picks, taking pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken — they actually never signed Aiken after discovering he had an elbow issue.
But Houston hit it big with Carlos Correa as the top pick in 2012, again with Alex Bregman as the No. 2 pick in ’15, and also with George Springer, the No. 11 pick in the 2011 draft, the year before Luhnow arrived.
The Astros also hit the lottery on their best player, Jose Altuve, signing him as a 17-year old out of Venezuela for all of $15,000, and to a lesser extent on their ace, Dallas Keuchel, nabbing him as a seventh-round draft choice out of the U. of Arkansas in 2009.
Every winning team needs to hit on a few of those low-cost signings: the Yankees don’t have many longshots on their roster, but David Robertson was a 17th round pick out of the U. of Alabama, and Greg Bird a fifth-rounder out of high school in Colorado.
In any case, make no mistake, the Astros tanked their way back to the top, stripping their payroll down to practically nothing during those losing years, allowing them to build slowly and wait for some of those high draft picks to blossom.
By 2013, in fact, they had by far the lowest payroll in the majors, at about $24 million, or less than Alex Rodriguez alone was earning in the Bronx — and some $200 million less than the Yankees’ payroll.
As this season began their payroll was the highest it had been since they committed to the rebuild, at $124 million, but that still ranked only 18th in the majors, as many of their young stars are under those first six years of team control.
So that’s the huge advantage for the Yankees. Even though they’ve spent far more cautiously and conservatively in the free agent market the last few years, at the direction of Hal Steinbrenner, they remain in the $200 million range in payroll.
By some calculations this season they were just under $200 million, at least to start the season, and third in payroll behind the Dodgers and Tigers — the first time they’d been outside the top two since 1993.
But that was before they added significant salary in mid-season trades, taking on millions in acquiring the likes of Robertson, Todd Frazier, and Sonny Gray.
On the other hand, the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992, and even last year, when they were sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in about that long, they still managed to make a run at a wild-card spot and win 84 games.
So while tanking has become more of a popular strategy for teams that would rather be practically non-competitive than mediocre, the Yankees have always felt like they have too much at stake financially to even consider such a strategy.
As a result, while they’ve re-emerged this season as a championship-caliber team with a young nucleus, they’ve done so without getting those highly-prized draft picks that can be crucial for a rebuild.
Indeed, much like the Astros, the Cubs tanked their way to getting Kris Bryant with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, and Kyle Schwarber with the fourth pick in ’14.
The Yankees, meanwhile, haven’t had a Top-10 pick since selecting Derek Jeter sixth overall in 1992.
And in that 2012-’15 span where the Astros had three No. 1s and a No. 2, the Yankees selected 30th, 26th, and 16th, and didn’t have a first-round pick in 2014 after they went on free-agent spending binge the previous winter for the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.
Only one first-rounder from those years has had an impact — but what an impact. In 2013, the year they had three first-round picks after letting free agents walk, the Yankees drafted Aaron Judge 32nd overall, and that has worked out pretty well, you’d have to say.
With that 16th pick the Yankees took pitcher James Kaprielian, who was seemingly on a fast track before needing Tommy John surgery this spring — but still had enough value to be part of the package in the Sonny Gray trade.
The Yankees’ financial might did help them on the International market, in particular signing Gary Sanchez out of the Dominican Republic for $3 million, and fellow Dominican Luis Severino for $225,000.
Bottom line, the Yankees and Astros got to this ALCS via different rebuilding paths. One just took a lot longer.