The Houston Astros have the worst record in the National League, and at 20-34, nobody would mistake them for a contender. With the recent sale of the team to trucking mogul Jim Crane, there's no reason for the team not to push forward with a new, long-term plan.
Crane took on a lot of debt to buy the Astros, so one component of the team's long-term outlook likely does not involve bringing a bunch of top free agents every winter. As Maury Brown pointed out a few weeks ago, Crane's purchase of the team instantly put Houston above the permitted debt ratio in Major League Baseball, a rule that MLB put in place to ensure that teams in financial trouble don't dilute the value of their franchises. To rebuild the franchise, the Astros will have to crib some notes from the most successful small-market team in baseball today, the Tampa Bay Rays.
A painful rebuild as a prelude to a new owner is not a new story in Houston. Twenty years ago, John McMullen was the owner slashing costs, and now-departing owner Drayton McLane Jr. was the purchaser. While shopping the team around, McMullen slashed the Astros' payroll to the bone, leaving the team the youngest and least experienced in the National League. But that fire sale provided some of the seeds for the team's later success. Glenn Davis was too expensive for the Astros and brought in Steve Finley, Curt Schilling and Pete Harnisch via a trade with the Orioles. The notorious Larry Andersen trade brought back Jeff Bagwell, and although none of the players acquired for Bill Doran panned out, the move eventually cleared the way for future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio to move from catcher to second base.