First of all, even before they made the decision to tank, it was obvious they would suck. Baseball Prospectus predicted a 59-win season in 2012 – BEFORE Luhnow was hired. The minor league system wasn’t any better, 27th out of 30. With year one of the trank job underway, they won 55 (only four games worse than the BP projection) and got some playing time for a Rule 5 pick named Marwin Gonzalez. You may have noticed he had a double in that three-run second inning Wednesday night. But they were only four games worse than projected.
Second, once they decided to tank, they had time on their side. They could pass on someone who might have immediate benefit, for whom they might have to overpay from future assets (draft picks or prospects) to get. Instead they could collect talent that wasn’t good yet, through trades or Rule 5 picks or waiver claims, and give it time to develop. If those kids didn’t develop, trade them later for someone else. But two people they did get that way were Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski. Both pitched Wednesday night. But they also had time to work with people who were good, giving Altuve lots of playing time, showing patience with Keuchel until he got the hang of MLB pitching, etc.
Then, when some of those kids started to develop, they were in a position to fill in the pieces. Signing Reddick and McCann, trading for Verlander, etc., without compiling the huge payroll of the Yankees or Dodgers or Red Sox.
Were mistakes made? Absolutely. They cut J.D. Martinez and watched him develop into a major slugger. Some of their high draft picks flopped. Brady Aiken never signed at all. But enough of their moves worked that they’re having a parade in Houston today.