The Astros were proponents of The Process before it was couth to be.
From 2011-13, Houston lost an average of 108 games per year. The Astros picked first overall in 2012, '13 and '14, then second overall in 2015.
And even without hitting on all four picks — they did, after all, take Mark Appel first overall over Kris Bryant — the Astros have in the span just of a few years shifted from AL doormat to the envy of the league.
A.J. Hinch's club left South Philadelphia this week with a 67-34 record and on pace to win 108 games, six more than their franchise record. The Astros have a relentless offense that has scored six-plus runs in 52 of 101 games, and they have power, speed and plate selection up and down the lineup.
Pete Mackanin, Matt Klentak and some Phillies players can't be blamed if they looked longingly at the visiting clubhouse this week and fantasized about the future.
But replicating Houston's model isn't as simple as finishing with the worst record in the league several years in a row. It would also require making the right picks after the first round and finding under-appreciated role players along the way.
All the right moves
Jose Altuve, the AL's leading MVP candidate who's hitting .365, was an undrafted free agent signed out of Venezuela in 2007 for the grand total of $15,000.
Dallas Keuchel, on the DL but 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA, was a seventh-round pick.
Lance McCullers Jr. and Vince Velasquez were both second-round picks; McCullers is the Astros' No. 2 starter and Velasquez was the trade bait that landed them a closer, Ken Giles.
Ten other teams could have drafted George Springer.
Marwin Gonzalez, who plays all over the diamond and is hitting .321 with a .984 OPS, was acquired for a pitcher who's now in the Mexican League.
Brad Peacock, 8-1 with a 2.51 ERA, was traded to Houston for well-traveled infielder Jed Lowrie.
These guys didn't make it to the Astros' organization with the pedigree of a Carlos Correa.
Houston built this juggernaut piece by piece and brought in veterans like Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Evan Gattis, Carlos Beltran and Nori Aoki once the timing was appropriate.
That would be the Phillies' final piece of the rebuild. But first, they'd need to somehow develop or obtain game-changers like Altuve, Correa, Springer and Keuchel — an extremely difficult task that also involves luck — and swing a few under-the-radar trades themselves.
"Players come from everywhere," Hinch told CSNPhilly this week. "And we've got a lot of different stories on our team. It's one of the more interesting teams I've been around just because guys have gotten here in different ways, guys have experienced different things in the big leagues.
"We certainly have some high-profile guys that were high picks, but we've also got pretty good players that were signed for $15,000 or less. That blend of everything has turned a really good team over the last couple of seasons into an even better one."
Luhnow and Hinkie
Back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series given their collection of young talent. At the time it seemed a bit far-fetched, but Houston has exploded this season from an 85-win team to a 100-plus win team.
General manager Jeff Luhnow enacted The Process in a similar way to the Sixers and just like the Sixers, his club is now reaping the rewards.
"The plan was to collect as much young talent as possible, become relevant and stay relevant," Luhnow told CSNPhilly this week. "This was about the timeframe that we thought we'd be competing for a division title.
"It's similar in a lot of ways (to the Sixers' process) and I know [Sam Hinkie], he used to be in Houston. He and I have talked a lot about what he was doing here and what I was doing there — there are a lot of analogies. You have to be patient to wait for the results to manifest themselves. Sometimes you get a good roll of the dice, sometimes you don't."
Luhnow has also made his own luck by pulling a lot of the right strings with transactions in recent years. Even when the 'Stros have given up talented young pieces like Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips, they've brought back players like Mike Fiers who have aided their cause. Fiers wasn't some huge name on the trade market two summers ago, but he's been very good with the Astros this season (excluding last night), posting a 3.71 ERA in 20 starts with a strikeout per inning.
The final stage
Let's not misunderstand what Houston has been able to do. Bottoming out allowed them to bring in top young talent in the draft, but without the secondary moves, they're not in a position to run away with the American League West.
"We thought we had a good team and were positioned well to not only add guys like Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann but to grow our own guys like Altuve and Springer," Hinch said. "The emergence of Keuchel and McCullers, the additions of Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel. We were built towards having a complete team and then we add the right veterans on and off the field and it's really taken off.
"It's hard to predict how seasons are going to go, but the left-handedness we needed was answered, the veteran presence in the clubhouse was answered, the lineup configuration, how tough we are to strike out, how good we are at hitting the ball out of the ballpark. All things that you hope for but I don't think you ever anticipate winning how many games we have within the first 100 games."
The Phillies are still a few years away from sprinkling the right veterans into a young clubhouse. That's the finishing touch, the cherry on top of the player development sundae.
Unlike the Astros, the Phillies don't have transformative players like Altuve, Springer and Correa. Instead, they have a bunch of young players at various positions who have a chance to all grow and hit the next level simultaneously. In that way, these Phillies are closer to the Royals teams with Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and others than they are the Astros.
"I think in the future there will be changes made," Mackanin said this week. "We've got the trade deadline coming up and I'm interested to see how that goes.
"There are some players here that I think have a chance to be part of the future. We've seen a lot of good things from a lot of the pitchers, (Aaron) Nola primarily, and Luis Garcia has stepped it up. He's shown that he can be more consistent. Not just those two in particular, but there are two examples of guys.
"Make the right trades, make the right moves, sign the right people, trade the right people and get something back for it. And develop the people here."
Reasons for optimism
The Phillies' win-loss total obviously doesn't show any kind of progress being made, but there are several pretty clear positive individual developments. Nola looks better than ever. Odubel Herrera is hitting .331 since June 1 and well on his way to finishing between .290 and .300 again. Aaron Altherr has grown from a fourth outfielder to starting outfielder. Nick Williams looks like a keeper. Scott Kingery and Sixto Sanchez have high ceilings; Rhys Hoskins, Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak have high floors. J.P. Crawford's bat has heated up and maybe he'll be an impact player after all. We'll get an extended look next season at Jorge Alfaro.
The 2017 Astros are a near-best-case scenario of how a rebuild can turn out and it would be silly now to say the 2020 Phillies could reach that level. Matt Klentak has a ton of work still to do.
But keep in mind that these days, teams don't necessarily follow a linear path. The Astros are going to have a 20-plus win jump between last season and this season. The Rays won 97 games in 2008 after winning 66 the year before. The Pirates leaped from 79 wins to 94 between 2013 and '14. The Cubs went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 in '15.
"It's a matter of time," Mackanin said. "It's not going to go on like this forever."