Feature

How baseball's worst team is also its most profitable

And by "worst" we don't mean the Yankees

The Houston Astros have had little to celebrate this season.

The pitching staff has the worst ERA in baseball, and the offense ranks at or near the bottom in practically every single offensive category. With a .340 winning percentage through Monday, the team is on pace to finish with their worst record ever, tying last season's woeful 107-loss campaign.

So it's something of a silver lining, at least for the team's ownership, that the Astros are also on pace to post the most profitable season in the history of baseball, according to Forbes. Yes, despite having the third-lowest attendance in the league, and despite playing in a ballpark formerly named Enron Field, the Astros are set to earn an estimated $99 million in operating income this season, per Forbes' calculations.

As Forbes notes, that would roughly equal the operating incomes of the last six World Series championship teams combined.

The Astros have disputed that claim, saying in a statement that the reported figures are "significantly inaccurate." Naturally, the ownership does not want to give the impression they are pocketing huge wads of cash while throwing together a horrible team.

But even if the reported $99 million figure is off the mark, a look at the team's finances shows how the Astros are at least in a position to make a significant profit this year.

The Astros opened the season with the lowest payroll in baseball, at a meager $25 million — barely half that of the next-lowest payroll. Both the Dodgers and Yankees, for comparison's sake, opened with payrolls eight times higher.

With that minimal budget, the Astros couldn't even afford Alex Rodriguez and his $29 million salary.

Since the start of the year, the team has only slashed its payroll further. At one point in mid-August, the entire active roster cost just $13 million total, according to the Houston Chronicle. Only one player on the entire team, pitcher Erik Bedard, is making more than $1 million.

On the other side of the equation, the Astros are raking in millions of dollars from a new cable TV deal.

In 2010, the Astros, NBA's Houston Rockets, and NBC announced a joint deal to launch a new network, Comcast SportsNet Houston. At $3.2 billion, the deal is the second-largest in all of baseball, trailing only the Dodgers' mammoth TV contract.

The Astros have a 45 percent stake in the new network, and will collect an average $80 million annually from the rights.

The Astros are in a rebuilding phase, years away from even thinking about contention. In that light, it makes sense to not splurge on high-priced players. Why waste tens of millions of dollars just to finish in last place, but with a few more games in the win column?

In the meantime, this Astros season is offering an interesting picture of what can happen when you combine on-field frugality with one of the lucrative new TV contracts that are sweeping across the league. If only a team could win with such a tiny payroll — imagine what sort of ridiculous income they would enjoy.

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