The 2013 Astros have the worst record in baseball, the third-worst attendance, the lowest payroll of the century, and they are on pace to be perhaps the most profitable team in baseball history, taking in nearly $100 million after expenses. Who says you have to spend money to make money?
The Astros opened the season with a paltry $26 million payroll, and since then have traded or released six of their eight highest-paid players. Yet according to this report from Forbes, the team projects to have an operating income of about $99 million. That's much more than any previous team, and as Forbes points out, more than the last six World Series-winning teams combined.
The big benefactor is TV money. Regional sports networks aren't just for successful or popular teams anymore! The Astros, Rockets, and NBC launched CSN Houston last fall, and the deal pays the Astros a whopping $80 million a year—on par with the Red Sox, Mets, and Rangers, and ahead of every team except the Dodgers, Angels, and Yankees. It's been argued here and elsewhere (though it's far from unanimous) that the TV rights bubble can't continue to swell indefinitely, but no matter the long-term, the Astros got in before it popped.
It's important to note that the pitchforks and torches can be safely stowed away for now. This is not the Marlins or Pirates, with a skinflint owner content to keep costs down and rake in a profit. Jim Crane is delivering exactly what he promised when he bought the team in 2011—a few lost seasons as the Astros regain their financial and competitive footings. (Crane took on nearly $300 million in debt upon purchasing the club, including some inherited from the previous owner.)
TV contracts are not free money. CSN Houston, because of low ratings and major distributors not carrying it, is struggling mightily, and the Astros, as 45 percent owners of the channel, bear the brunt. With RSNs shifting the risk and the reward onto the teams themselves, the Astros have a concrete incentive to field a watchable team as soon as possible.