The Houston Astros have a solid front office under GM Jeff Luhnow, one that appears to have a vision for the future.
Those two statements may appear to be contradictory on the surface, but don’t let that confuse you. Both statements are true. The Astros are willingly, almost joyfully, raising the white flag on the 2013 campaign before it has even begun. They’ve already traded Jed Lowrie, their best player from a season ago, and now the front office seems hell-bent on listening to offers for their best starter, Bud Norris. And the real kicker is that instead of playing in the soft underbelly of the NL Central the Astros are now moving to the AL West, a division that saw 3 franchises win more than 88 games a year ago. So why is a franchise that appears to be little more than chum to sharks like King Felix, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton actually in good hands?
It’s simple really, the Astros new-look front office doesn’t believe in paying to be mediocre. They believe that there is no difference between a team that loses 90 games and a team that loses 100. They both sit out in October, so why pay to win 10 more games? Why not save the money for when you need it? Isn’t it more useful to save that $10 million for player down the road, one who might help push you over the edge from good to playoff-contender? Aren’t the higher draft picks worth it? These are the questions the Astros and Jeff Luhnow are asking and that’s why this spectacular, cringe-inducing, car-crash of a roster is little more than a stepping stone to the next era of Astros baseball, an era that has a chance for some real success.
When Jeff Luhnow and his staff were hired in December of 2011 the franchise was in disarray. The Major League roster was an odd mishmash league average vets and Quadruple-A players. Years of win-now trades and signings had depleted the farm system to the point that it had no fruits of any sustenance to bear. The franchise was about as far away from contention as possible, so why not go all-out in a race to the bottom, thus guaranteeing a low payroll and a high draft pick?
That all-out approach to losing has led to quite a few trades in Luhnow’s time. The Astros have basically been leveraging any Major Leaguer with value, turning them into minor league lottery tickets. Outside of the youngsters, the rest of the big league roster is constructed around reclamation projects like Rick Ankiel, Carlos Pena, Phil Humber, and Brett Wallace. And you can bet that if any of those players are able to put up solid numbers, Luhnow and the front office will find a way to leverage that into some more future talent, aka more lottery tickets.The hope is that one or two of these lotto tickets pay off in a big way some time around 2015 and 2016, when some of the Astros lower level minor league talent is ready to break through to the big leagues.
Just take a look at Luhnow’s trade history, with a big hat tip to Astros’ beat writer Brian McTaggert for the ground work:
Date: Dec. 14, 2011.
Red Sox receive: RHP Mark Melancon.
Date: March 21, 2012.
Date: July 4, 2012.
Date: July 20, 2012.
Date: July 21, 2012.
Date: July 25, 2012.
Date: July 29, 2012.
D-backs receive: 3B Chris Johnson.
Date: Dec. 5, 2012.
Rockies receive: RHP Wilton Lopez and player to be named later or cash..
Date: Dec. 19, 2012
Astros receive: RHP John Ely.
Dodgers receive: LHP Rob Rasmussen.
Date: Feb. 4, 2013.
That’s a whole lotta’ trades, all of which netted a total of 27 players. The Astros didn’t pick up any top 50 prospects in all their wheelings and dealings, but they were able to get some quality players. Asher Wojciechowski, Kevin Comer, Carlos Perez, Robbie Grossman, and Joe Musgrove were all ranked among the top 20 Astros prospects according to MLB.com and Fangraphs feels even stronger about some of those players, Perez in particular.
The Astros also have last year’s 1st overall pick Carlos Correa, a 17-year-old shortstop with talent bursting out his ears, and they will get the first pick in the 2013 draft as well, which should bring in more high-level talent. The top prospect at 1st base, Jonathan Singleton, also resides in Houston’s system and he should be making his way to the Majors by the end of this year. And no franchise anywhere has more overall pitching depth in the minors than the Astros, a good sign for a team with very few quality arms at the highest level.
If Luhnow and company can find even 4 or 5 solid big league contributors from this menagerie of players he’s swapped for over the past 14 months, then all this trading will look like a steal down the road. They were basically able to dump a waaaaay-past-his-prime 1st baseman, a couple mediocre starters, a good young shortstop, and some elbow grease for a pile of potentially useful young players. Houston wasn’t going to be any better than a 70-win team with those players, so why not make a move to start your future sooner while saving a little money in the present? It’s an intelligent, bold move and it’s one that will have the Astros turned around sooner, rather than later.