(Nashville, Tennessee)–One of the best things about baseball is that it most often provides very clear answers. A team can be judged on its record. A player can be evaluated in multiple ways, but there is usually some quantifiable way to evaluate his performance. Maybe that’s why we are so drawn to sports. Life doesn’t often give a definitive answer, but baseball usually does. There are no ties in baseball; you either win or you don’t.
But, the ultimate measure of success can sometimes be misinterpreted by a team’s record. Because of the cycle of baseball, most teams will have periods of winning, a couple of rebuilding years, and then get back to winning. The great organizations minimize those rebuilding years, avoid even a losing season. They may miss the playoffs, but those great organizations are always competitive. Some organizations wait too long before making changes, as they keep players a bit longer or fail to realize the run is over.
The Houston Astros were that organization. Beginning in 1996, the Astros posted a winning record in 9 of the next 10 seasons. They made the playoffs six times and even got to the World Series in 2005. The Bagwell, Biggio, and Oswalt era of Astros baseball was the most successful era in the team’s history. But, there is a price to winning and continuing to sign free agents. The Astros lost draft picks, drafted poorly, trading whatever young players they had for veterans who could make a playoff run. There was success, but the bill for that success finally came due in 2007. Bagwell and Biggio both finished Hall of Fame worthy careers and the Astros had nobody to replace them. The system was bare, payroll had to be cut, and after having a decade of success, nobody wanted to come to Houston.
In 2011, the Astros won just 56 games. After years of denial, it was obvious that the organization needed to change and catch up to many in the industry with their player development. The search for a new General Manager led them to Jeff Luhnow, who had worked in the St. Louis Cardinals organization from 2003 through 2011. Luhnow’s hiring was met with optimism amongst analysts as he had the reputation of embracing advanced analytics and a resume quite skilled in player development.
The 2012 Astros won 55 games. Their hitters had the worst strikeout percentage in Major League Baseball. They scored the least amount of runs. Their pitching staff posted the sixth worst FIP and their defensive metrics were one of the two worst in the sport.
This is where the definition of success comes into play. The record gives one indication, but that doesn’t give the entire story of Jeff Luhnow’s first season as General Manager. Around the trade deadline, Luhnow finally did what the Astros’ organization had needed to do five years ago; he purged the roster of any veteran who cost any type of money. He acquired multiple prospects in each deal, restocking the long neglected farm system. He acquired two prospects for Carlos Lee and another four in a trade with the Blue Jays. Wandy Rodriguez was dealt to the Pirates. The roster was slashed. The Astros had their smartest draft in years. The plan was finally in place.
Success in Houston, at least for the next couple of years, won’t be defined by wins and losses. The neglect of the organization left it bare. Quality rebuilding takes time. Time is something that isn’t usually associated with baseball executives, but Luhnow is committed to his process. That process has led to some potentially historic front office hires. Luhnow reached out into the sabermetric community and hired three analysts from Baseball Prospectus, the industry’s leading analysis publication. With a reliance on analytics and an emphasis on scouting, the Astros went from being one of the most archaic front offices in the game to one that is revolutionary.
“We are not going to set ourselves a goal in terms of wins and losses yet. Last year our goal was to really create the foundation for our strategy and I think we did that. Our minor league system improved, hired a new crew in the front office, and a new crew on the field. Our young players got a chance to develop more, and we identified our high priority prospects,” said Luhnow.
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Their lineup had an average age of 25 years old, the pitching staff averaging 27. The young team would take their lumps on the field for most of the year. They would lose 12 consecutive games in July. The Astros won just 8 times in July and August combined. Jordan Lyles, their 21 year old starter, would learn, sometimes harshly, in the Major Leagues. In all, 50 players would appear in a Major League game for the Astros. But, in September, the Astros began to win. They finished the season winning 15 of their final 30 games.
“In September in general the team went .500 in the last 30 games. Our pitching was good and I think you saw good performances from people who settled in to roles like Ambriz, Storey, and Edgar Gonzalez played an important role for us. At the very end, Lyles really settled down and was getting confident. I’m expecting us that we are going to start where we left off. We still have a relatively young pitching staff but that they are going to be that much more experienced and that much more confident and comfortable going into the AL West,” said Luhnow.
As if the challenge of rebuilding the Astros wasn’t enough, Luhnow faces another obstacle. His team is moving the American League West for the 2013 season. They now have to compete in the American League in an infinitely more difficult division, reshape their roster to fit American League criteria, and continue to rebuild. While the Astros knew that they were moving since last winter, it is still a challenge to reshape a roster for the Junior Circuit. For Luhnow, the challenge isn’t just about the designated hitter.
“There is a different mindset when it comes to pitching. Everyone talks about the DH and the fact that you have the extra bat in the lineup. Obviously, you have to have run production that matches with teams that have that. But, the real, hidden impact to certain extent is what happens to the pitching staff because there are no breaks in the lineup. And, so it just seems like it is one after another after another. It exposes any weaknesses that you have in your pitching depth very quickly,” stated Luhnow.
Luhnow has restocked the Minor Leagues, but most of his acquisitions won’t be ready for the Majors this season, making this offseason particularly challenging. Because of this, the Astros will look to supplement their young staff by acquiring depth. “If you can have a veteran who pitched in the American League that helps. We just signed Phil Humber, so there is a guy who has that experience. But, also you need to have that depth in triple-A as well where maybe instead of having seven guys competing for five spots, you have eight or nine starters so you have a couple of extra guys so you can swap them out if someone struggles,” explained Luhnow.
There will be a challenge in that and it is likely one that the Astros won’t be able to have a complete answer to until January or February. Until Luhnow’s draft classes can advance through the system, this will be a challenge.
The transition to the American League also poses a different challenge for the club when it comes to composing the remainder to the roster. “The other element is that the use of your bench changes quite a bit. When you are signing an extra player in the National League, you can pretty much assure them a certain number of appearances because of double switches and things like that. But, it doesn’t happen in the American League, so you have to have a certain type of bench player who can sit three or four days at a time and not getting any at bats,” said Luhnow.
Measuring success in 2013 for the Houston Astros will not be easy. The move to the American League West, the inexperience of their roster, and the fact that it is year two of a long rebuild process will make it difficult to measure the Astros in that clear way that baseball usually allows us.
“I’m expecting us that we are going to start where we left off. We still have a relatively young pitching staff but that they are going to be that much more experienced and that much more confident and comfortable going into the AL West,” said Luhnow, “I think this year it is about making sure our system continues to develop and our big league team is starting to mature. Whether that results in 5, 10, or 20 wins, I don’t know. But, we’ll know if it’s happening.”
Two of the Astros better prospects who could help soon are 21 year old first baseman Jonathan Singleton and 22 year old right handed pitcher Jarred Cosart. Singleton spent the 2012 season at double-A where he hit .284/.396/.497 with 27 doubles, 4 triples, 21 home runs, and 79 RBI. Cosart split the season between double and triple-A, finishing the season with a 3.30 ERA, 8.6 H/9, 4.0 BB/9, and 7.2 K/9. For a club that doesn’t have depth, the quick reaction is to promote any player with a monicrum of talent. Luhnow’s team is preaching patience. “Both (Singleton and Cosart) are going to be in big league camps and we are going to look long and hard at them during spring training. If I had to guess, I would think Singleton would be our starting first baseman at triple-A and Cosart would be in our rotation at triple-A. That’s not to say that they can’t make our team out of spring training or they can’t join us at some point during the season.”
Every Major League club has challenges. The Houston Astros are not unique in this regard. Even the concept of switching leagues isn’t new as the Brewers did that in 1998. But, the challenges are great. The neglect of the farm system that took place left the franchise as one of the worst in the sport. Jeff Luhnow was hired to gut and rebuild the organization. The gutting took weeks. The rebuild will take years. In an era of “you are what your record says you are”, this will be a difficult concept to sell.
But, Luhnow and the Astros are attacking it in the most modern, most efficient way possible. The results may not show on the scoreboard just yet, but that doesn’t mean that the 2013 Houston Astros won’t be successful.
Success can be defined in many ways.
Category: 2012 Winter Meetings