The now one-year-old Astros front office is definitely more blogger friendly than the prior administration, but lest you think that getting a one-on-one phone interview with General Manager Jeff Luhnow doesn’t take persistence, you would be thoroughly mistaken. I first contacted Luhnow toward the end of July and tried to set something up for shortly after the trade deadline, but that didn’t quite materialize. Fast forward through several email reminders (translation: friendly nagging) to Astros media relations, a couple of in-person nudges to Luhnow himself during various encounters and a very-tongue-in-cheek (I promise) allusion to Glenn Close and bunnies, and the day was finally at hand.
On Tuesday, November 20th, Jeff Luhnow was gracious enough to grant me more than a half-hour of his very valuable time. The results of that interview will be split into four parts and published throughout the week. The first part is fairly long, but there was really no way to break it up. It focuses on what I like to think of as a “State of the Union Address” as it pertains to the Astros farm system.
The first thing that Luhnow talked about was how the Astros farm system had been ranked very lowly by external experts for a number of years, citing in particular Baseball Prospectus’ rankings which had not been higher than 26th (in 2012) out of 30 teams since at least 2007. He emphasized that the Astros “were starting from a fairly low base.” According to Luhnow, “This year, there were really three dynamics that occurred that enabled us to make a significant improvement and this is independent of trying to address any specific need in terms of position because really the system as a whole just needed a big upgrade, a big face lift and needed to start to compete with the better systems in baseball.
“Number one, there were several players that we internally believed were undervalued by the market, by the pundits, players like [2B Delino] DeShields, players like [RHP Vincent] Velasquez, players like [RHP Mike] Foltynewicz, and even to a certain extent some of the recent draft players like [OF George] Springer and so forth. And those players had good years this year and part of that equation was we knew they were good and we knew they would eventually have good years. A lot of these are young players, high school players that underperformed in their first couple of years or first year relative to what our expectations were, but expectations are always very high for top round picks and these are young men that have a long way to go coming out of high school. That dynamic occurs frequently in the industry. Very few first or second round high school players go out and immediately have success and so normally there’s a little bit of a disappointment those first couple of years, and we saw some of that with some of our players. We knew they were better than people were giving them credit for and they proved that this year.
“The other [part of that] dynamic was that we held them back. We didn’t promote them just because they were a year older. We really held firm to the notion that you need to earn the promotion from one level to the next, and the best way to do that is to prove that you have dominated that level and there were several players that hadn’t dominated levels yet that needed to repeat, like DeShields, like Folty, that ended up dominating them this year. So I think there was more inherent talent than people were giving us credit for and it was just a matter of letting that talent show itself, reveal itself, and not pushing it too fast because these are young men that still have a long way to go. So that was … the first dynamic.
“I think the second dynamic that occurred was the draft and the fact that, because we had the benefit of Sig’s [Sig Mejdal, Director of Decision Sciences] group and all the work that they did to help our scouts -- validate the scout’s opinion or challenge the scout’s opinion in some cases -- we ended up with a very robust draft group of proven performers and toolsy prospects. I think that combination was really important for us because the evidence was demonstrated immediately as the proven performers, e.g. the [OF Andrew] Aplins and the [LHP Kenny] Longs and those players came in to the low end of our system and immediately performed the way we expected them to, the way they had their entire careers. That enabled those teams to have more success which just creates more of a mentality that this is a winning organization. So whether it’s Rodgers or [other] pitchers that were in Short Season A, the guys I talked about, guys like Aplin, guys like [OF Preston] Tucker … all those guys came in and did exactly what we expected them to do. But they weren’t the types of players that the Astros had been drafting in prior years. The Astros had focused extensively on tools players with high ceilings and, where we were still able to get some of those guys this year in the form of [3B Rio] Ruiz and [RHP Lance] McCullers and [SS Carlos] Correa, once we got to a certain point in the draft, we focused much more on the players we knew had a proven track record that we thought could advance quickly through our system and help build our depth. So that occurred at the lower end of the system.
“And then, [the third dynamic was] really the trades throughout the season. The trades starting in Spring Training, but all the way through July, enabled us to basically inject -- I think the final number was 17 -- minor league players into our system, everywhere from rookie ball up to AAA, and eventually to big leagues. That was a huge injection of talent, all players that we had determined had already cleared maybe a hurdle or two in the minor leagues. When you’re drafting a player, there [are] a lot of hurdles between where that player is and the big leagues. When you’re trading for a player that’s already been in the minor leagues for a few years, presumably if you’re doing your work properly, [they’ve] already cleared a few of those hurdles and so they’re a little bit of a safer bet. That’s [the case] with players like [LHP Rob] Rasmussen, [3B Matt] Dominguez, [C Carlos] Perez and the rest of the guys that we got from those trades from Pittsburgh and Toronto, etc. Those are all players that had cleared a couple of hurdles and we felt were well-positioned to become prospects or to continue to be prospects.
“Those three dynamics together led to a fairly dramatic improvement in the system and I think evidence of that [is that] we were dead last [in 2011] in terms of win-loss percentage [for the seven domestic minor league affiliates] and this year we’re first. That doesn’t happen by accident. There is a lot of randomness, of course, in win-loss record but to go from worst to first is not an accident. I think it was because of these three dynamics I’m speaking about, and that we did execute against the strategy that George [Astros President George Postolos] and Jim [Owner Jim Crane] have laid out from the beginning. We want to have the best young talent in baseball so we put a lot of resources into that and we’re going to continue to do that and hopefully, whether or not the experts recognize it, we believe we have a system that’s probably close to the top 10, if not in the top 10 now. We have our own metrics of determining that and I think the external validation will be there. We’ll probably at least be in the top half, but that’s not why we do it. The reason we do it is to create major league talent and to shepherd it through our minor league system and create value at the big league level that we can either trade or play and that’s what I think we did a good job of.”
Today, we dig a little deeper and look at some specific needs and Jeff Luhnow's thoughts on some specific players.
In conjunction with Luhnow’s analysis of the improvements to the farm system, I also asked him about which areas were most improved, in terms of depth, and which areas he felt still needed work. Here is what he had to say. “Now specifically, the trades were, as you can tell by the players who came back, were really focused on pitching, left-handed pitching wherever possible, but just pitching. There’s such a high failure rate among pitchers in the minor leagues that we really feel like, if you can grab a bunch of pitchers that have already cleared a couple of hurdles and are in that A-ball, AA range, you’re in pretty good shape at that point. I think the goal of a lot of those trades was to substantially add to our depth of good prospects. I don’t think that we necessarily got any premium, top-end prospects in the trades, but then again, we weren’t necessarily trading any top-end major leaguers. We were trading good major leaguers that were ready to contribute now, and in return we got a high quantity of good prospects. I think that was our objective and we accomplished it. Catching was a priority as well. We still feel like we’re thin on catching. [Carlos] Perez helped. Having [Tyler] Heineman have a great year out of the draft helped, but we still have a ways to go. That’s an area where we’re going to continue to look to improve.”
I also asked Luhnow if there were any prospects who stood out for him for one reason or another as he made his rounds of the minor league ballparks this summer. “Yes, I think so. Just to give you an example, [OF Ariel] Ovando. What I knew about him coming in was that he was a toolsy player that got a lot of money [and] didn’t perform relative to the amount of money he got, his signing bonus as an amateur. And I think I was really impressed. I saw him in the winter and then I saw him this year at Greeneville, and I think I was impressed with how he was handling all of that and how he wasn’t letting it bother him. He was going out there and performing. I thought that was important to see. There were a lot of good performances in our minor league systems though, for me, the first time through was just trying to learn who these guys were more than anything and trying to get a sense for the staff. There were certain players that I came in knowing I was going to take a look at, but there were lots of others that ended up catching my attention so it was definitely worthwhile. I think next year I’d like to spend a little more time out there because this year it was maybe two or three days per spot so I didn’t get to see everybody. You go in; you see maybe two or three of the starters. You don’t get to see everybody. I was impressed with [RHP Adrian] Houser when I saw him in Greeneville. I was impressed with [LHP Brett] Oberholtzer when I saw him but there [were] a lot of pitchers I didn’t get to see when I was out there.”
I wondered if there were any higher level prospects who had answered his questions or concerns this season. In particular, I was thinking of RHP Jarred Cosart who, after having a history of injuries, has remained healthy for the last two seasons (with the exception of some minor blister problems). “Cosart – I happened to be there when he had a dominating performance. When you watch him in one of those starts, you sort of put all those concerns aside because he’s got the arm to be … I still believe that he can be a top-of-the-rotation starter because he’s got enough stuff and he seems to maintain it throughout the game so that was good for me to see. I think [RHP] Paul Clemens is another guy that struggled at times this year mightily in AAA. What I had seen in Spring Training was different than what the results were showing during the season. Getting a chance to see him late was important as well because I believe that he’s everything that we saw in Spring Training. It’s just a matter of him gaining the confidence and really developing an approach that allows him to be consistent because he’s got big league stuff. He’s another one that I heard about and had seen a little bit in Spring Training and was curious as to why the results weren’t matching what I had seen. And that happens. I think there [are] a couple of players that I’m curious to see next year that we didn’t get to see this year like [1B Chase] Davidson and [RHP Jack] Armstrong. Those are guys that … when you have players like that, that have either [been] highly touted or drafted high or have had success and then missed basically entire years due to injury, those are the kind of guys you don’t tend to think about or put on lists, but those are guys that when you think towards next year, in the back of your mind [you] have a little bit of a safety net. [If] those guys pitch or hit to their abilities, all of a sudden we have two more guys we’re going to be talking about next year at this time.”
This led me to ask about a couple of the players that missed all or a large part of the season due to injuries. Luhnow didn’t specify what had kept Chase Davidson from missing most of the season, but had a bit more to say regarding Armstrong and RHP Kyle Weiland. “Armstrong should be [ready for 2013]. Weiland, he’s been rehabbing. We just checked in on him about a week ago and he’s getting stronger. It’s just that when you take that much time off, it takes a while to build up the strength. Armstrong was a little more of a routine situation. Weiland was a little bit more of an unexpected, navigating-into-new-territory situation. I’m hopeful that both of them will be ready to go for Spring Training. [More on Armstrong.] I’ve been watching him since he went to high school there in Jupiter when I was with the Cardinals. I would watch him in high school from basically sophomore year all the way through until senior year and watched him at Vanderbilt so I’ve got some history with him. He’s everything you look for in a pitcher, really."
In Part 3 of my interview with Jeff Luhnow, the topics were more wide-ranging. We talked about some of the problems that come with greater depth, protecting players in the Rule 5 draft, and winter league player control.
I asked Luhnow about whether he’d been to the Dominican Republic yet to look at the players in the instructional league in hopes I could hear about a player or two who had caught his eye. Alas, he won’t be going until after the winter baseball meetings, but told me that he would be going with Assistant GM David Stearns and Director of Latin American Scouting Oz Campo to “watch a couple games, do a couple tryouts.”
I mentioned something that Lancaster Manager Rodney Linares said to me in talking about the increasing depth in the farm system, calling it “a good mess.” Luhnow agreed that there are challenges, “Once you start to have depth, you put pressure on your 40-man, you have to worry about playing time. That decision [is something] that Quinton [new Director of Player Development Quinton McCracken] and the rest of us will have to make next year as far as who gets what spots, what level, what playing time. [It] becomes a much more important decision when you have a number of prospects and your system is starting to become more robust like ours is, so those decisions will be carefully weighed. It’s always a challenge not to over weigh what you see in Spring Training in two weeks of at-bats or in two weeks of innings pitched because, as we all know, Spring Training is an OK predictor of what’s going to happen during the season, but it’s not perfect and sometimes looking at [the player’s] track record may be just as important.”
I spoke with Luhnow on the 20th shortly before the 40-man roster had been set in advance of the Rule 5 draft. In speaking of the process of protecting players, he said, “I wouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is for a team to keep a player on their 25-man roster all year. It is a challenge. We were able to do it last year in large part because Marwin [Gonzalez] was so important to our team and he really became a regular player, and we have enough bullpen depth where we could pitch [Rhiner] Cruz in certain spots and not necessarily overexpose him so we were fortunate in that way. I think it would be a lot more challenging going forward to protect two more guys this year. We’re certainly going to take players but whether or not we are able to keep them? [It’s] going to be difficult to repeat that.”
I was curious about the level of control that the team has over players who play winter league ball in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, among other places. In particular, I was thinking of how Jimmy Paredes was being used extensively in the outfield in his time in the Dominican Republic. I assumed that this was something that the Astros front office would want as Paredes continues in his transition from second base to the outfield. According to Luhnow, “It’s a negotiation. What we do is whenever we can possibly legally prevent the team from using the player, we usually trigger that using the extreme fatigue clauses so that we can have a little more control over how they’re used. A lot of those players, we were able to say you can’t use them, but then we do allow them to play but under certain conditions. We do that whenever we can and that allows us, especially with pitchers, to dictate the number of innings, how they’re used, how often they can go back-to-back, all those types of things. And then with respect to Paredes, I think it’s a combination of he wanted to play outfield, we talked to the team and we asked them to make sure that he gets extensive playing time out there and it’s also just a good fit for them as well so … it’s a negotiation. There are ongoing relationships that we have with all the winter club teams and they know we’re all in this together for many years. They know if they do something against our wishes this year, it might come back to haunt them next year because we might not let them have the player they want so it’s definitely one of those things where we work collaboratively with a team.
In Part 4 of my interview with Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, we talked about rebuilding and his first year in Houston.
I asked Luhnow what he thought was the biggest misconception about rebuilding a team. “First of all, I don’t think people understand [that] rebuilding comes in a lot of different forms. There’s rebuilding the major league team -- you could have a bunch of veteran players and you promote the prospects -- that’s technically considered rebuilding, but that’s just getting younger and going with your prospects as opposed to your veterans. That’s one form of rebuilding. And actually there’s also the idea of rebuilding while you’re good at the major league level. That’s something that we did in St. Louis. The team was having a lot of success – ’04, ’05, ’06, back in the playoffs in ’09, so the team really never went through a significant down cycle, but at the same time, there was a tremendous amount of effort going into injecting talent into the minor league system through the international program and the draft and some of the other things that were going on.
But, really, how long it takes to rebuild [is a big misconception]. In order to really understand how long it’s going to take, you need to have a pretty thorough understanding of what the system looks like in the minor leagues compared to other systems. And that can give you a hint as to whether it’s going to be a couple of years or five-plus years. We’ve seen teams like Pittsburgh and Washington and Kansas City (and Tampa Bay did it a while back) pick high in the draft for sometimes five years or more. And then even after that point, it takes a few years for those high-end players to come through the system and reach the big leagues. I think we’re looking at a much shorter time frame, hopefully. There’s a lot that needs to go right for that to happen, but because we were able to do some of the things we did this year with the trades, because we felt like we had a better system than we were being given credit for and because we’re just going to make sure that from now on, we utilize our draft pool and international pool to maximize the impact, [I think we are poised to make that happen]. I think every situation is unique and I think that’s probably the one thing that fans don’t necessarily understand. It seems like sometimes in other sports [when] you rebuild, you’re bad for a year or you’re bad for two years, and then you’re back. In baseball, it’s like turning a battleship around [my emphasis]. It’s not something that you can really do very quickly.”
The final question I had for Luhnow was what he thought about Houston after his first year as the Astros General Manager. “I love the city and I love the team and the fans are great. [Me: And the bloggers are a little insane?] No, the bloggers are great as well (laughter). I really appreciate the passion. It was one thing to have passionate bloggers and people following the minor leagues in St. Louis where the team was in the World Series and all that, but to have it here in Houston... There’s just such a core group of really passionate fans and followers, it’s great.
"I think we have our challenges ahead, but I like the team that we’re building here. We’ve basically replaced the entire front office. We’ve replaced a lot of the scouting, player development, the field staff, and I really believe that we have a staff in place now that can match up against any staff in baseball. And that’s a starting point because it’s a people business and people are the ones that make the decisions. We need to have the right people making the right decisions with the right information. I know it’s been frustrating for our fans to go through two seasons like we just went through and the only thing I can continue to promise (I won’t give a timeline because if I do, I’ll be wrong), but I promise that we are working as hard and as smart as we can to win as many games as quickly as possible at the big league level and, once we get there, [to] sustain that so it’s not a situation where … we made a run at it and now we have to go back and start over again. That’s the goal and I think we’re well on our way. The first year, while on paper at the big league level, may not appear to have been successful, the number of things that we were able to accomplish, setting up the infrastructure and the underlying fundamentals that are going to help us in the future -- it was a huge success. So the key for this next year is to continue to build on that and to allow some of that work to begin to show its fruits."
I sincerely thank Jeff Luhnow for taking the time to talk with me. Astros fans have been through some very trying times the last few seasons. Personally, I take comfort in knowing that the Astros system is being rebuilt the right way and that a smart, focused and highly motivated individual like Luhnow is in charge. I think he has this battleship turned around. Now it’s just a matter of getting it up to speed. That may take a while, but once we get there, I think we’ll be cruising along smoothly for a long time to come.