Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Conversation with Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, Part 1

I wouldn’t really characterize this as an interview with Jeff Luhnow, but rather as a conversation with him. Everyone I know who has met him for the first time is struck by how easy it is to talk with him. He is approachable, self-effacing, good-humored and highly intelligent. And when he talks to you, you never get the feeling that there is someplace he’d rather be.

When we spoke last week, we touched on a wide variety of topics, but we started with the one thing that we discussed last year about this time and which we intend to turn into an annual event.

Jeff Luhnow - Fan Fest 2013
Photo by Jayne Hansen

JH: First things first. I won’t ask you to give a State of the Union address, but tell me what you think about the State of the Astros Farm System.

JL: I think we’re in great shape. Most of the moves that we made over the past two years really have been looking at addressing our future talent and I think a lot of the acquisitions we made, a lot of the trades we made, a lot of the moves we’ve made, have been looking at the pipeline as a whole, trying to plug holes and just trying to increase the quality and the quantity of prospects up and down. And we also had a couple of drafts where we’ve picked at the top and a couple of international signing periods where we’ve been able to deploy some resources, and I think all of that has led to a system that’s in pretty good shape. We’re very healthy right now. Obviously, the proof is in the pudding. Whether or not these players get to the big leagues and perform at a level that helps us accomplish our goals in Houston is ultimately what it’s all about, but as far as all the metrics we have that we can look at, expectations for the players, scouting reports, win-loss records in the minor leagues, prospect rankings, etc., we feel very good about where the system is today.

JH: Two of the areas that you worked to address over the last couple of years were catching and left-handed pitching. Are there any other areas that you feel need to be addressed in terms of depth?

JL: It’s a constant ebb and flow throughout the system and I think we did address the catching depth. We saw that as a potential problem going forward and I think right now, we’re in good shape with three good looking young prospects at the AAA level [Max Stassi, Carlos Perez and Rene Garcia] who project to be major leaguers down the road and behind them, there’s at least one at every level behind them which we like.

Left-handed pitching is always going to be an area we’re going to need to focus on and quite frankly, one of the reasons we added [LHP Luis] Cruz [to the 40-man roster is that] we certainly don’t want to take a chance on losing left-handed starting pitching prospects. So I think we’ve done a nice job of adding depth there. We certainly can use some more left-handed starters throughout the system so that’s something that we’re going to be looking at.

JH: I was a little surprised that Cruz was protected from the Rule 5 Draft because he had spent very little time at AA, but I’ll admit I was pleased with his addition to the 40-man roster.

JL: I think, from our perspective, the way we think about it is we understand the probabilities of different players getting taken and how much time they spent at different levels and all that, but really, the question you have to ask yourself is how are you going to feel on Thursday, December 12th at 10:00 a.m. if that player is taken? Obviously you’ll regret any player getting taken you think has value, but that’s really, at the end of the day, the gut check for us. How are we going to feel if we left that player unprotected and they get taken? Are we going to regret it?

JH: We touched on this last year, but I think it bears repeating. It’s not all that easy to squirrel away a Rule 5 pick on your 25-man roster for a full season. A maximum of only about 8 or 9 players have stuck with the drafting team over the last few years. Realistically, there aren’t that many players who do stick for a full season.

JL: There aren’t, but two of the guys we took two years ago, [SS] Marwin [Gonzalez] and [RHP] Rhiner [Cruz] both stuck and then last year [RHP Josh] Fields and the first baseman [Nate Freiman], although the first baseman went to another team, they both stuck. So we’re responsible for four of those selections which is a pretty big percentage. It’s one of those things that keeping a player on your 25-man roster that another team didn’t seem to think needed to be protected on their 40-man roster, it’s just very difficult to do. And I think that’s part of the issue, but having said that, when you do lose somebody and they’re gone, there’s a reason why these players get selected and so, it’s a low probability event, but it’s a high severity event in that you may lose a pitcher, position player that might end up being a very good player. I mean everybody fears losing a Johan Santana in the Rule 5 draft because it’s happened before.

JH: I talked with [Astros Baseball Analyst] Mike Fast briefly about last year’s Rule 5 Draft and he told me that the Astros were definitely concerned that they might lose Marc Krauss, but ultimately, Fast was told that, although other teams were definitely interested in Krauss, they couldn’t make room on their rosters.

JL: There are certain positions that are easier to carry, but we’re going to cross our fingers. We know eventually someone’s going to get taken from the Astros, whether it’s this year or next year, but we’ll cross our fingers that it’s not somebody who won’t be returned to us or we can’t live without.

JH: Another factor that some people may not think about is how many players are on each team’s 40-man roster already. I looked at the rosters recently and only seven teams had more than one opening at that time.

JL: I think if you don’t have room on your 40-man right now and you try and sign a major league free agent, you’ll have to create room. We look at that also, how many teams are up against their backs, but typically by the time the Rule 5 draft rolls around, over half the teams will have at least one spot. The ones that don’t, obviously, they can’t take anybody.

JH: The piggyback rotation seems to have been a success last season. Is that something that you’re planning on using again in 2014?

JL: We’re going to talk about it, but I really like the results of the piggyback this year. One of the reasons we did it last year was because we had a lot of starting pitcher candidates to evaluate and when you limit yourself to five spots in each level, you really end up putting a lot of potential starters in the bullpen. We have the same issue again this year. I’ve already started the exercise of putting together the rosters for the minor leagues for next year and there are way more than five starters at every level basically, so I think it’s going to be something that we start with out of the gate again. [Minor League Pitching Coordinator] Dyar [Miller] did a terrific job of managing it last year. We’re not beholden to any particular date. If we feel like the AAA staff pares itself down so that it’s five or six guys after a month, we’ll switch after a month. If we feel like all eight guys need to continue to get those innings for the first two months or longer, we’ll continue it. There was sort of a natural transition for the teams when they transitioned off of it last year and we’ll probably do the same thing this year. You don’t want to support an eight-man rotation just to do it. If it makes sense and you have enough starting pitcher candidates you want to evaluate, then do it.

JH: Everyone I spoke with last year during my travels to the various minor league venues really seemed to like the piggyback. The only drawback seems to have been that a few relief pitchers didn’t get much work in the early part of the season.

JL: True, but that’s a double-edged sword. That can go both ways. I’ve seen times when the guys in the piggyback are not making it through their innings and the relievers are having to be used more than they would in a traditional system so it’s both ways. But that’s why we do it. We want the eight most valuable pitchers to get the innings they need to develop, and then you have obviously to prioritize your relievers after that. You may have a potential closer or set up candidate and you make sure they get innings, but really, it’s a good way to make sure the innings go to the right pitchers.

JH: It was helpful that you were able to get a trio of relief pitchers [RHP Andrew Robinson, RHP Jonas Dufek and LHP Alex Sogard] some extra work in the Arizona Fall League, as well as showcasing them. Dufek had a particularly good fall campaign.

JL: It’s great. It really is great. And I think he [Dufek] raised his stock by going out there. They faced a lot of good hitting out there. That’s for sure.

JH: I really want the focus of our conversation to be the minor leagues, but I did want to ask about your plans for the major league bullpen for 2014. I know that it’s tough putting together a major league bullpen when relief pitchers can be so volatile from year to year.

JL: It’s the biggest issue when it comes to relievers that the number of innings that they get is much lower than the number of innings a starter gets. As a part of that, you’re not going to have as good a feel from one year to the next and there is going to be just more variability. And then what they’re asked to do in a number of different circumstances, coming in [for a] short stint with no rest one day to the next and so forth … there are just so many variables involved and it does seem to be an inherent increase of variability from one year to the next relative to both starters and position players so it’s difficult. It’s part art, part science.

Our minor league system was able to produce guys like [LHP Kevin] Chapman and [RHP Chia-Jen] Lo and [RHP Josh] Zeid and [RHP David] Martinez and [RHP Jorge] de Leon, and those guys all have the potential to be really good relievers at the big league level. The ones at the end of the year [who] were the furthest along were Fields and Chapman and Zeid and so you can imagine a major league bullpen with all three of those guys in it next year. And you look down the road, guys like [RHP Jason] Stoffel … he’s got a major league slider … Robinson, Sogard, Dufek, there are other guys. [RHP Jose] Cisnero had a really good beginning of the year up here. There are a lot of guys that could fit in to the mix. [LHP] Rudy Owens, if he’s not a starter could be a reliever. [RHP] Jake Buchanan, same thing. There are a lot of possibilities, but one thing we’re not going to do during the next year, [is having them] exposed and having to rely strictly on these young guys. We can mix and match it and I’m sure Bo [Astros Manager Bo Porter] will do a tremendous job of figuring out which guys to use, but at the end of the day, we do feel like we need a couple of arms that are a little bit more secure and have a little bit more of an established track record to provide some stability in the bullpen.

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In Part 2 of our conversation (which I will post tomorrow), Luhnow and I talk about topics ranging from the Astros Venezuelan presence to minor league standouts to the DH to Alex White. And, of course, I had to ask him about George Springer.

3 comments:

  1. Ask him how it's even possible to pay 25 players less than $15 million in 2013. What a disgrace. There should be a minimum. The NFL has a minimum of 85% of its hard cap.

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  2. As always, a great read, Jayne. Good questions.

    ReplyDelete