Jeff Luhnow - Fan Fest 2013
Photo by Jayne Hansen
JH: In making your rounds of the minor league ballparks during the past season, were there any players that stood out? Maybe someone who wasn’t on your radar previously?
JL: As a General Manager, you spend a lot more time with the big league team than you do with the minor leagues. I read the reports every day, but [it’s helpful] when you get a chance to go out there and see these players in person. You have to take into account that they might have played really well for you while you were there, and who knows if that’s the true player -- the coaches know them a lot better, but I’d say a couple of guys, for me, were standouts at least when I was out watching them. [CF Andrew] Aplin. I liked him the year before, but I think this year watching him in the games that I watched him … defensively, I tried to get my mind around the fact that some of the plays he made were the plays that Gold Glove centerfielders make. That’s the caliber of defense that I saw. It was a limited look, but I was pretty excited about that. [RHP Brady] Rodgers. The fact that he was in that league all year and performed as well as he was able to perform was pretty exciting and I think he will get a chance to prove himself next year in AA.
I also have to say just having come back from Venezuela, [RHP Jamaine] Cotton, I saw him a couple of times this year, but watching him just recently last week in Venezuela … if you look at the numbers he put up at the very end of the season last year, combine that with the stuff right now in Venezuela, I think he’s moved himself pretty far up the list.
The catcher at Quad Cities, [Roberto] Peña could be our best defensive catcher of all. Outstanding looking young man. That team was loaded obviously but I think Peña is sort of an unsung hero on that team because a lot of attention went to the third baseman [Rio Ruiz] and shortstop [Carlos Correa] and centerfielder [Teoscar Hernandez] and so forth.
Tri-City … the pitching in Tri-City. Everybody is going to be talking about [RHP Michael] Feliz. Feliz had a great year and deserves whatever accolades are coming his way. He’s a pretty exciting player, but [RHP Kyle] Westwood is a guy that hasn’t received a lot of attention, but did a really nice job when I was there. Lot of confidence. Looks like he’ll be able to succeed at the higher levels. I really like [CF James] Ramsay out of the draft. He played well. These guys really did a heck of a job. There were a lot of good players from this year’s draft that were exciting.
JH: I know that you and [Director of International] Oz Ocampo have been working to increase the Astros’ presence in Venezuela. How is that going?
JL: It’s something that we’re going to continually evaluate. Oz has done a terrific job of spending a lot of time in Venezuela and that’s the first step, just going down there. Everybody has scouts down there, but when I went down there last year, we met with a lot of the trainers, agents that work down there and what they said is, “Everybody scouts down here, but first of all, you’re the first General Manager to come down here in quite some time, and second of all, a lot of the international directors don’t spend a ton of time down here and when they do come down, they come down for a few days and they won’t travel around the country. So, certain areas of the country, we have to bring the players to you and they may have really long travel schedules and be exhausted by the time they get here and you don’t always see them in the best light.”
So we’ve done a concerted effort to get down there more and both Oz and Mark Russo have spent a significant amount of time in Venezuela in the past year and I think that’s a big step. The Astros had terrific results in Venezuela, but we feel like we haven’t been as good as we have in the past and so part of it is having Oz and Mark spend more time down there, both my visits the last two years and working together with whatever partners we have down there. We just established a partnership with one of the minor league teams to be able to do more than [just have them play] there because during the winter, like right now, having a little more control over how our players are getting developed is an important element for succeeding. So we set up a team with La Guaira in the Paralela League and we’re going to continue to explore opportunities from both the player evaluation standpoint as well as the player development standpoint.
JH: I should probably know this, but I don’t. Who is Mark Russo?
JL: He’s our international crosschecker. He’s probably one of the most important people in our organization and no one’s ever heard of him. He’s terrific though. He travels 250 days a year, internationally, and he spends a lot of time evaluating players and [looking at] 15 and 16 year old players in the Dominican and Venezuela and all over Central America, Asia, etc.
JH: Whose idea was it to send American players to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela this winter? I thought it was a terrific idea.
JL: Allen [Assistant Director of Player Development Allen Rowin] and Q [Director of Player Development Quinton McCracken]. I talked to [Jamaine] Cotton last week when I was down there and he’s really benefiting from the experience. Not only is he getting to pitch in a good league, but just the whole cultural experience of living with the other players down there, being in that country and so forth. The other player that really opened eyes was [OF Brett] Phillips. He really opened eyes. For a guy that basically played for a year in the Appalachian League, they were seriously considering, and had he not come back [for personal reasons], I think he would have been on the big league team down there. When we sent him to Quad Cities, he was only supposed to go there for a couple of weeks to kind of fill in. They loved him so much, they didn’t want to let him go. The plan was for him to go to the Appy League all along [since] he was in the Gulf Coast League last year, [but the Quad Cities crew] said, “No, no, leave him here with us. We’ll take care of him.”
JH: Did anyone stand out during your visit to the Dominican Republic this winter? There are some very interesting pitchers down there.
JL: We had about two or three days of games, but we put a lot of trial players into the games so I [only] saw a couple of our guys, but [we are very] excited about what the guys have been able to do down there in terms of both scouting and continuing to develop the pitchers.
I also went to instructional [league in Florida] and I saw guys like [LHP Reymin] Guduan and [RHP Jandel] Gustave and it’s hard not to get pretty excited when you see those guys. [Note: Both Guduan and Gustave routinely flirt with 100 mph fastballs.]
Junior Garcia … I just saw him in the Paralela League a couple of days ago. He’s a pretty exciting left-handed pitcher. There’s a whole bunch of them that we’re excited about for sure.
JH: Now for some random questions. Do you have a philosophy about what you’re looking for in a DH, or is that evolving? In other words, would you prefer to have a true DESIGNATED hitter or do you like to be able to mix and match?
JL: It’s evolving and I think it depends. [Chris] Carter, I think, can be a good DH. He can also be a good first baseman so it depends on where [Brett] Wallace fits in the equation or anybody else we sign. And we were pretty aggressive pursuing a Cuban free agent this year [1B Jose Abreu] and we didn’t land him, but had we landed him, he would have been our first baseman and that would have naturally moved Carter and Wallace more towards DH and outfield, third base, whatever. I think it’s one of those things you kind of evaluate year by year. If you end up signing a DH only on a multi-year deal, you limit yourself somewhat because those at-bats can be useful for rotating players and giving people rest. I think it will evolve. It kind of depends on your roster and how you want to produce runs and where those guys can play defensively.
JH: I know that player injuries and the status of their rehab are delicate subjects, but can you tell us anything about any of the pitchers that missed the 2013 season?
JL: [RHP] Alex White is very much on schedule. You have Tommy John, you have rehab and you come back and I truly believe Alex White is going to be a big part of our team this year at the big league level. His rehab has been progressing very, very well. There’s a reason why we traded for him and unfortunately we lost a year, but I think that he’s going to be a contributor. We may choose to bring him along slowly in terms of having him be in the bullpen instead of rotation, but he made our team last year. I think there’s a good chance he’ll make our team again this year and if not, he’ll certainly spend a large part of the season up here. I’m excited about that.
JH: You know I have to ask about [OF] George Springer. Is Super Two status a factor or the factor in whether or not Springer makes the team out of Spring Training?
JL: There’s a [whole] process about what makes sense for the player and for the team and what’s the right time so there are no fast rules about it, there are no expectations. He’s going to come to Spring Training and we’re going to evaluate him and evaluate the rest of the team and make a decision. But there are no guarantees he’s going to be on the team opening day. There are no guarantees he won’t be on the team. Really, it’s still to be determined.
JH: One final thing. Please tell me that the Astros are NOT going to get the first draft pick in 2015.
JL: We certainly do not want to have the first pick again next year.
I keep going back to something that Luhnow said when I talked with him around this time last year.
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. It’s not something that you can really do very quickly.
Forgive me a cheesy metaphor, but when Jeff Luhnow took over the helm of the U.S.S. Astros two years ago, she had hit a mine, had holes in the hull and was listing badly. She is now heading out to sea, repaired and painted with a full complement of young able-bodied sailors at the ready. The journey is just starting, but all hands are on deck with the same destination as their common goal, and Captain Luhnow has the map.
Thank you for your time and generosity, Captain.