Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Astros 2014 Fan Fest - Hearing from Jeff Luhnow

Yesterday, I brought you a pretty full meal for "Fan Feast" -- a heaping platter of Reid Ryan and Bo Porter goodness. Buca and De also weighed in with their take on Saturday's Fan Fest activities. Now it's time for dessert!

Jeff Luhnow - Fan Fest 2014
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Unsurprisingly, for those who know Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, the first thing he did in addressing the gathered bloggers was to have everyone introduce themselves. He wanted to make sure that he knew everyone in the room because he uses the blogs as just one more arrow in his quiver of analytic weapons.

In conjunction with this, Luhnow said, "I appreciate all the support that you all have provided and continue to provide in getting the Astros message out there and participating in not just giving us praise, but also criticizing when you think it's appropriate, and just at least having a dialogue. The dialogue is certainly constructive. I read what you guys write all the time. So do a lot of the people in the front office and I'm not going to tell you which ones, but there have been times when your input has actually moved the needle on our desire to do a transaction or something like that."

In his opening remarks, Luhnow noted that, although the major league team fell short of their goals, the farm system exceeded theirs in terms of development, and that 2014 would be the year that Astros fans start to see the fruits of those labors. "This is the year that we're really going to turn the dial," said Luhnow. He was not shy in crediting Ed Wade for his part in the turnaround, citing Wade's drafting of George Springer and the 2011 trades that brought the team Jon Singleton and others. Luhnow is not about to rest on his laurels, though, and is committed to maintaining a healthy minor league pipeline.

Luhnow went on to discuss his off-season acquisition strategy, acquiring free agents that would serve to complement the core of young players coming up and to give those more inexperienced players a strong foundation beneath them, allowing them to grow and mature as players without having the entire weight of the teams' success or failure on their shoulders.

Jesse Crain, Matt Albers and Chad Qualls were all high on a list of targeted relievers that was compiled before the season had even ended. And Luhnow sees Peter Moylan, Raul Valdes and Anthony Bass providing a "healthy amount of insurance" for the pitching staff. Scott Feldman was high on the team's list for an experienced arm to anchor the rotation. And with strikeouts an issue, Dexter Fowler should provide some stability at the top of the order.

After an excellent winter in Venezuela, Luhnow sees Jesus Guzman as a sleeper candidate who could really help the team. Cesar Izturis and Gregorio Petit (who Jose Altuve called the best defensive short stop he's ever seen) provide some insurance at short while Jonathan Villar tries to establish himself at the major league level.

Luhnow went on to discuss the team's approach in trying to sign Cuban player Jose Abreu and Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka. The Astros have their own method of valuing players. They had reached the maximum (in accordance with internal valuations) in their negotiations and did not want to damage their core strategy by bidding any higher [my emphasis]. But they learned a great deal from the process and Luhnow feels that Houston is now on the radar as a legitimate contender for players of this ilk. Furthermore, the Astros are now committed to scouting much more aggressively in the Cuban and Japanese markets. Luhnow will be traveling to Japan in May, along with Director of Pro Scouting Kevin Goldstein, in order to work on the business model for scouting there.

Luhnow also talked about the quirks of using the Mexican League as a prospect pipeline, giving those assembled a bit of a primer on how the process works in that league. Because of the way that player rights are purchased from the clubs rather than signing the players directly, the Mexican League won't ever replace the Dominican Republic or Venezuela as a source. Instead, it is part of his leave-no-stone-unturned strategy in finding and developing good prospects.

When asked about under the radar prospects, Luhnow mentioned RHP Michael Feliz as someone he thought was flying low until Baseball America recently included Feliz in their Top 10 Astros prospects. He also mentioned Nolan Fontana (who I would argue isn't really under the radar) and Andrew Aplin (who happens to be one of my personal favorites). He also noted that LHP Luis Cruz wasn't flying under the radar with the scouting community, leading to his inclusion on the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft.

In discussing winter league success stories, he pointed to lefties Rudy Owens and Raul Valdes, going so far as calling Valdes a sleeper to make the big league club as a starter, reliever or swing man. I also asked him about rumors that Gonzalo Sanudo would be moved to the rotation and Luhnow confirmed that was definitely under consideration.

Luhnow briefly discussed the success of the tandem rotation in keeping young arms healthy by carefully managing their innings early in the season and cited Jake Buchanan's fine 2013 campaign as one of the true success stories of using the tandem.

As always, Luhnow was open and honest and didn't shy away from answering any of our questions. He is encouraged by the progress that is being made. All in all, Jeff Luhnow is confident that the fans will see a vastly improved product on the field in 2014. Mmmmmmm. Dessert!

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