Thursday, February 20, 2014

An Interview with Astros Special Assistant to the GM Enos Cabell

When Enos Cabell, former Astros third baseman and current Special Assistant to the General Manager, first joined the front office in 2004, General Manager Gerry Hunsicker sent him to look at the Astros minor league system. According to Cabell, upon his return, the conversation went something like this:

Hunsicker: Well, E, what have we got?
Cabell: Well, you want to hear the truth?
Hunsicker: Yeah, that's why I sent you.
Cabell: Well, we've got about six players.
Hunsicker: Six players?!
Cabell: Yeah, you've got six players (and those are maybes) that will get to the big leagues.
Hunsicker: We've got 300-some players!
Cabell: You asked me to go and I'm coming back and giving you the [count].

Enos Cabell - Fan Fest 2012
Photo by Jayne Hansen

I spoke with Cabell recently by phone and asked him about his unique position as Special Assistant to the Astros GM. Of that time in 2004, Cabell told me, "Gerry hired me to evaluate our minor league system and help him evaluate some of our minor league players because at the time we were starting to get older and Gerry didn't know a lot about our minor league system at all."

Cabell continued, "At the time, the playing field was changing with free agents making hundreds of millions of dollars and we knew as a market that we could not stand that." The Astros were coming to the realization that, in order to remain viable and compete, they would need to rely more on a strong minor league system and less on big free agent signings.

Cabell presented his findings about the minor league system to Hunsicker, Owner Drayton McLane and President of Business Operations Pam Gardner and the initial reaction was one of disbelief. According to Cabell, "I told them if you think I'm wrong, I can go ahead and go home and play golf." They were not happy with his evaluation, but Cabell told them, "It is what it is. Now we need to fix it. How are we going to fix it?"

Cabell is now on his fourth General Manager in Jeff Luhnow and he acknowledges that it's been a long road back from those six fringy prospects he found in 2004, "We started drafting pretty good when Bobby [Heck] was here and then it got better . Then Jeff came and made all those trades and he got players. And now we're stacked on top of each other. But it's a good thing. You can always trade pitching. You can't trade players that can't play."

I asked Cabell what he is now tasked with, "My main focus is mostly our high end players from High-A to the Triple AAA team and then watching the big league team because half of our guys probably right now are 26, 27 years old. So a lot of them are really young, immature ... and evaluating to see what their long-term capabilities are, making adjustments on them. In five years, what do you think? How are they going to be able to play? Are they going to be stable big league players or are they going to be guys that come and go, come and go?

"I like my job. I've got a good job. I've got probably one of the best jobs in the organization because I don't have to lie. I don't have to make you feel good.

"My only boss really is Jeff. I'm kind of separate from everybody else, but I'm involved with everybody else. He takes my evaluation and he uses it or he spits it out and says, 'E, you don't know what you're talking about.' We've got a pretty good rapport and I think he understands my judgement. I can say what I want to say and he knows I'm coming from the heart when I say it.

"Sometimes my judgement is different than Sig [Mejdal, Director of Decision Science] or some of the other guys or Quinton [McCracken, Director of Player Development], [but Luhnow] needs to take that and chew it all up and then he makes the decision. I think everybody respects that."

Cabell doesn't always see eye to eye with Luhnow on certain players, but he always gives him his honest opinion. "Jeff ... knows I'm not holding it back. I have no prejudices. I don't care. It doesn't matter to me. Are we going to win? Are we going to win with you or without you? I don't have any favorites. I don't have a dog in the match. I just see what I see and then I report back.

"And I don't argue. I give my point why this is this and why this is this. Now, you tell me something else, now that's your prerogative to think that and then when it goes wrong, they just look at me and they ask 'how did you know that?'" Cabell's response, "I played." Cabell thinks that former players bring a much-needed dimension to player evaluation simply because they've been there and have a basic understanding of what a player is going through.

Cabell sees a player's statistics as just one tool for evaluation, "It's there to predict what a person is going to do if they play five years in the big leagues because usually by that time they're stable and you can almost put it on the books what he's going to do. All of a sudden, he's not going to hit 50 home runs if he's always hit 25. He's not going to do that. Something else is going on if he's doing that."

But he understands the importance of intangibles as well, "I think a lot of players are good players, but when you get into the major leagues, it's a different atmosphere. All of a sudden you're playing in front of 40,000 people. Do you have the cojones to do that? Will you vomit or will you play? Those things, a lot of people don't understand. It is a difference."

Some of the players that Cabell speaks with talk a big game, but he can see through that. "That's what you have to see when you go and you talk to them. Some of them are full of BS. You can sit there and you'd think this guy is God's gift to heaven and then you see what he puts into it and he's just BS'ing. He's not living what he's talking about."

And Cabell is apt to call a player out. Last season, he dispensed some tough love to one player who tended to pass out the blame when he failed. "If something happens, you can't sit here and tell me that it's somebody else's fault. It's somebody's fault. It's yours. You've got the ball."

Cabell described another conversation with one very talented minor leaguer, "I said, 'Have you figured out what you want to be? Do you want to be a .330 hitter, or do you want to hit 25 home runs and hit .270 or .280?' And he looks at me and he says, 'Well, I haven't figured it out.' 'You haven't figured it out yet? I'm tired of looking at it. Sometimes you're God's gift to heaven and then I come back a month or two later and I don't know who you are! Son, you've got to figure out who you are.' He can be a great player, but you don't know and he doesn't know because he's still figuring it out."

The Astros farm system has come a long way since Cabell came on board and he is often effusive in his enthusiasm, "We're so stacked, it's unbelievable. I've never seen anything like this. Nobody has a minor league organization like this. We're so packed with pitching, it's like ants on top of each other. We're just so full. Jeff has done a tremendous job."

Cabell gets most excited when talking about the pitching depth, "I think our pitching is so deep. We've got probably 15 kids that are going to be 2's, 3's and 4's in your starting rotation. And hopefully three or four of them will be 1's and 2's. And they're all young. They all throw 92 to 100. I mean it's unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it. Maybe four or five years ago, we might have had two starters on each team. Now we've got six or seven on each team. It's unbelievable."

Of course, it was this depth which prompted Jeff Luhnow to institute a piggyback rotation in order to evaluate approximately eight starting candidates per team rather than the standard five. Cabell wasn't a fan at first, but he grew to appreciate how it played out. "They have to throw strikes. They've got to be confident of what they're doing on the mound and it's made them mature even quicker."

In particular, Cabell noted how the Quad Cities team benefited, "They had a four or five man pitching staff that was just awesome and then we shut most of those guys down and the other four that stepped in did just as good a job as them. They didn't have the 94, 95 mile an hour fastball, but they just pitched. That team, that was unbelievable how many good pitchers came off of that team. It just shows you how the depth is and how the piggyback worked."

Cabell spent more time than usual at Quad Cities in 2013, given that he generally concentrates on the higher levels of the system and he liked what he saw. "They had such a good team there. [Carlos] Correa was there. [Mark] Appel was there and [Lance] McCullers, all those guys. And we got [Josh] Hader. Hader is going to be really good."

And he is very high on Correa, "I love Correa. I told Jeff I'd put him in the big leagues now and let him play. If it was up to me, I'd just put [him] over there and let him play. He catches the ball. He doesn't make any mistakes. He understands how to play the game. He's not selfish. He's not jealous of anybody and he's probably going to be our leader. He's going to be our captain. When he gets here, he's going to take over. And we're just going to fly from there. We might not ever lose again with all the pitching."

Since Cabell spent the majority of his career at the hot corner, I wanted to know his opinion of 3B Rio Ruiz. "I think Rio's going to be pretty good. He really had a great second half and he got a lot of big hits." But Cabell conceded, "He's a kid. He's not going to mature as fast, I think, as Correa but he's still going to do a lot of damage because he's going to be a really good player. He was a football player too so that takes a year, year and a half off of just learning and playing baseball."

We didn't talk about too many other players specifically. He spoke of George Springer and Jon Singleton and while he thinks they're going to be good players, he did add a note of caution, "You never know because they haven't done it in the major leagues. It's a different animal."

Cabell went on to say, "Springer has more ability than anybody I've seen in a long time, but he's still going to strike out 120 to 140 times. Will he get a handle on that or will he not get a handle on it? All the other tools? He can do everything. He's a great athlete."

He also singled out Mike Foltynewicz and Vince Velasquez "because they've got so much velocity and so many pitches that they can throw for strikes. And they're just the cream of the crop. We've got so much back up. It's deep. I've never seen anything like it. Some of the guys are getting pushed down that shouldn't be going down in the lower levels. They're just crawling on each other. But it's a good thing."

I asked Cabell what some of these young prospects go through today that he didn't have to go through when he was coming up through the minors. The biggest difference is the long hours that today's prospects put in. "They work so hard during the day. These kids go to the ballpark 12:00, 1:00 in the day time and they work and they work out all day. A 7:00 game, they've been there for five or six hours already so I think that's one thing that I think has changed, but they deal with it. We never did that. We never lifted. We played the game like it was Sunday night football or something. These guys, they have regimens and stuff. It's unbelievable what they go through. I think a lot of times it's too much." But he acknowledges that it's also tougher now because so many of today's players are great athletes and the competition is fierce.

The Astros farm system has come a long way since that first conversation with Gerry Hunsicker back in 2004 and Cabell knows it. And he doesn't even try to contain his excitement about that fact. "From the worst to the best in three years. That's pretty dang good. Nobody does that. I'm really happy. I think we've got a great minor league system and I think once we win, we're just going to continue to win. We're not going backwards."

Cabell's evaluations and advice are simply one part of the puzzle for GM Jeff Luhnow as he positions the Astros for the future, but it is nice to know that he is getting honest feedback from the perspective of someone who played at the major league level for 15 seasons.

Cabell's enthusiasm about the future of the franchise is contagious. It was my privilege to talk with him.

5 comments:

  1. Jayne, this is a fantastic interview. Thanks for posting! --Chris

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  2. This is a really great interview Jayne! I'd seen Mr. Cabell's name pop up every now and again, and everyone seemed to have great respect for the man, but I never knew anything about who he is or what he does. Now I know! He sounds like he'd be really fun to watch a game with.

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  3. If Springer only whiffs 120-140 times per season, I'll start singing the Hallelujah chorus out in the middle of the street.

    Great stuff, Jayne.

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