Monday, November 26, 2012

Jeff Luhnow Interview Part 1 - State of the Astros Farm System

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.”

On Tuesday: Luhnow talks about system depth at certain positions and gives us his thoughts on some specific players.

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