Sunday, January 27, 2013

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow on Minor League Pitching Depth

During yesterday's Astros Fan Fest at Minute Maid Park, several individuals from the Astros blogging community attended and were given the opportunity to conduct short interviews with Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, new Manager Bo Porter, and outfielders Justin Maxwell and J.D. Martinez. I will talk more about Porter, Maxwell and Martinez later, but since Luhnow's remarks dovetailed so nicely with the minor league depth series I've been working on over the last couple of weeks, I wanted to touch on his remarks about minor league pitching depth first.

Take the starting right-handed pitchers who had good seasons on full-season league teams in 2012, add in lefties Dallas Keuchel, Brett Oberholtzer and Rudy Owens, and then add in the  new pitchers that Luhnow picked up in the off-season (Alex White, John Ely, Philip Humber and Erik Bedard), and the field starts getting very crowded between the major leagues, AAA and AA. And this isn't even counting Kyle Weiland and Wes Musick as they come back from injury.

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow - 2013 Fan Fest
Photo by Jayne Hansen

So I asked Luhnow how he was going to handle juggling 15 or more pitchers for whom a valid case could be made for a starting roster spot at AAA and AA. I shouldn't have been surprised by his response, but I was. I should know by now that Luhnow thinks outside the box.

"That's going to be one of the most challenging things. We've got our best people working on it. Quentin [McCracken, Director of Player Development] is going through every day and putting magnets in different spots. Sig's [Mejdal, Director of Decision Sciences] on it, and I'm on it. I think those roster decisions at AA and AAA are going to be as important as the big league roster decisions.

"When I was farm director at the Cardinals, I instituted the piggyback, the tandem pitching rotations which allowed you to have eight starters for the first couple months of the year so we are going to discuss whether or not that's appropriate.

"The way you do that [is] you have four groups of two. First guy comes in and goes through the fifth inning and the second guy goes sixth to the end. The pitchers have to get used to it. They're not used to coming in in the sixth inning, but sometimes it's good because then [they] get the experience of finishing a game which is a totally different experience than most of these guys have had. And then the next time, [the second pitcher is] the one that starts the game and [his] piggyback partner comes in later.

"We're going to talk about it. We'll be creative certainly in how we allocate those roster spots. We'll proably have to have a few guys a level below where they would be otherwise."

That final statement brought to mind Mike Foltynewicz. Until recently, I thought that Foltynewicz might skip Lancaster and go straight to AA Corpus Christi, but in looking at the pitching depth at the higher levels, I had come to doubt that there would be enough room for him on that roster, at least to start the season. Luhnow and I discussed that briefly and it sounds as though he isn't as likely as the last regime to spare a top prospect  like Foltynewicz the challenges of pitching in the hitter-friendly California League, "If they're going to learn to pitch here [Minute Maid Park], they're going to need to learn to pitch through some adversity."

One final thought. Knowing what Luhnow has in mind as far as the possibility of using tandem pitching duos helped me understand my findings regarding the lack of depth in the area of right-handed relief pitching at the upper levels. With two starters piggybacking in one game, the relief corps isn't likely to get much work.

The plethora of pitching is a good problem to have. And having a creative out-of-the-box thinker like Luhnow around to solve it is a very good thing as well.


  1. I've been following Folty for the past 5 years since his high school days. This is a shocking post. I believe Folty is one of the most athletic/best arm pitcher in entire organization - including Astros projected starting pitchers this year. He should have been in Corpus last year and now he's not even going to start there this year??? Wow - worst team in baseball and you have a guy like Folty that can't move up Luhnow's ladder??? This is troublesome news - Hope it's not the case!! So basically he's about 20th or lower on the Astros's organizational starting pitching depth??? Is the Astro's mind made up about the rosters already??? Prior to spring training??? You have a guy like DeShields who can't field a ground ball reporting to the big league club and keep a guy like Folty in A ball??? Hey Astro fans - DDJ can't hit guys who throw like Folty, Cosart or McCullers... If this is the Astros logic I believe you will continue with losing seasons - many years to come!!! Message to Folty - should have gone to University of would be a junior there right now I believe - I'd take that team with you pitching to beat the Astros right now!!Don't even think it would be close!! Think UT would be more competitive in the AL west than the current Astro club. I'm actually an Angel's fan and glad to see Houston in our division!! Our gain with not moving top prospects up within the minor leagues.
    Maybe the Angels could pick up Folty if he's so low on their depth charts - I'm positive we can move him up the ladder. I believe he was on our 2010 draft board.

    1. Wow, a couple of things to talk about here, and consider me a Folty fan when I say this: He was nowhere near ready for AA at any point last year, let alone to start the season. Folty made huge strides last year, but he still has a ways to go in his developmental process. He still relies heavily on his fastball, and could use more fine tuning on his offspeed stuff. I think the more advanced hitters at the AA level would have exposed this weakness and it could have set Folty back in his developmental process.

      Second, the depth chart is not the same as prospect rankings. Folty is not 20th in the organizations eyes, he's considered one of the top 3 pitching prospects in the organization. He's valued, that's for sure.

      As for DDJ, he was invited to camp, he's not on the roster. DDJ, like Folty made strides last year but still has development to do. Actually DDJ and Folty were drafted in the same year, both struggled in their first season, and both took steps forward last season. Their at similar stages of their development process.

      I'm actually glad that Folty's going to spend some time in Lancaster. It was talked about last year that he would get visibly flustered at times last season, and that is something that he can hopefully work through at Lancaster.

      I'm a firm believer in not promoting someone until they've shown something that makes them worthy. Did Folty earn a promotion with his performance last year? Absolutely. Was it enough to get him all the way to Corpus and skip a level? I don't think so.

    2. Thanks, you put it much better than I did!

    3. "Maybe the Angels could pick up Folty if he's so low on their depth charts - I'm positive we can move him up the ladder. I believe he was on our 2010 draft board."

      The Angels have the second to worst farm system in the MLB. I surely hope that Folty would move up in a system that bare.

  2. Take a deep breath. Nothing has been decided yet and even if he starts at Lancaster, there would be nothing preventing him from moving up during the season. A number of the pitchers who are ahead of him in the organization are ready/almost ready for the majors. Folty won't be called up to the majors this year so where he starts the season doesn't matter nearly as much as where he ends it. He was the minor league Pitcher of the Year in the organization. He is valued HIGHLY by the organization, but the Astros need to sort things out at the higher levels first. He will likely get to the majors in 2014, probably as a September callup but maybe sooner depending on how he does. He will be 22 in September of 2014.

    1. Come on Jayne - I thought you are a Folty backer. You don't even know his age. He'll be 22 this October. Almost 23 when he gets a late call up next year???? By the Astro's calendar he won't make it to the bigs until he's 25. By that time they'll have ruined his arm in his minor league stint.

      Whey didn't the Astros promote him to Lancaster last year at the half way point when he was 9-1???? With an ERA around 2.00. That right there is saying alot about Folty because the team didn't improve that much from previous season. What else did they want him to do in Lexington??? Promoted Tropeano instead. Doesn't say much for Folty I'd say. And now I believe you have Tropeano going to Corpus and Folty going to Lancaster... or the brass does......

      You are correct with Folty being the Astro's minor league pitcher of the year and Most Outstanding Pitcher in the SAL, but it looks like that really doesn't mean too much to anyone. Starting pitcher in SAL All-star game too. I believe he was the only pither on either team to go 2 innings. Struck out 4, hit a batter on an 0-2 pitch (up and in baby) and had 2 pop-ups to infield. Believe (not sure) he was hitting 98 on the gun - but I guess this doesn't mean anything either unless your name is Cosart or McCullers. I don't recall seeing him receive any recognition for this from the Astros or "so-called fans" What did DDJ do in this game???

      In reply to Conroestro - You believe Folty is a 3 year A ball player???? Wow!!! Folty shows emotion on the mound as he is a winner and he wants to win!!! Not just going through the motions. Rather have a guy like this who gets on himself than some lackluster guy going through the motions. Ever watch DDJ at a game at Lexington??? That's what I mean about going through the motions, but hey promote him to Lancaster, have Biggio work with him in off-season, invite him to the big club at Spring Training and probably promote him to Corpus - he's the golden child.

      In regards to Mr. Luhnow's response about pitchers going through a little adversity. "What the Heck" -(get it??) do you think Folty went through his first full season at Lexington??
      Had absolutely no help from team mates - fielding behind him or run support- pathetic. That team was absolutely terrible!!! That's the reason for his 5-11 first full season record!!!! (Norris was 7-13 last year and got a $3M bonus) But Foltys now been labeled because of that first year and believe me it wasn't him. It's a learning process true and I believe he's ready to be moved up.

      I'll back pedal a little here. I believe Folty will earn a AA roster spot this year based on his performance at Spring Training. If Mr. Luhnow's mind in made up already then??? Atros lose!! Come on Angels!!!!
      How's that for a deep breath??

    2. Yes, I know Folty's age. Just a typo. It happens.

    3. Oh, and by the way, I'm a huge supporter of Folty's. I just have a little more faith in Jeff Luhnow and Quentin McCracken than you do.

    4. You say three years of A ball like all A ball is the same. It's not. There is a noticeable increase in A+ league talent than Lo A talent. Do I think Folty needs a year in A+ ball before seeing AA? Yes I do, or at least start the season there.

      The 5-11 record you mention in his first season, or the 9-1 record last season mean nothing to me. Wins and losses are a terrible way to judge a player, especially a minor leaguer. I was more concerned with his 4.97 ERA in 2011. You say his defense was bad, and when you look at his FIP of 4.16 which neutralizes the defense he looked better, but you would still expect more from a player with Folty's stuff. The most disappointing signal of that 2011 season that says he needed more time in Lexington was his 5.91 K/9 rate. Now, fast forward a year and all of those stats improved, but an FIP of 4.16 in 2011, and one of 3.82 in 2012 shows improvement, but not such a huge one that I would be ready to skip him a level, especially when you consider that he repeated a level.

      As for minor league evaluation, and pitcher's in general every one likes to look at them and evaluate them differently. For me personally, I like to focus on strikeout and walk rates. FIP is important, but I like to look at those two indicators first. In regards to Tropeano, his peripherals were light years away from Folty's in the strikeout area. In short he dominated his completion, and it made since to promote him. Considering that those peripherals stayed relatively constant in his Lancaster promotion it does seem likely that he could go to Corpus.

      As for the Bud Norris comparison, are we really comparing a major leaguers win loss record to that of a minor leaguers win loss record. That's really all I have there.

      Showing emotion is fine. I have no problem with Lucas Harrell's excitement or fist pumps when be gets out of a jam. Makes it entertaining and fun to watch. What I am talking about is when you give up a hit or a situation doesn't go your way and you become visibly upset similar to what a young Wandy used to do. More times than not that signals that the wheels are about to come off for said pitcher. That's what I would like for him to work through.

      I feel like your forcing me to knock Folty, which is not my intent. I am a fan and think he has a bright future. All I'm saying is that I would support Luhnow's decision to start Folty in Lancaster.