Houston has problems but unorthodox approach is still the right one
On Tuesday night, the Astros came within one out of falling victim to their second perfect game in less than 10 months, barely avoiding that ignominious fate when light-hitting Marwin Gonzalez laced a single through the legs of Yu Darvish. That prevented the Rangers ace from joining the company of the Giants' Matt Cain, who tossed a perfect game against Houston last June 13, one of a record-setting three perfectos thrown last season.
On the heels of a pair of seasons in which they lost 106 and 107 games — ranking dead last in the league in scoring (3.60 runs per game) and all three slash categories (.236/.302/.371) in 2012 — and transferred from the NL Central to the hypercompetitive AL West, it won't prevent the Astros from remaining an obvious target of jibes about their vulnerability. A week before the season started, CBS Sports' Danny Knobler quoted a pair of anonymous scouts saying, "I have them winning three games the first month of the season," and "The over-under on wins is 40… And I actually raised that, from 35." In the wake of Tuesday's loss, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal quoted TV analyst Mark Mulder, "This won’t be the last time this year that someone is perfect through a good portion of the game against the Astros." The Detroit News' Lynn Henning quipped via Twitter, "Felix Hernandez hasn't had a perfect game since August. But he feels one coming on. Astros are in town for a three-gamer next week."
More than taunts such as those, the Astros will remain a target of scrutiny. In the wake of Jim Crane's purchase of the team from Drayton McLane in November 2011, they have committed themselves to a painstaking rebuilding process, one that will not only take years to execute, but is being done by incorporating cutting-edge sabermetric ideas — the kind of outside-the-box thinking that keyed a culture war in the wake of Michael Lewis' Moneyball more than a decade (!) ago — along with more traditional ones. As Oakland general manager Billy Beane can attest, such attempts to go against the grain in an inherently conservative industry are guaranteed to generate controversy. Houston's setbacks may be cheered by traditionalists still looking to hammer that wooden stake into Moneyball despite the fact that the past decade has seen virtually every team integrate advanced statistical analysis into its front office processes, with some high-profile successes outside of Oakland. Boston won a pair of world championships behind a billionaire willing to hire Bill James and boy wonder general manager Theo Epstein, Tampa Bay built itself into an AL East powerhouse on a budget that's a fraction of its AL East rivals, and such triumphs great and small have only intensified the efforts of other teams to gain an inside edge.
What follows is a quick breakdown of how the Astros are going about their rebuilding effort, and the progress they're making that may not be visible in a team that's struck out in 28 of 61 plate appearances thus far in the young season and may be well on their way to another 100 or so losses.
Front office: Crane set out on this course by hiring George Postolos as the team's president and CEO after he spent eight years with the Houston Rockets, where he gained note (and notoriety) by hiring the analytically-driven Daryl Morey to be his general manager. He followed that up by luring Jeff Luhnow away from the reigning world champion Cardinals to be the Astros' general manager. In St. Louis, as vice president of scouting and player development, Luhnow had drafted an MLB-high 24 future major leaguers in his first three drafts (2005-2007), including Jaime Garcia, John Jay, Allen Craig, Colby Rasmus, Chris Perez and Luke Gregerson — staples of a perennial contender and players spun off to further the team's run. In all, 21 players on Opening Day rosters were drafted by Luhnow, the most of any executive in the game.
Beyond that, he had proven adept at integrating statistical analysis with more traditional scouting methods, and he soon got the attention of the baseball world by making some innovative hires. Last January, Luhnow brought over Sig Medgal from the Cardinals to be his director of decision sciences — a title unprecedented in the industry — and named Stephanie Wilka to be the coordinator of amateur scouting, the rare female among front office executives. Late last summer, he hired Kevin Goldstein away from Baseball Prospectus to be the coordinator of professional scouting. In six years at BP and three prior to that at Baseball America, Goldstein had built a reputation as one of the game's most respected prospect analysts, communicating with dozens of scouts on a daily basis to assemble every organization's annual list of top prospects. That wasn't the first time Luhnow dipped into the BP ranks; prior to that, he had hired Mike Fast as a consultant in the wake of groundbreaking sabermetric work on catcher framing and quality of contact using PITCHf/x and HITf/x.
Payroll: In McLane's protracted effort to sell the franchise — which included a handshake deal that Crane backed out of in 2009 — the final years of his ownership were spent with Luhnow's predecessor, Ed Wade, under the mandate to prop up the team as a contender in order to better attract another buyer. Wade gradually shed payroll and high-profile stars such as Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman while cutting spending. On the heels of an 86-win season and near-miss of the playoffs in 2008, the team's Opening Day 2009 payroll ranked ninth in the majors at $103.0 million according to the USA Today salary database; Houston finished 74-88.
By 2010, the Astros' payroll had fallen to 13th at $92.4 million and they finished 76-86, parting with the aforementioned longtime franchise staples along the way. In 2011, they opened 21st at $70.7 million and finished 56-106, trading Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence in the process. Last year, they started 28th at $60.7 million and finished 55-107, shedding their five highest-salaried players — Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Lyon and J.A. Happ — in midyear; they finished the season with Jed Lowrie as the only player making more than $1 million.
Since the additional dollars they might spend won't do more than guarantee a mediocrity that would be counterproductive to their long-term efforts, they've gone even lower this year. Over the winter, Luhnow traded Lowrie to Oakland and arbitration-eligible closer Wilton Lopez to Colorado, and while he added bargain basement free agents Carlos Pena ($2.9 million), Jose Veras ($1.85 million, with an option or buyout for 2014) and Erik Bedard ($1.15 million), the team's Opening Day payroll ranked dead last at $27.3 million, $17 million behind the next-closest team, the Marlins, who executed a more drastic fire sale of their own over the past year. That's the lowest Opening Day payroll the game has seen since the Marlins' $21.8 million one in 2008, and it includes the $5 million Houston is paying the Pirates as part of last summer's Rodriguez trade. The highest paid player on the roster is Bud Norris, whose $3 million salary is below last year's MLB average of $3.2 million, and it's a reasonable bet that he'll be dealt sometime this summer.
Farm system: Berkman, Oswalt, Bourn, Pence and others were traded in order to reinvigorate an utterly barren system that Baseball America ranked dead last in its annual handbooks from 2008 through 2010. That effort actually began under Wade, who hired the well-respected (and since-departed) Bobby Heck as the team's scouting director in October 2007. When Heck's 2008 draftees Jason Castro and Jordan Lyles reached the majors in 2010 and 2011, respectively, they marked the team's first first-round picks to reach the majors since 2001 selection Chris Burke. The organization rose to 26th in BA's rankings in 2011, 17th in 2012 and ninth this year.
Last week, Luhnow revealed that the team will employ a novel tactic throughout the organization by using tandem starters in a piggyback system where, ideally, they each throw four innings every five days and are less prone to injuries. Several teams have tried the tandem starter system before, particularly at lower levels; the Pirates, Brewers and Reds were among these, with current Cincy starter Homer Bailey one of the positive legacies. Luhnow's Cardinals tried it with their A-level clubs, but this is believed to be the first time the approach ha been used at Double-A and Triple-A. He explained his thinking to the Houston Chronicle:
"Pitchers who pitch well get the same amount of innings as they would get in a five-man rotation… It enables you to guarantee all eight of those starters innings… What happens in a five-man rotation a lot of times is middle relievers get a whole lot of innings. And we feel like these eight starters at all four of our full-season (minor-league) levels are the priority to get the innings."
Draft: In this year's Handbook, BA termed the team's 2012 take as "masterful." With their bonus money limited by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Astros went against the grain by bypassing top college hurler Mark Appel in favor of 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correia, a choice that illustrated Luhnow's advanced thinking in terms of choosing a higher-upside talent significantly younger than the rest of his draft class — a strategy via which the Angels netted Mike Trout in 2009. With the bonus money the team saved by signing Correia instead of Appel, they also signed supplemental pick Lance McCullers, a righty with the best velocity of any high school pitcher in the draft, as well as fourth-round pick Rio Ruiz, a third baseman who was considered a first-round talent coming into the year before he was sidelined by a blood clot. BA ranked Correia as Houston's top prospect with McCullers fourth and Ruiz eighth. Correia (13th), Singleton (27th, acquired from Philadelphia in the Pence deal), 2011 first-round pick George Springer (37th), McCullers (50th) and 2010 first-round pick Delino DeShields Jr. (99th) all cracked BA's Top 100 Prospects list. Only the Cardinals, Marlins and Twins placed more players on the list (six apiece), while five other teams had five.
The Astros will pick first again this year, and may take Appel, who no longer has the leverage of a potential return to school behind him. They'll have an MLB-high $11.7 million to apportion to their top 10 picks.
Manager: Rather than rely on a name-brand retread to serve as a caretaker, last fall, the Astros culled a list of 49 initial candidates and hired 40-year-old former Nationals coach Bo Porter to run his first team big league team. Porter's resume includes 10 years of pro ball and 89 games in the majors, time as a minor league manager in the Marlins chain as well as big league coaching jobs with Florida and Arizona before two seasons in Washington. Of greater concern than how he'll handle the tactical preferences of a sabermetrically-inclined front office is his experience in teaching young players. Said Luhnow at the time of his hiring, "When you talk about our young players and our system, we need someone with a real specific emphasis on playing baseball the right way… it's important we have a manager and staff that reinforce that."
Lineup: At the big league level, the club doesn't have much in the way of star power, but several players offer hope.
After years of battling injuries, Castro, the team's starting catcher, hit .257/.334/.401 in 295 PA last year, the best offensive showing by a Houston backstop since 2000. Second baseman Jose Altuve, a 23-year-old, 5-foot-5 fireplug, hit .290/.340/.399, stole 33 bases, earned All-Star honors and developed a cult following such that his modest height has become a a unit of measure. Third baseman Matt Dominguez, a 23-year-old former first-round pick by the Marlins (2007), hit .284/.310/.477 with five homers in 113 PA after being acquired in last summer's trade with Miami for Lee. Centerfielder Justin Maxwell, a 29-year-old journeyman who has passed through the hands of the Nationals and Yankees, staked out claim on a major league job by hitting 18 homers in 352 PA; even with a lopsided .229/.304/.460 line, his .268 True Average was above the major league average for his position. Well-traveled first base/DH candidates Brett Wallace (.253/.323/.424 with 9 homers in 250 PA) and Chris Carter (.239/.350/.514 with 16 homers in 260 PA) — each of whom has been traded three times while stalling in the middle of top prospect lists — finally began delivering on their acclaimed talent. Vets such as Pena, Ronny Cedeno and Rick Ankiel don't offer similar upside, but they've been brought in for the purposes of mentoring the younger players, and may net additional pieces for the farm system via trades later this season.
Pitching: Here's where the Astros are likely to struggle the most, as their current rotation doesn't have anyone with particularly high upside. In parts of five seasons (including this one) at the major league level, the 28-year-old Norris has established himself as a back-rotation type who can miss bats (8.8 strikeouts per nine) but has shaky control (3.8 walks per nine) and is vulnerable to the longball (1.2 homers per nine). That's not much to write home about, but he'll have value on the trade market. More exciting is Lucas Harrell, a 28-year-old late bloomer who threw 193 2/3 innings of 3.76 ERA ball for Houston last year, after throwing just 42 big league innings prior.
Behind that duo are a trio of reclamation projects who emerged from a rotation cattle-call, with Lyles and Dallas Keutchel — who combined for 41 starts with a 5.17 ERA — biding their time in Triple-A along with ex-Dodger John Ely. Phil Humber is a former first-round pick with a 2012 perfect game under his belt but also a career 4.87 ERA; after a breakout 2011 (161 innings, 3.75 ERA) with the White Sox, he was tarred and feathered at a 6.44 clip last year. Brad Peacock, who along with Carter and catching prospect Max Stassi was acquired from Oakland in a trade for Lowrie, cracked prospects lists in 2012 after a breakout season in which he honed his knuckle-curve and whiffed 11.8 per nine, but he was roughed up at Triple-A last year. Thirty-four-year-old Erik Bedard is the grizzled vet of the bunch, an injury-prone southpaw who pitched better than last year's 5.01 ERA with the Pirates suggested; he struck out 8.5 per nine and pitched to a 4.11 FIP in 125 2/3 innings, and owns a career 3.84 ERA mark.
You can expect the Astros to cycle through these options and as well as the aforementioned minor leaguers in search of pitchers who can keep them in games, with a relatively no-name bullpen — featuring the journeyman Veras as closer — backing them up. In all, it's going to be a rough season in Houston, and they'll have nights like Tuesday in which they look historically inept. Even so, only the most myopic cynic could fail to see the organization's progress given less than a year and a half since the ownership change. Not every gambit Luhnow and company are trying will pay off, but as a laboratory for new ideas, they'll still be compelling to watch. The bet here is that whether it's 2015 or 2016, few will be laughing at them.