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EARLY LAUNCH

June 29, 2015
June 29, 2015

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June 29, 2015

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EARLY LAUNCH

In the last year the Astros have had several setbacks—including a bizarre database hack by a rival front office. But Houston is in first place, its rebuilding plan ahead of schedule. So much for that cover jinx....

This is an article from the June 29, 2015 issue

IF BAD news comes in threes, then the Astros sustained at least two full sets of the stuff over the course of a single month last summer. Consider the following string of calamities, all of which occurred between mid-June and mid-July:

1. Their internal database, Ground Control—which contains scouting and medical reports and statistical projections, among other proprietary data—was revealed to have been hacked, and notes their executives had made about 10 months of private trade talks with other clubs were posted online.

2. Their best prospect, then 19-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, broke his right leg while sliding into third base in a minor league game.

3. They became just the third team ever to fail to sign the No. 1 overall selection in the June draft, after a postdraft medical examination reportedly revealed irregularities in the pitching elbow of their pick, high school southpaw Brady Aiken, and Aiken refused to accept their reduced offer.

4. They also failed to sign their fifth-round pick, high school righty Jacob Nix, because the Aiken contretemps meant they no longer had enough bonus pool money to pay Nix the $1.5 million to which the parties had agreed.

5. Modern Woodmen Park, the Davenport, Iowa, home of the Quad Cities River Bandits, one of their Class A affiliates, was rendered an island due to the overflowing waters of the adjacent Mississippi River.

6. The leftfield wall of the Hangar, the home ballpark of another of their Class A affiliates, the Lancaster (Calif.) JetHawks, was lit ablaze during a defective fireworks display.

All of this happened well before the most shocking development of all. That was last week's revelation, via a report by Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times, that the FBI and the Justice Department are investigating as-yet unnamed officials within the Cardinals' front office for the database hack. The alleged perpetrators were therefore former coworkers of Jeff Luhnow—the Cardinals' former scouting director, who left in December 2011 to become the Astros' GM and eventually took several of his colleagues with him to Houston. According to subsequent reports, the feds are investigating four or five Cardinals officials, and the hackers took steps to cover the tracks of their intrusions, which were made multiple times between '12 and '14. The club could face penalties ranging from a fine to a thorough defeathering, if knowledge of the activity is shown to have extended high up the hierarchy. ("These are serious allegations that don't reflect who we are as an organization," owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement. "If anyone within our organization is determined to be involved in anything inappropriate, they will be held accountable.")

Last summer's catastrophes might have been enough to force even very rational people to believe in curses, perhaps in the one famously ascribed to a certain national sports publication, which last June put the long moribund Astros on its cover next to the audacious headline YOUR 2017 WORLD SERIES CHAMPS. The Astros' front office under Luhnow, however, is not just very rational, but possibly the most rational in all of professional sports; after all, it includes an employee titled Director of Decision Sciences, the former NASA researcher Sig Mejdal.

That Houston finished the 2014 season with a record of 70--92, well below .500 for the sixth straight year, cannot be counted among its setbacks. The record was a by-product of Luhnow's plan to transform baseball's leading laughingstock into a perennial contender as quickly as possible, a plan that was not predicated on the pursuit of a best-case scenario, but on the long-term accumulation of scouting- and analytics-driven decisions, each of which had been made with the knowledge that it, individually, might not work out.

Last summer's misfortunes, though, generated rounds of hearty Schadenfreude in certain baseball quarters. Some viewed Luhnow and his cohorts as know-it-all outsiders—before accepting his first job in baseball in 2003, Luhnow was a technology executive—who operated with the cold-eyed ruthlessness of management consultants, which Luhnow also once was. Their rough month was, in this view, appropriate comeuppance, though Luhnow took his organization's mishaps in stride.

This past March, as he watched the Astros play the Mets in a spring training game in Port St. Lucie, the 48-year-old Luhnow remained optimistic. "We're expecting continued progress," he said. "We went from 51 wins in '13 to 70 wins in '14. Now we've got to go from 70 to 89. Whether we do that in one or two years, we're going to get there."

A year after their miserable summer, the Astros are ahead of schedule. Through Sunday they were in first place in the AL West with a record of 41--30, putting them on pace for 94 wins, and the events of last season had been washed away by a torrent of positive developments. Even the report of the stunning alleged source of their database breach didn't faze the team, which won four of six games after the news broke. One of the only questions about the Houston Astros now is whether that national sports publication was too conservative by a season or two in its prediction of the franchise's first-ever title.

THE ASTROS were widely pilloried for their failure to sign Aiken and Nix last July, accused of cynically and perhaps wrongfully damaging the futures of a pair of teenagers. The club, however, believed that it was merely playing by the draft's convoluted rules. If they did not sign their selection, whom they believed to be an injury risk (though the club's executives have never publicly commented on Aiken's medical reports), then the Astros would be compensated with the No. 2 overall selection in this year's draft. That, combined with the high pick they would earn thanks to their losing record (ultimately fifth overall) and the enormous draft bonus pool that would result, some $17.3 million, would set them up for a potentially huge draft haul in 2015. (Though it would not include the unfortunate Aiken or Nix, both of whom exercised their right to block Houston from drafting them again.)

The Astros' detractors were quieted in March, when Aiken tore his ulnar collateral ligament just 12 pitches into his first start with Florida's IMG Academy. Then on June 8, the first day of this year's draft, the Astros came away with three of the top eight players, according to Baseball America's rankings: LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, whom they took second overall; Florida high school outfielder Kyle Tucker, whom they took eighth; and Georgia high school outfielder Daz Cameron, son of big leaguer Mike Cameron, who fell to 37th because of his aggressive contractual demands, but whom the Astros felt confident they could sign.

That trio of prospects will, if signed, fortify a stacked farm system whose teams have combined to go 174--106 so far this season, for a winning percentage (.621) that is currently better than that of any single big league team's except for—yes—the Cardinals'. The system no longer features the 6'4", 210-pound Correa, who, with his leg healed, debuted in the majors on June 8 and has since performed better than any 20-year-old should. Through 13 games he is batting .304 with three homers, four steals and a number of dazzling defensive plays.

It also no longer features starters Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez, both of whom were promoted directly from Double A and are becoming rotation mainstays. But it does still include a host of other potential stars, like first basemen Jon Singleton and A.J. Reed and outfielders Derek Fisher and Brett Phillips, each of whom is 23 or younger this season and each of whom already has at least 50 RBIs and an OPS better than .870. They are waiting to bolster a lineup that already leads the majors with 103 homers.

The Astros' fecund farm system ought to make them a leading contender to add a major piece at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, perhaps a frontline starter—like the Phillies' Cole Hamels or the Reds' Johnny Cueto—to buoy a rotation that is a pedestrian 19th in ERA, at 4.20. "I've been a seller for the three years I've been a GM," Luhnow said during spring training. "I'd love to be a buyer. That'd be great. This could be the year."

OF COURSE, back in Port St. Lucie in March, Luhnow could not have known that the breach of his database was not perpetrated by a mischievous random hacker, but by front-office personnel of baseball's most traditionally upstanding of clubs, and that he would become embroiled as the victim in what threatens to develop into his sport's biggest scandal in years.

Last week Luhnow made his first comments about the Times's report in an exclusive interview with SI.com. He addressed the report's implication that the hackers had been able to access Ground Control because he had failed to change his old passwords from his Cardinals days. "That's absolutely false," said the GM. "I absolutely know about password hygiene and best practices." He also spoke about the assertion that the offending Cardinals officials might have been motivated by a suspicion that he had taken proprietary information from their own database, called Redbird, to create Ground Control. "I'm very aware of intellectual property and the agreements I signed," he said. "I didn't take anything, any proprietary information. Nor have we ever received any inquiries from anybody that even suggested that we had."

He disputed the perception, reported by many with strong access to the Cardinals, that he had been a polarizing executive in St. Louis, and had left behind him a cadre of revenge-seeking former colleagues. "I was friendly with the people I left behind there," he said. "A lot of them came to my wedding, when I got married in January of 2012. This wasn't a bad breakup. It was a happy promotion of a person to a higher position in another organization."

The hack might yet prove to be the most perpetually damaging of the series of setbacks the Astros sustained last summer, as it's hard to know exactly what proprietary data was mined and how widely the hackers might have privately shared it. "It's difficult to assess the effect," Luhnow said.

It hasn't, however, derailed the Astros. There will surely be more pitfalls along the way: players who get injured or underperform; draft picks who don't sign (as of Monday, with 3½ weeks remaining until the July 17 deadline, the club was still negotiating with Bregman and Cameron). But if a badly injured überprospect and a draft controversy, not to mention the twin punch lines of a flood and a fire, weren't enough to set them off course, then this probably won't be either. The Cardinals' own calamitous period, meanwhile, appears to have only just begun.

"We went from 51 wins in '13 to 70 wins in '14," said Luhnow before the season. "Now we've got to go from 70 to 89. We're going to get there."
PHOTOPhotograph by Otto Greule Jr. Getty ImagesPHOTOAL BEHRMAN/AP (MOZELIAK)HACK ATTACK Luhnow (right) says he is on good terms with the Cardinals' front office, which is run by GM John Mozeliak (above). PHOTODAVID J. PHILLIP/AP (LUHNOW)[See caption above] PHOTOBOB LEVEY/GETTY IMAGES (CORREA)FUTURE IS NOW Correa (above) and McCullers (left) have quickly gone from prospects to key contributors on a first-place team. PHOTOTROY TAORMINA/USA TODAY SPORTS (MCCULLERS)[See caption above]