There is no room for moral ambiguity when you’re the general manager of a Major League Baseball club. Your job is to improve the team, improve the product, and ostensibly build the bottom line by improving your club’s chances of winning.
Winning solves all ills, even though sometimes it takes a lot lot of losing to create an environment conducive to winning. When Jeff Luhnow took over as general manager of the Houston Astros, he inherited a club in transition.
After all the losing and the contract off-loading, the Astros just might be a team on the upswing. The goals in Houston have certainly changed. Luhnow has a different focus for his big league club — the youngest in baseball while also claiming one of the “most modest” payrolls — in 2014, compared to his first two years on the job. The goal is simple – demonstrate improvement at the big league level and get fans excited for the future.
We’re realistic – we have the youngest team in baseball and a modest payroll. I do think that at the end of the season this team will be significantly better than the team we had out there last year and the fans will excited about what’s coming.”
On the field, Houston struggled to strike a balance between present and future. After losing 100 games for three years in a row, Luhnow wants to improve now while keeping his eyes on the prize. Free agent relievers and a most reliable starter to carry the “top of the rotation” mantle provides more “breathing room” for young players during their first exposure to the Major Leagues.
“This year we took a different approach because we want to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes that cost us a lot of games last year. “
The Astros are lucky, in a sick way, that they’re able to start from scratch with their team as fan interest bottomed out before the rebuild began. The move to the AL, the new TV deal—if ever there was a time to blow it up and start over, it is now.
The average fan wants to see the team win and those inside the organization want to win. The two sides merely differ on the timeline and the path to achieve it.
“It either takes an infinite amount of resources — which no club has — or it takes a lot of good luck and hard work and it doesn’t really happen immediately. The goal initially was to aggregate as much young talent as possible. Our fans have seen us do that but they at the same time they haven’t seen that turn into major league victories or a pennant run yet. They’re hopeful that will come soon, as so are we quite frankly.”
Try as they might to strike this delicate balance, there is still more at play the noble pursuit of wins in 2014. The call-up of top prospect George Springer came Tuesday night, just in time to buy an extra year of control. As of Tuesday, a player added to the 25-man roster accumulates less than one year of service time should he remain on the roster for the rest of the season.
Last year’s hardships bore some fruit. Luhnow cites reliever Josh Fields as a guy who proved he belonged last year as well as Robbie Grossman, though the outfielder was sent down to triple-A to make room for Springer.
He points to the acquisition of Scott Feldman and relievers Chad Qualls and Jesse Crain as moves made to improve the big league talent. Could the team have acquired another player or two without limiting the growth of players in the current mix?
In something of an ironic twist, Luhnow is a champion of his minor league affiliates, producing results in addition to serving as hubs for development. Past experience suggests this approach pays dividends down the road. As the farmer director and director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, Luhnow watched as players like Allen Craig, David Freese, Lance Lynn, and Daniel Descalso came through the system together and won together. Luhnow believes their belief in each other and understanding of what it took to win helped the Cardinals achieve World Series success in 2011. His expectations in Houston are no different.
I think the same thing is going to happen with us. We have groups of players coming up, the results are going to be good because they’re good players and there’s a lot of them. By the time they get to Houston, they’re going to have an expectation to win.
The Cardinals model is one every team could stand to replicate. In addition to producing top talent, they extend their star players with long contracts. The Cardinals aren’t playing the same game, with 100 years of history and a long tradition of winning that built one of the most beloved clubs in baseball, but all teams can lock in young players up to friendly deals.
Houston might have the second-lowest payroll in baseball but their GM believes this is a temporary measure. They had a $100 million payroll in the past and he believe they’ll get back to that level soon. Bigger budgets don’t always mean big free agent spending sprees. The Astros face a different set of challenges in the future and must pick and choose where they splash the cash.
With so many young players coming through the pipeline, we’re not going to be able to lock them all up. Just keeping them all through arbitration is going to get expensive and we also want to dip into the free agent market so we’ll have to be wise about how we spend the dollars. Our flexibility gives us the opportunity to make the right investments at the right time.
One way teams spent freely in the past was the international free agent pool, a wild west of third party agents and Latin teenage promise. Recent changes to baseball’s collective bargaining agreement capped this spending. Luhnow believes the Astros can still make good use of their international cash while planning for a day when they must spend smarter.
We’re in an advantageous position because we have the largest pool to spend internationally. We’re aggressively scouting every corner of Latin America. When this team starts to win a lot of games and our pool shrinks, we’ll have a slightly different perspective on how it all works and how we’ll approach it.
Three straight 100 loss seasons, three years of franchise irrelevance, three years in the woods. 2014 represents the beginning of stage two and the ‘stros believe the wins will float up to the big league level – little by little. First .500 and then the world?
Ultimately our goal, when we get to that playoff-contention area, is that we stay there. Like Boston and Tampa Bay and St. Louis have done. That’s what we want to do.
The growing pains haven’t been for the faint of heart and the way the went about compiling their talent rubs some people the wrong way, the Astros GM is only doing what he was hired to do: bring in talent and make the team a winner. Throw this much talent against the wall, expect some to stick.