Despite Turmoil, Astros Achieving Goals

added 9/15/2014 by Bob Hulsey

2014 has been anything but a smooth year for the Houston Astros what with front office gaffes, a managerial firing and lawsuits over their tv carriage. Through it all, the on-field product has made significant gains this season.

As of Sunday, the Astros have a legitimate shot to win 70 games or more, a dramatic improvement from the 51 victories last year. Symbolically, escaping the 100-loss club as well as ceding the division cellar to the free-falling Rangers gives the organization a chance to escape their well-earned reputation as national laughingstocks.

Jose Altuve and Chris Carter are probably having career years, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have far exceeded expectations. George Springer and Jon Singleton have teased us with their amazing potential.

Yet the Astros have also had their super-secret database hacked, failed to sign two of their top six draft picks, continue to hit roadblocks in making West Palm Beach, Florida their new spring training home and are still unavailable to millions of Texas viewers while carving out a reputation as heartless number-crunchers who approach baseball as if they were the IRS.

They are to be congratulated this season for what they've accomplished with a ridiculously low payroll - still less than half of what the previous owner typically spent in salaries annually. The Yankees and Red Sox spent four times as much and barely managed better records than Houston has. They're a model of financial efficiency that would cause envy among the coupon-cutting Clark Howards of the baseball world. Bravo!

Of course, their spendthrift ways are going to get challenged soon when some of their cheap labor becomes arbitration eligible. Will the front office be willing to reward players like Carter and Keuchel for their breakout seasons or send them packing in more three-prospect deals?

As part of the narrative justifying their approach to rebuilding, defenders of analytic General Manager Jeff Luhnow and his decision scientists offer two fallacies often spoken of like they are unchallengeable gospel.

The first is that former GM Ed Wade was a colossal idiot who left Luhnow a barren farm system. In fact, most of the prized additions to the parent club in this youth movement were players already in the pipeline before Luhnow was hired.

Let's imagine if Wade was still the general manager and had spent the last three years in a coma, not making any personnel moves other than promoting guys already in the Astros farm system before Luhnow took over. Want to see what the Astros might look like?

C - Jason Castro with Carlos Corporan as backup
1B - Jon Singleton
2B - Jose Altuve
SS - Jonathan Villar
3B - Chris Johnson*
LF - J.D. Martinez*
CF - George Springer
RF - Domingo Santana
DH - Brett Wallace*
UT - Enrique Hernandez* and Jimmy Paredes*
SP - Dallas Keuchel
SP - Bud Norris*
SP - Jarred Cosart*
SP - Brett Oberholtzer
SP - Jordan Lyles*
CL - Mark Melancon*
RP - Josh Zeid
RP - Mike Foltynewicz
RP - Jake Buchanan
RP - Fernando Abad*
* - players traded or released by the Luhnow front office.

There's more from the Wade years that have either arrived in Houston or may soon have an impact, such as David Martinez, Jose Cisnero, Paul Clemens, Nick Tropeano, Vincent Velasquez and Delino DeShields, Jr.

Now, let's look at what the roster would be like with only players acquired since Luhnow became General Manager after the 2012 season:

C - Max Stassi with Carlos Perez as backup
1B - Marc Krauss or Jesus Guzman
2B - Gregorio Petit
SS - Marwin Gonzalez
3B - Matt Dominguez
LF - L.J. Hoes or Alex Presley
CF - Dexter Fowler
RF - Robbie Grossman or Jake Marisnick
DH - Chris Carter
SP - Scott Feldman
SP - Brad Peacock
SP - Collin McHugh
SP - Erik Bedard*
SP - Philip Humber* or Mark Appel
CL - Chad Qualls
RP - Jose Veras
RP - Darin Downs
RP - Tony Sipp
RP - Josh Fields<

No doubt the "Wades" team has some holes (outfield, DH, bullpen) and so do the "Luhnows" (catcher, infield, back half of the rotation). Neither is a complete team but if you had to play an entire season with one roster or the other, which would you rather have? Which one has more upside? Your upside is largely with the Wade group, not players added by Luhnow, although some could argue it is close.

The point is that Wade left the cupboards far from bare, contrary to the common debate point. The fact that people ranked the farm system among the worst back in 2012 may simply reveal that these rankers bought the gossip without actually looking at what was there.

The Luhnow defenders will obviously respond that Luhnow has spent his budget and energies rebuilding the farm system that is now "one of the best in baseball".

First, any competent general manager that denudes his parent club of their veteran talent for prospects is going to have a flourishing farm system. But how much of this talent has made an impact in Houston? So far, not much.

After all those trades, the best players from those deals that aren't already in Houston are pitchers Chris Devenski (from the White Sox for Brett Myers) and Josh Hader (from Baltimore in the Norris trade). Several promising players from those deals, such as Asher Wojciechowski, Paul Owens, Alex White and John Ely haven't exactly panned out.

Defenders point with pride that the Astros placed four teams in the minor league playoffs last year but only two made it to the playoffs this year with the AAA and AA teams sharing a combined .500 record. Most organizations see the minors as chiefly the place for player development while the priority in the majors is winning titles. Only the Astros seem to think just the opposite.

But the current front office kills the draft every year, the defenders will bark. Too early to say for sure but their overall number one drafting the past three years, if it’s any example, has been a mixed bag.

Let's say I had the second overall pick the past three years and drafted after Luhnow. Could I argue that Byron Buxton, Kris Bryant and Carlos Rodon are an overall better group than Carlos Correa, Mark Appel and Brady Aiken? I think I could. Plus, I would not have had to saddle my fans with the worst record in the majors those years. I'm actually more enthusiastic about some of the selections Luhnow has made after the first round, to be honest, but we won't know for several more years which ones turned into solid major leaguers and which ones didn't.

The second fallacy deals with free agents. The Wade-bashers love to list free agent signings that failed, such as Kaz Matsui, Pedro Feliz, Woody Williams and Mike Hampton. These were largely stopgap signings to try to stay competitive while also reducing payroll. If Wade is to be judged on these bad signings, should we not also hold Luhnow and his brainiacs accountable for bringing in Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel, Erik Bedard, Philip Humber and Jerome Williams while passing on better options including Scott Kazmir who was pitching down in Sugar Land and was available to anyone that wanted to sign him a couple of years ago?

None of this, of course, is going to have an impact on the True Believers of the "#process". They've somehow invested themselves in the notion that cold mathematical formulas trump any tried and true baseball logic and see the Astros as their best hope for proving this point.

They remind me of the fellow who told me he could determine who deserved to be in the Hall of Fame based totally on statistics without ever having watched them play. So I brought up one particular infielder without saying who he was and the guy told me flat out this player wasn't worthy.

"Only 137 home runs and under 200 career steals? Not even 1000 RBIs. The .883 career OPS is solid, but no way should this guy be inducted."

I informed him that player was Jackie Robinson.

Numbers are never going to tell you everything about baseball. The game was never meant to be all about numbers. They may be a great way of squeezing every dime out of a payroll and producing a competitive team on the cheap. But the Moneyball nerds have yet to produce a Worlds Champion on a below-median payroll. It will happen someday because the Law of Averages says it must but there's not enough juice there to fire good career baseball men just because they are hesitant to buy into the every goofy theory spat out of someone's spreadsheet.

The Astros had better think twice before proceeding with their #process. They might find themselves with few friends if they insist on being so insular and rigid to their formulas.