Luhnow’s task: Build, fix, win. In that order.
Jeff Luhnow (LOO-know) has a gigantic undertaking ahead of him and he acknowledged as much during his introduction to the media Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park. He didn’t gloss over what’s going on with your Astros lately, nor did he give a bunch of false promises that would suggest the Astros are going to be World Series contenders next year and their farm system is a humming, sound, well-oiled machine.
The Astros began the rebuilding process two years ago and the organization is in a much better place now than it was in 2007 when a disastrous draft pushed the farm system in a dire need of a makeover. That process is ongoing, and now they have a general manager in place who not only helped the St. Louis Cardinals win two World Series in five years, but whose fingerprints can be found all over a Minor League system that has produced winners at every level, bottom to top.
You’ve heard us drone on and on about scouting and player development in the last year to year and a half. Expect that line of chatter to continue. The underlying levels of a Major League franchise — the parts fans cannot see from their seats at Minute Maid Park — are the lifeline of a team. Luhnow’s task is simple: turn the farm system into the best in baseball. Think of it as a trickle-up theory. Churning out the talent in the farm system will eventually turn the Major League team into a winner. That’s the plan, and to hear Luhnow, owner Jim Crane and president/CEO George Postolos talk, it’s a plan they have written out in specific detail, and one they have no intention of abandoning.
This will require patience from the fans, and there is no one in the Astros’ organization who does not recognize and acknowledge that it’s asking a lot. Luhnow was even asked Thursday if he had any trepidation joining an organization that is struggling as much as the Astros are. “I love St. Louis and I loved my time there,” Luhnow said. “There are very few opportunities that I would have considered leaving them for. This is one of them.”
Over time, the Major League club will be filled with players who came from the Astros’ farm system, rather than a grouping of players who came from outside of the organization. This might not seem significant, but it is. There is a different feeling among teammates who came up through the system together and are given the opportunity to win with the team that drafted, signed and developed them. It’s a special camaraderie that can go a long way.
To illustrate, let’s look at the 2004 Astros, who made it to Game Seven of the National League Championship Series before losing the pennant to the Cardinals. The Opening Day lineup consisted of five players who were drafted (or signed out of Latin America) by the Astros: Richard Hidalgo, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and Roy Oswalt. Two more were not drafted by the Astros but had never played for another Major League team: Jeff Bagwell and Adam Everett. That left only Brad Ausmus (who eventually played 10 seasons with Houston) and Jeff Kent who had played in the big leagues for other teams before joining the Astros.
If the current plan in place works, history could repeat itself, with different characters, obviously. The majority of the resources will be spent on scouting and player development, on Latin America and International scouting. When it’s time to win again, that’s when it will be time to add a free agent here and there to fortify an already winning formula.
So that’s the plan. The Cardinals are very similar to the Astros in that they rely mostly on homegrown talent. Many of the players that contributed to the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series title were drafted under Luhnow’s watch, including Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Lance Lynn. He took over the club’s player development system in 2006 and saw the Cardinals turn in the best system record in baseball in 2010 and five Minor League championships from the Rookie Leagues to Triple-A.
If he can do that in Houston, better times are surely ahead.