January 2012

Notes and quotes from Jeff Luhnow’s appearance on “Astroline.”

General manager Jeff Luhnow kicked off the new year by appearing with Milo Hamilton on the first “Astroline” of 2012, which took place Wednesday night at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown. As expected, the show generated a lot of calls and tweets and ended up being a very informative hour with lots of questions answered by the new GM.

You can listen the show in its entirety by clicking here. Some interesting snipets:

On his opinion about the trades made before he was here and if he’s happy with depth in the Minor League system:

JL: I do believe we have a plan in place put together by (owner) Jim Crane and the ownership group and (president and CEO) George Postolos. That plan involves us building from within, developing a system that can be productive and allow us to compete year in and year out. How long it takes until we’re competing year in and year out, I don’t know at this point. I do think that the trades made last summer added some interesting players to the system. It’s hard from where I’m sitting to say, “Was that a good deal or not?” It’s hard for me to say because I don’t know what other options were available at the time. But I do know both of those players (Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn) were traded and there’s a lot that came back in return. I do think that going forward, the system is going to get better. There’s a lot of excitement around some of the players in the Minor Leagues that have come through the Astros drafts and the trades and it’s going to be fun to watch them develop and we’re going to hopefully add to that.

On his basic philosophy on building the Astros and signing free agents:

JL: From a free agency standpoint, there’s a couple of critical things. If you have a limited payroll you have to make sure you don’t make mistakes. You sign one bad big contract and that can set you back years….You can’t win with just free agents. Everybody knows that. Even the Yankees know that. We’re going to be a small payroll team for a few years here. We’re going to have to build from within. What does that mean? That means staffing the organization with the best scouts and best coaches at all levels. It means doing it internationally and doing it domestically. There’s no one silver bullet. You have to be excellent across all different areas. You have to have the best scouts in the Dominican. You have to have good development people throughout the system, good amateur scouts in the U.S. and pro scouts in U.S.

There are already good scouts in the Astros organization and we’re going to layer on top of that and make value decisions. What I mean by that is every baseball decision ends up being dollars and cents decision at the end of the day. How much is a Double-A prospect worth relative to a six-year free agent. There’s ways to value all of that and methods other teams use that I’m familiar with from my days in St. Louis. We’re going to institutionalize all of that here so that it becomes part of our nature.

What kind of payroll do you see the Astros having long term? Are the days of $100 million over?

JL: We’re going to need to demonstrate some progress on the field and demonstrate that the fans are coming back and getting excited about the ball club. You look at the Houston market — the Texans are very successful.  The Rockets are very successful. There’s no reason the Astros can’t be successful. The market is large enough to sustain a payroll in the top 10. I would imagine if we do our jobs and get some breaks going our way and the fans start coming back, we’re going to be able to push the payroll to a point where we can compete year in and year out.

I’m used to $100 million-range payrolls with St. Louis and it gives you a lot of flexibility to sign free agents and keep some of your better players. As our young players come through and go through arbitration and become free agents, we want to have the flexibility to sign these guys and keep them around for a while. I know Jim and George and the entire ownership group are committed to that. But we have milestones along the way that we’re going to need to hit in order to get there.

What are Chris Johnson’s chances of being the starting third baseman in 2012?

JL: I don’t know if I have an answer for that right now. We have a couple of different options. There are not too many positions where you say, that person’s absolutely going to be there April 6 when we open the season. There will be open competition for a lot of spots and third base is one of them. We want to put the best product on the field this year but we also want to develop for the future. Brad (Mills) and his staff and myself will spend all of Spring Training trying to figure out the answer to that.

On Sig Mejdal, hired recently as the director of decision sciences:

JL: He really helped me do my job as scouting director (in St. Louis) and helped me pick the right guys and a lot of the guys that we, together, picked made it to the big leagues and helped the Cardinals win the championship this year. We’re hoping to replicate some of that and hope that some of that luck rubs off over here.

On using modern technology available for statistical analysis:

JL: From my standpoint, it’s not a matter of if you use the old school methods or new methods. You really need to use both of them. Nothing replaces the value of having an experienced scout go out and observe a player and give you his point of view about what that player is going to become. That’s information that’s been part of baseball forever and will continue to be part of baseball. It’s essential.

There is, though, so much additional information available to any baseball person today. No one person can analyze it all and understand it in their own mind. We’ll start using some of the more sophisticated technology to combine it with the scouting opinions and make the best decisions.

Other notable tidbits:
* Luhnow had a two-hour, get-to-know-you breakfast meeting with Craig Biggio on Wednesday. It was an informal discussion to serve as an exchange of ideas and gave Biggio a chance to share some of his ideas and opinions.

* While no player is untouchable, Luhnow does not plan to trade Bud Norris. “He is a critical part of the plan moving forward,” Luhnow said.

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New year, new blog: FanFest, Caravan, Astroline, Bagwell. (Will the Hall call?)

Happy New Year, Astros fans! Hope you ate too much, enjoyed time with your families and watched a lot of football (not necessarily in that order) over the holiday break. The first day back at work for baseball people is a lot like Groundhog Day: six weeks until Spring Training with a full slate of activities to get to first, before we head to Florida.

Many of you have asked about FanFest, caravans and Astroline. Here are some general guidelines for what’s on tap, although we’ll be posting a more formal schedule when it’s all ready to go.

In the meantime, hope this provides some assistance…
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Baseball Dinner

The Annual Houston Baseball Dinner Benefiting Grand Slam for Youth Baseball will take place on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Hilton Americas Hotel near Minute Maid Park.

The event will include a special celebration of the Houston franchise’s 50th anniversary, with several former MVPs and current players expected to attend. Award winners include Pitcher of the Year Wandy Rodriguez and Rookie of the Year J.D. Martinez, as well Jason Bourgeois, the winner of the Darryl Kile (Good Guy) Award. Two former Astros will be recognized as well: Hunter Pence, voted as the team’s MVP, and Lance Berkman, who will be presented the Greater Houston area’s Major League Player of the Year award. Longtime television broadcaster Bill Brown will be recognized with the Fred Hartman Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Baseball.

Former Astros expected to attend include Bob Aspromonte, Jimmy Wynn, Larry Dierker, Bob Watson, J.R. Richard, Jose Cruz and Enos Cabell.

To order tickets, click here or call 713-259-8686.
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FanFest

The next day, on Saturday, Feb. 11, the Astros will host FanFest at Minute Maid Park. Full details and a rundown of player appearances will be released at a later date, but here are the basics: FanFest will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will feature autograph sessions with current and former players and interactive activities for all age groups.
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Caravan

The Astros most likely will be ready to release their full caravan schedule early next week, but here’s a peek:

The caravan (aptly and creatively renamed CAREavan this year) will begin a little later than usual, in order to coordinate it with the baseball dinner and FanFest. The Houston-area caravan stops will take place the week of Feb. 6 and will include stops in Sugar Land/Missouri City, Spring, Cypress and Katy. There will be an autograph signing session at an Academy Sports + Outdoors each day, starting around 6:30 p.m. CT. The lone exception is Friday, Feb. 10, when the Academy signing will start at 3:15 p.m. because of the baseball dinner that evening.

Brian Bogusevic signs autographs at Academy Sports + Outdoors last year during the caravan.

Out-of-town stops will begin Feb. 1 and will include visits to Austin, Brownsville, Harlingen/McAllen, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

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Astroline

General manager Jeff Luhnow will appear on Astroline on Wednesday (Jan. 4) at Buffalo Wild Wings on Gray St. in Midtown. The show, hosted by Milo Hamilton, begins at 7 p.m. CT and will be aired on 740 KTRH and Astros.com.

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Hall of Fame announcement

Second time a charm for Jeff Bagwell?

The Hall of Fame will announce its 2012 inductees on Jan. 9, and as was the case last year, our man Jeff Bagwell will likely be the talk of the Internet regardless of whether he gets in.

Bagwell received 41.7 percent his first time on the ballot in 2010-11. Judging from published reports by voters who are making their choices public, Bagwell has received more support this time around. That said, it’s not looking promising that he will receive enough votes to count for 75 percent of the final tally. I think a lot of us agreed a while back that Bagwell’s third time on the ballot was going to be his best chance to be voted in anyway, given his longtime teammate Craig Biggio will appear on the ballot for the first time at the end of 2012 and should have no problem getting in on the first try.

I’ve read the arguments against Bagwell’s HOF candidacy that range from the well-reasoned to the (IMO) completely absurd. That’s what happens when you have more than 500 people giving more than 500 opinions, but it’s good to see more voters are coming around on Bagwell this year. The PED issue continues to follow Bags, as many writers are still taking the guilt-by-association route — as in, he played in the 1990s, so he must be guilty, despite any real evidence that he was actually associated.

Some writers simply think Bagwell was a very good player, but not among the best ever. A friendly reminder to the voters who actually watched Bags play in person 10, maybe 12 times during his 15-year career: there is good baseball played all over the country, played by Hall of Fame-worthy players who spent their entire careers in places other than the Northeast. That their feats weren’t televised nationally on a regular basis doesn’t make them less worthy of being recognized for what they accomplished.

If early returns are any indication, it appears that Barry Larkin will be the lone inductee in Cooperstown in July.

(Of the many pro-Bagwell columns, I think I like this one the best.)

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Here’s a fun story about someone you may not have heard of before but is a huge part of the Astros’ operation. Mike Acosta started in the late 1990s as a broadcasting intern and eventually worked his way into a job the Astros created especially for him — Authentication Manager. In this Ken Hoffman column in the Houston Chronicle, Acosta discusses bobblehead technology and why he has so much to be excited about as the Astros prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Major League Baseball in Houston this year.

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On this date in Astros history:

January 3, 1962 – A groundbreaking ceremony takes place on the future site of the Astrodome. The ceremony’s attendees, include players from the Colt .45s, city and county officials, fire pistols into the ground to celebrate the historic event.

To receive daily updates of Astros historical moments, follow @astros on Twitter and look for the hash tag #Astros50.

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