Can the Astros leap over the Cubs and Pirates in the Standings?


Regardless of what John Heyman says, I think the Astros had a good off-season. One thing’s for certain- it was better than their regular season. Pretty much all of the so-called experts have picked the Astros to finish last and suggest a repeat of the dismal 2011 season is likely. But the season has yet to start, so the time for optimism is now. Last year I predicted 73 wins for the ‘Stros and the experts turned out to be more clairvoyant than I. This year I’m not going to put a number on it but I think the Astros can at least challenge Chicago for fifth place. With a little luck Houston could even challenge the Pirates.

This off-season the Astros became a team with direction. What could be more significant? The new ownership group has put a plan into action that started with the hiring of G.M. Jeff Luhnow. Subsequent changes near the top of the organization have moved the Astros out of the darkness of the Drayton McLane era and into a new era of building for the future. Luhnow could turn out to be the biggest addition to the franchise since Jeff Bagwell. His hiring has been applauded by an overwhelming majority of those in the baseball community. Luhnow seems to bring the best of both worlds to the table. As the Cardinals scouting director Luhnow placed a tremendous amount of importance on new-school analytics. At the same time he was also dedicated to getting a live look at prospects on the field and gathering information first hand as an old-school scout would do. Luhnow’s philosophy is: gather as much useable information as possible and put it to good use.

Luhnow has already made significant changes and additions in many areas, including bringing several key members of the Cardinals staff to Houston. The hiring of Sig Mejdal and the creation of his Decision Sciences Department signifies a move into advanced data analysis in regards to player personnel moves and other important decisions. Scouting guru Mike Elias and bench coach Joe Pettini are also important new hires who earned World Series rings in 2011.

Luhnow put his mark on the team in a hurry with these and other high-profile hires. He has also begun to overhaul the Astros roster by adding a handful of cost effective veterans. Both Livan Hernandez and Jack Cust bring experience to a young team and may just have a little something to prove on the field as well. Hernandez has already been praised as a consummate professional by his battery mates and also found time to speak to the young Latin-American players about the advantages of learning to speak English. Hernandez would appear to have a rotation spot all but locked up after Tuesday’s announcement confirming Brett Myers as the team’s new closer, a move that has Luhnow’s name written all over it. Frankly it’s the first move by the Astros new G.M. to have been met with some criticism. Is shifting Myers to the back of the bullpen a smart move for the franchise at this juncture? I’ll cover that in an upcoming post.

Luhnow also took advantage of the Astros situation of having top priority on the waiver wire by selecting Fernando Martinez from the Mets. Martinez, once considered the Mets top prospect, still has a minor league option available, making him a low-risk, high-reward acquisition. Luhnow also vultured reliever Rhiner Cruz from the Mets in the Rule 5 Draft. New York lost a couple of promising young players which could prove detrimental to a franchise that appears to be spiraling downward to depths unknown. Another large market team, the Cubs, has been under new ownership for quite some time and continues to be stuck in reverse. The Cubs have proven that a large revenue stream and a high payroll can no longer guarantee success in the big leagues.

Vegas oddsmakers predict the Astros will win fewer games than the Cubs and Mets. I wouldn’t bet on it. Either way, the Astros are headed in the right direction while the Cubs and Mets are in turmoil. In today’s game a competent front office goes a lot further than an unlimited budget. The Cubs may have righted the ship by bringing in Theo Epstein, that remains to be seen. General Managers like Billy Beane, Alex Anthopoulos, and Andrew Friedman have gained notoriety by achieving success on a limited budget and making shrewd deals to strengthen their teams. Jeff Luhnow, much like Jim Crane, has taken every opportunity to assure the Astros fans and players alike that he has a plan that will bring winning back to Houston. Soon Luhnow’s name may be mentioned along with the likes of Beane, Anthopoulos, and Friedman.