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December 9, 2011
A Fresh Start for the Astros
The Houston Astros announced late Wednesday night that former Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow had been hired to replace Ed Wade as the club’s general manager, Houston’s fourth since 2004.
In St. Louis, Luhnow’s fingerprints could be found all over the Cardinals roster that earned the franchise its second World Series title in six years last October. Sixteen players drafted by Luhnow played for the Cardinals in 2011, including Allen Craig, Jaime Garcia, Jon Jay, Lance Lynn, and since-traded outfielder Colby Rasmus.
In Houston, he inherits an organization largely bereft of top-end talent, due mostly to years of poor drafting and a diminished presence in Venezuela. The Astros haven’t developed a true superstar from the draft since taking Rice outfielder Lance Berkman with their first-round pick in 1997. Since then, the most valuable player the organization has drafted and developed is Hunter Pence, who was sent to Philadelphia in a deadline trade last summer.
In the 1990s, Houston was at the forefront of mining Venezuela for talent, excavating future stars and above-average players like Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and Melvin Mora in the early part of the decade. Increased competition and the allocation of fewer resources contributed to the Astros losing their advantage around the turn of the century, and the only major-league product of Houston’s efforts since 2001 is second baseman Jose Altuve.
In four full seasons with Wade at the helm, the Astros went a combined 292-355 (.451 winning percentage) and never finished higher than third in the National League Central. The lone third-place finish came in Wade’s first year, 2008, when Houston outplayed its Pythagorean record by nine games and finished with 86 wins. Subsequent seasons saw Houston slip to 74, 76, and a franchise-worst 56 wins last year.
Wade developed a somewhat-undeserved reputation for being on the losing end of the majority of his trades while in Houston. It’s certainly true that he blew his fair share of deals, as all GMs do, but the actual difference between the value he traded away and the value he received is surprisingly slim.
Of the 19 trades Wade made, the results run the gamut from unquestionably successful (Brad Lidge for Michael Bourn and change) to decidedly awful (Luke Scott and four others for Miguel Tejada), with plenty in between:
In the table above, outgoing players are credited with all WARP earned with other major-league teams after being traded by Houston. Players received in return are credited with all WARP earned while on the Astros’ major-league roster. A more in-depth analysis would place weights on service time, contract status, and contract amounts owed, but even without those weights, it’s easy to see that Wade came out ahead more often than not, receiving a net positive return in just under half of his trades.
Criticism of Wade’s trading record in Houston should focus not on how often he won or lost a deal, but rather his inability to pry away other organizations’ top talent in exchange for his veterans. In only one case can it be argued that Wade succeeded in that aspect—last summer’s trade of Pence to Philadelphia for Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart. By that time, however, Wade’s future in Houston had already been decided by incoming owner Jim Crane.
While Cosart and Singleton were two of the Astros’ top three prospects in Kevin Goldstein’s latest rankings, both come with questions about their future roles. There is no consensus among scouts as to whether Cosart can develop the approach and consistent mechanics necessary to remain a starter. If he doesn’t, he’s likely to end up a late-inning power reliever. Singleton, while always among the youngest everyday players in his leagues, has yet to translate all of his batting-practice power into game situations. He’ll start 2012 as a 20-year-old in Double-A, so there’s still plenty of time for the power to arrive. It will have to come eventually, however, if he is to avoid a career as the next Lyle Overbay (or worse, Brett Wallace).
Houston’s projected everyday lineup for next year includes just one player, 36-year-old Carlos Lee, over the age of 28:
The rotation is a little bit older but still features some developing young talent in Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles:
SP1: Wandy Rodriguez (33)
It’s likely that one or both of Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers will be moved before the season begins, though Luhnow will have to convince ownership to eat significant chunks of each player’s salary if he hopes to receive anything of value in return.
Houston owns the top pick in next June’s first-year player draft, and early signs from Crane and Luhnow point toward the organization adopting a more aggressive approach than the previous regime demonstrated. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft class appears to be much shallower than the bumper crops of recent years, and new draft rules that go into effect next year will make it nearly impossible for any team to spend its way to a quickly-replenished farm system.
In Thursday’s press conference formally announcing his appointment, Luhnow spoke of the organization’s commitment to rebuilding from within and refining its talent evaluation and procurement processes. The word “rebuilding” was not a part of former owner Drayton McLane’s lexicon, and his refusal to tear things down and start from scratch directly contributed to the mess that Luhnow is now charged with cleaning up. Fortunately, it appears that Crane understands the dire condition of his new asset and will allow Luhnow ample time to strategically rebuild a formerly successful franchise.