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January 26, 2012

On the Beat

A New Process in Houston

by John Perrotto

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The Astros raided our roster of writers here at Baseball Prospectus this week and took Mike Fast, author of the column “Spinning Yarn.”

It was a smart move on the part of new Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Fast came up with plenty of groundbreaking analysis during his nearly two years on our staff. He will greatly help an organization that didn't rely much on objective analysis during Ed Wade's tenure as GM.

Now if Fast could also hit for power and throw 95 mph, the Astros would really have something. The Astros lost a major-league-worst 106 games last year and began a massive youth movement during the final two months of the season. Considering most of the players the Astros called up last season weren't judged to be prime prospects, the franchise has a long way to go just to reach respectability.

New owner Jim Crane has already made one major change by bringing in Luhnow to replace Wade and is even proposing changing the franchise's name in advance of the Astros move from the National League to the American League for the 2013 season. While the name change idea is ill-advised, hiring Luhnow was an inspired choice, as his name had never been connected to any GM openings in the past.

Part of the reason while Luhnow never got GM consideration is that his reputation was that of a polarizing figure in the Cardinals' front office, at least when Walt Jocketty was GM, because of his use of statistical analysis while serving as scouting director. Yet there is no denying that his fingerprints were on St. Louis' World Series winner last season. Left-hander Jaime Garcia, closer Jason Motte, center fielder Jon Jay, and outfielder Allen Craig were among the players drafted and developed under Luhnow's watch.

"I know some people are turned off by Jeff, but he's a brilliant guy," said one major-league executive who knows Luhnow well. "He looks at things differently than most people. They need a creative thinker there. When you get into the mess they are in—and it's definitely a mess—you have to try to do different things to try to come out from under the rubble. Jeff will do that."

Unlike most GMs, who want their own man in charge of on-field moves, Luhnow went against the grain and did not fire manager Brad Mills. That non-move is considered a good one in the eyes of most baseball people, regardless of Mills' 132-192 record over the past two seasons.

"I don't know if I wanted that job," said one person who interviewed for it before Mills was hired. "They didn't have much talent on the major-league roster, they didn't have much of a farm system, and they didn't have much of an organizational vision. I've got to give (Mills) credit, though. He's stayed upbeat and positive. Even though they've lost a lot of games, they haven't been an embarrassment, and that's because Brad makes sure things are done the right way. You can't judge him on his record, especially in the situation the Astros are in."

On the subject of bad situations, we polled some baseball people to see what they feel are the five worst situations in the major leagues:

1-Athletics. "Until they get a new ballpark, they are like a ship adrift in the ocean with no chance of being rescued."

2-Mets. "They have no money, a dwindling fan base, little talent, and a stadium [hitters] hate."

3-Orioles. "Losing permeates the entire organization. You can just feel it. They've got the right people now with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter, but the specter of Peter Angelos hangs over the whole operation like a dark cloud."

4-Astros. See above

5-White Sox. "It seems like every day is a day at the circus with that team. Maybe Robin Ventura can restore some normalcy. We'll see."

***

Scouts' views:

Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder: "I know it's harder to hit the ball out of Comerica Park than it is Miller Park, but the big boy can hit them out of any ballpark. He's still going to put up big numbers. Going nine years and $214 million is pretty steep, but give (Tigers owner) Mike Ilitch credit. He wants to win it all, and he knows the time is now."

Athletics outfielder Jonny Gomes: "If you use him right, he'll help you. Play him against lefties and don't expose him to too many right-handers, and he'll be a productive part-time player. But if you give him 400-500 at-bats, he's going to be exposed."

Red Sox outfielder Cody Ross: "He's worth taking a shot on for $3 million, but he's not the guy who was the hero in the 2010 postseason. That really an aberration, but it inflated expectations. He's an average player whose best role is really being a fourth outfielder."

Rockies second baseman Marco Scutaro: "He's getting older, but he is still a good player, and I think switching over to second base will only help him. He won't put as much wear and tear on his body at second. It was a good pickup for the Rockies, and he's going to help them."

Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow: "I know he hasn't been the big winner that Toronto was hoping he would become, but the talent is there, and I don't think three years and $20 million is as big a gamble as it might look. His stuff is great, and he has the arm. I'm going on record now as saying he's my breakout player for 2012. The Blue Jays are going to look smart by the time this contract is up."

***

Random thoughts:

  • Frank McCourt bought the Dodgers for $430 million in a deal that was highly leveraged in 2004 and will sell them out of bankruptcy sometime this year for at least $1.5 billion, despite running the storied franchise into the ground during his stewardship. No wonder you don't hear baseball owners cry poor anymore.
  • The most compelling piece of evidence yet that Tim Lincecum's brain isn't wired like everyone else's is that he turned down a five-year, $100-million contract offer from the Giants and instead agreed to a two-year, $40.5-million contract to avoid arbitration. Maybe Lincecum will get a $200-million deal when he becomes a free agent after the 2013 season, but he took a big gamble passing up a nine-figure contract when one pitch can cause a snapped ligament that can alter the course of a career.
  • It's hard to believe the Red Sox will actually begin the season with a Nick Punto/Mike Aviles platoon at shortstop. It's even harder to believe the Red Sox actually made a salary dump trade when they sent shortstop Scutaro to the Rockies. Perhaps the luxury tax is beginning to serve as a de facto salary cap.
  • Is the real reason why the retired Tony La Russa decided to manage the National League in this year's All-Star Game because he will have a 14-man pitching staff and be able to make mid-inning pitching changes into near infinity?
  • If the Indians dealt Roberto Hernandez Heredia to the Marlins for Jose Carlos Oviedo, would it be the first deal involving one player to be named later for another? In case you haven't been able to keep up with the name changes, that trade would be Fausto Carmona for Leo Nunez in the pitchers' previous incarnations.

***

This week's Must Read is the amazing story of Rich Donnelly, Craig Counsell, and the Marlins scoring the series-winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series against the Indians, which is written by MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince. Someone should really make this into a movie.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Jeff Luhnow,  The Who

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