Astros confident in Luhnow's long-term vision
Though taking lumps in Majors, organization patiently builds formidable foundation
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Sometime soon -- maybe a year from now, maybe two -- we're going to look back and be amazed by what the Houston Astros have built.
"Nobody likes to lose, especially that many games," general manager Jeff Luhnow said on Tuesday afternoon during a break in baseball's General Managers Meetings. "But we're competitive in that we understand what the ultimate goal is, and that's to win a championship.
"I think each year, we're making progress toward that goal, and even though the results haven't manifested themselves in the win-loss record at the big league level, we're very well set up to deliver those results as soon as possible. That's what being competitive is all about: crossing that finish line as soon as possible."
First, we're going to be impressed that the Astros had the discipline to do exactly what they said they were going to do. Two years ago when a Houston businessman named Jim Crane bought the club, he laid out a precise vision for the franchise.
Crane was going to hire a GM with a track record in player development, and he was going to give that guy the resources and time to do things right. Regardless of how bleak things got, Crane said he wouldn't lose sight of the big picture.
Around baseball, there was skepticism. It's one thing to have a plan. Plenty of other owners have had plans. But those plans sometimes go out the window as the losses pile up and the whole thing seems to be taking forever.
Crane has stayed the course. As Luhnow, who came to the Astros after putting together a string of impressive Drafts with the Cardinals, built a solid farm system through Drafts and the trading away of veterans, the bleeding hasn't stopped at the big league level. In the last two seasons, Houston has lost 107 and 111 games, respectively.
For ultra-competitive people, losing is tough to take. That said, the Astros kept reminding themselves that this was still the best way to construct an organization that could contend year in and year out.
"It's very difficult to stick to a plan like this because there's some short-term pain involved," Luhnow said. "Give our fans in Houston a lot of credit. We've done a good job of communicating with them. Jim has. [Manager] Bo [Porter] has. I have. I think our fans understand we're not trying to lose games. We're trying to win every game every night. We're also keeping our eye on the goal, and that is bringing a championship to Houston. Get back to the World Series, and this time winning it and ultimately winning multiple championships. The plan we have in place is the fastest way to get there."
There's tangible proof that the plan is working. The Astros and Mets led the Majors with three prospects -- center fielder George Springer, second baseman Delino DeShields and shortstop Carlos Correa -- in this year's SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. Houston also became the first team in 10 years to have all six of its domestic farm teams make the postseason.
The Astros also had 14 players make their Major League debuts in 2013, and they finished the season with 17 rookies. Along the way, they constructed a competitive rotation with Paul Clemens, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock combining to post a 2.73 ERA in 34 starts after July 12.
There's another wave of talent -- Springer and pitchers Asher Wojciechowski, Jake Buchanan and Michael Foltynewicz -- possibly headed for the big leagues in 2014, and more -- most notably Correa and right-hander Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall picks in 2012 and '13, respectively -- on the horizon.
The Astros will also have the No. 1 pick again in 2014, and all of that young talent seems to have the franchise on the fast track to being competitive. Yes, that's still a tough sell. Potential means nothing. Patience runs out at some point.
Few things on earth have less certainty than counting on Minor League talent to produce at the big league level. But no franchise can contend without a productive farm team.
That's true for big-market teams like the Red Sox and Yankees, and it's especially true for mid-market teams like the Astros. It's perhaps a signal that the stripping down of the roster stopped when Luhnow waved off reports that he might trade All-Star catcher Jason Castro.
"I'm not surprised that there would be interest in Jason," Luhnow said. "He's clearly one of our most valuable players. I'm never going to say someone is untouchable, but we fully expect Jason to be on our club for a long time to come. He's reaching his peak. He was our All-Star last year. He's a team leader.
"He had a tremendous year. He's an athletic catcher who can hit home runs and throw runners out. Those guys don't exist very often, so I really don't have a lot of interest in exploring that. Like I've always said, I'll listen to anything if someone wants to talk to me."
Luhnow will be active in free agency, to a point. He'd like to acquire some bullpen help to support those young starters. This past season, the Astros converted just 52 percent of their save chances -- worst in the American League -- and tied the D-backs for the Major League lead in blown saves (29).
Luhnow would also like to add a veteran hitter to support those young starters, and when he sees how far the organization has come, he believes there'll be tangible progress in the standings in 2014.
"We continue to progress toward developing a pipeline of players that are going to stream through and be able to help us every year," Luhnow said. "Ultimately, we're going to have a pipeline that is not only going to help us win games at the big league level, but also trade for pieces that can help us win more games. I think we're getting there. Our system is robust right now. We've got a lot of good players up and down the system. That was a lot of hard work that started when [former GM] Ed [Wade] was here, and I feel really good about the spot we're in from that perspective. Obviously, we need to show results on the field in Houston. We want that to start this year."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.