Hiring a general manager is a unique, defining opportunity for an organization. The AL-bound Astros may have done exactly that, defining themselves and their future by hiring minor league honcho Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals to be their new GM. He gives them the executive they’ve needed for years.
It isn’t really a secret that the Astros are now one of baseball’s disaster franchises. They may not have the Pirates’ 19 consecutive losing seasons to apologize for, but they were already a franchise headed for trouble when they fired general manager Tim Purpura in 2007. Four years under Ed Wade in the front office did not immediately put them on a rebuilding track, delaying the inevitable collapse while costing the Astros time they didn’t have.
As the Cardinals’ vice president of scouting and player development, Luhnow was simultaneously successful and unconventional, reflecting the benefits of a man who doesn’t come purely from either side of the overdrawn divide between scouts and analysts. Instead, Luhnow’s background was in business, with an MBA from Northwestern and fluency in Spanish after growing up in Mexico City.
Rational management techniques helped make him a successful consultant and business executive, a broader tool kit than just an appreciation for stats and analysis. His training, experience and success provided Luhnow with the insight to reorganize the Cardinals’ scouting department in entirely new ways. Evaluators were assigned to specific conferences, or sub-specialized in pitchers or position players. The wider net his farm system cast didn’t just score early-round successes like Chris Perez or Colby Rasmus, it also produced later-round successes like Jaime Garcia and Luke Gregerson.
Every team’s trying to pursue and achieve competitive advantages over the others, and every team already has some level of awareness of statistical analysis. “Moneyball” may have reached theaters, but its message had long since been received throughout the game. The stats vs. scouts divide has long since gone from concern to overdrawn cartoon. Teams understand the need to utilize both methods, and Luhnow’s an effective representative of a generation of leadership who understands that, but also does more than work with scouts and stats.
Luhnow’s unusual background perhaps also contributed to his popularity with Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, another MBA holder. DeWitt promoted Luhnow against the wishes of then-GM Walt Jocketty, and deserves his own share of the credit in recognizing the value Luhnow brought to the table. If owners are almost always successful businessmen, you can see how being a man from a similar background would be helpful. Luhnow’s track record for solving problems and achieving results in player development in unconventional ways would have already suggested him to new owner Jim Crane. So you can also credit Crane — another businessman — with having the sense to include Luhnow, and then quickly take to him.
The last time around, in 2007, the Astros had the opportunity to make this kind of high-impact hire. They certainly needed it. The roster that had helped propel the team to a pennant in 2005 was already one of the league’s oldest. The farm system was undisputedly baseball’s worst. Things have not gotten that much better since. In the last 13 years, the organization has drafted exactly nine players who have generated a career WAR value of 1.0 or more. Not just for the Astros, for anybody, anywhere. The top two sound nice enough: Hunter Pence and Ben Zobrist in 2004, but things go south in a hurry. Bud Norris and Brian Bogusevic are the only players on this list likely to do the Astros much good in the future.
It gets worse: Two of these players, Sampson and Bogusevic, acquired their value after moving to or from the mound (respectively) -- in both cases, career hail marys to salvage something from a draft pick gone wrong. Also keep in mind that Zobrist didn’t produce any of that value for the Astros -- he was traded away to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff in 2006, in part because he was being defined by what he couldn’t do well -- play shortstop every day -- instead of what he can (just about everything else a player can possibly do).
Unfortunately, the draft will take years to yield measurable results, so there’s no reason to rush to judgment about Luhnow. It’s not like there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the world of player development left to be easily picked. In the ’80s and ’90s the Astros were industry leaders in scouting Venezuela, but that advantage disappeared more than a decade ago as every team invested in scouting and acquiring Venezuelan talent. You may have noticed there were no Latin players on the Astros’ list of nine farmhands who have produced more than one win above replacement.
Achieving better results in player development isn’t the only thing Luhnow will have to address. Part of being a GM is being able to make the sale on a vision for the organization: First to the people who have to hire you, then almost immediately to the fans and media folk who are going to judge everything you do for the team forever after, and then finally -- critically -- he has to be able to get buy-in from the people who report to the GM. That doesn’t just mean the players or the manager, it also means to the people who work in player development and baseball operations.
Inevitably, there’s going to be some turnover — an ability to select good subordinates is a critical criterion for an effective GM. There will be some defections from the Cardinals in the months to come. But even on the Astros, Luhnow has inherited some front-office talent. What will be critical in the time to come for Luhnow will be not just identifying the talent on the field for the Astros, but people associated with the organization off the field.
So Luhnow will have to sort out who and what he needs to bring in off the field as well as on, working with what he's got to work with. Bobby Heck has been credited with an improved player development program since he became scouting director in 2008 on Wade’s watch, but expectations are high with a new owner’s investment and relying on Luhnow’s track record. Some of Heck's most recent products -- notably J.D. Martinez, Jordan Lyles and Jason Castro -- provide reason for hope.
On some level, the moves to come on the major league team are easy by comparison, because the hand that Luhnow’s been dealt is extraordinarily weak. He’ll make of it what he can, but the return from his first trade, getting infielder Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland from the Red Sox for reliever Mark Melancon, was a great start. His best bargaining chips are veteran rotation workhorses Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers; whether they get dealt now, soon or at the trade deadline, they will not be sold cheaply. Like Melancon, they’re the best chances Luhnow has to add young talent to an organization so short of it. Given time, it won’t be his last.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.