September, 18, 2013
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJason Castro, 26, posted an .835 OPS before a knee injury prematurely ended his season.The Houston Astros took their 100th loss of the season on Tuesday night, making it three years in a row beyond the century mark in the loss column. Before this run of ignominy, the Astros had never lost 100 games in a season, no easy feat for any team, especially an expansion club. It might have seemed a singularly awful day in Astros history, taking a 10-0 shellacking from the Cincinnati Reds after they'd already had to shut down All-Star catcher Jason Castro for the season because of knee problems.
And nevertheless, things are looking up for the Astros as an organization. As general Jeff Luhnow, with his usual relentless pragmatism, reflected a few weeks ago, "If I look at our organization and where we are today versus where we were a year ago, I think we've made substantial progress towards our ultimate objectives."
Ultimate objectives? These presumably including not losing 100 games a year every year in the Luhnow era, right? Nothing so modest: "Our objective is to develop our own talent and win multiple championships, and I think we've gone a long way towards that," said Luhnow, leaving you to think the unspoken third bullet point involves lasting world domination. Just give him time; it's probably on the list, with a secret volcano fortress on the list of options.
But kidding aside, Luhnow is right, about this year and about the organization he's rebuilding: The shape of things to come is already here. All four of the Astros' full-season affiliates made the playoffs; Quad Cities won the low Class A Midwest League's title and Tri-City won the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. Take these bits of glory won on distant, dusty fields as further proof of Luhnow's ability to rebuild a farm system. Already. Because remember, this marks the completion of just the second season with the new regime in charge, and this past June was just his second bite at the apple of the Rule 4 draft with the Astros. Given the speedy results and a farm system that has already gone from one of baseball's worst to one of its 10 best, if the draft is supposed to be a crapshoot, Luhnow apparently plays with loaded dice.
Luhnow looks at the immediate of results matter-of-factly: "Our draft from last year is really faring well, the players are doing well in competition. It's kind of like stocks, you're not always going to pick all of the ones that go up and all of the ones that go down, but most of our prospects have gotten better, guys like [outfielder George] Springer and [shortstop Carlos] Correa."
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJarred Cosart has a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts since being promoted to the majors in July.
Which is not to say that the Astros aren't also interested in what their big-league team has been doing, although they deliberately blurred the lines between the majors and minors as the season progressed. In August, before rosters expanded, the Astros already had 14 rookies on the team.
"That was done by design. We brought some guys in here in spring training to lend some veteran presence and some leadership," manager Bo Porter commented, remembering Opening Day Astros like Carlos Pena, Ronny Cedeno and Jose Veras. "At the beginning of the year, that was needed, but as we moved towards the back end of the season, we really needed to identify who our key pieces are, based on major league performance. We knew coming into the season that our number one goal was to properly evaluate our talent at the major league level. And to be able to do that, we had to allow them to play."
Does Luhnow feel any reservations about a ballclub staffed with so many rookies right now? As if.
"In the past, an organization might bring up one guy at a time, to limit their exposure," Luhnow said. "For us, this might mean some more losses now, but I think that ultimately it speeds up our development cycle. We learn a lot more about these players, and the players themselves develop more quickly."
Take the development of third baseman Matt Dominguez, a 2007 first-round pick of the Marlins who came over a year ago in the Carlos Lee trade. He's hit 20 home runs in a .241/.284/.408 season. That won't float you're fantasy team, but so what? As an investment in Dominguez's upside, it's easy to see how he might turn into a Joe Crede-type of player, someone you can win with.
"He's only 23 years old," said Porter. "You may be looking at a 30 home run, 90 RBI guy, playing Gold Glove defense -- that's a pretty good player."
More clinically, Luhnow observes, "The power is nice, I think we've discussed it with our coaches in that he still has some gaps in his game -- like his on-base percentage -- but the defense has been excellent this year. He's just a very unique player, because his sabermetric defensive ratings aren't as good as what you see when you watch him. You have to understand that analytical measures are flawed, they aren't perfect. Different metrics give you very different answers, but you talk to our coaches, pitchers, opponents, they all think he's an above-average third baseman."
The pitching staff has taken a beating, but it too has looked better of late. Looking over his roster, Luhnow says, "Brett Oberholtzer was a surprise for some of our people internally, in terms of how well he has performed and how consistent he's performed well. Those are the types of guys who we're going to need; he might not be considered a No. 1 because of his stuff, but he can sit there in your three or four spot, chew up 200 innings, win 15 games, that's exactly what you need."
And Oberholtzer is far from alone.
"Jared Cosart, everybody thought that he had the stuff to eventually be a dominant starter," Luhnow said. "He came out of the gate dominating, and that's fun to see. But I don't think we need a number one yet. All six of these young guys we're starting believe that they can be the number one, and that's probably the best position that we could be in."
Which is another way of saying that the Astros are starting to assemble a team of players that their fans should start committing to memory. Take Jonathan Villar, added from the Phillies, and just 22 years old. Since coming up in late July, Villar has given the Astros a strong OBP and a needed bit of energy, and being able to evaluate him now is one of the big components for the Astros deciding what they'll have to work with in 2014.
"He's one of those players with a lot of tools," Luhnow notes, "and my experience is that a lot of times players with a lot of tools may or may not translate into actual performance at the major league level. He's becoming a complete player: He's taking walks, he's able to play small ball, steal bases, defensively he has all the tools and capabilities to be an above-average shortstop. That's huge. He just injects an energy into the club that was needed and important, because you want guys to really feel that they've got a chance to win."
Wait, what? Win? The Astros? Luhnow isn't that surprised by the idea.
"It's definitely coming together," Luhnow said. "It's not entirely reflected in the record. We're hoping we finish strong, but the final record probably isn't going to be much different than it was last year. I think we're much more poised now to have a better year. There's a lot of excitement internally; I've had some coaches come up to me and tell me, like it's a secret, we might improve by 20-30 games next year. That's excitement."
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
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