Astros have a leader in Jeff Luhnow
First-year GM focused on improving Houston's talent through the upcoming draft
Based on Jeff Luhnow's track record for stockpiling young talent in St. Louis, Houston Astros fans have reason to expect he'll come riding to the organization's rescue on a white horse.
Judging from Luhnow's reputation among the hardcore ball crowd, the saddle bags will be filled with spread sheets, a trusty mobile device or two and every Bill James publication and Hardball Times annual the horse can carry.
Luhnow, 45, assembled an impressive portfolio as scouting director in St. Louis. It bodes well for a long-term turnaround in Houston, where the Astros are coming off a 106-loss season and have one of baseball's weakest farm systems.
Now he's six months into a new gig as general manager in Houston and gearing up for the first-year player draft Monday. The Astros will have the No. 1 overall pick and an $11.1 million allotment to spend in the first 10 rounds. Only the Minnesota Twins, with $12.3 million, have a bigger pool of money to spend without incurring penalties under MLB's new draft bonus system.
True, it's not the greatest year to try to make a splash. One American League scouting director said the 2012 crop has the potential to be "one of the worst drafts ever.'' But that doesn't lessen the sense of urgency to replenish the Minute Maid Park pipeline.
"I hear other organizations say you need five to eight drafts to really turn things around,'' Luhnow said. "I feel like there's a lot of pressure to do it in one draft. That's not going to happen. But we are picking first, and this might be the last time we pick first, and there's an opportunity to pick the most elite talent in the country this year. Those opportunities don't come around too often.
"The expectation is very high internally that we're going to hit a home run with this draft. But I think that has to be the case every draft. We're going to be relentlessly focused every round, from 1 through 40, trying to make sure we get guys who have a chance to make the big leagues.''
Most draft authorities expect the Astros to select Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the top pick, but the absence of a Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg on the board leaves plenty of room for debate. Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton, University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino, Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa, Louisiana State pitcher Kevin Gausman and University of San Francisco pitcher Kyle Zimmer are among the other players the Astros have been monitoring this spring. During a recent interview, Luhnow said the candidates for the top pick are closely bunched enough -- and the evaluation process sufficiently fluid -- that the Astros might not settle on their pick until draft day on Monday.
The conventional wisdom holds that Luhnow, because of his analytical bent, will favor college players because their performances are easier to quantify and predict moving forward. Paul DePodesta had a hard time shaking his reputation as a Harvard "computer geek'' from his portrayal in "Moneyball,'' and Luhnow was tagged with a similar label from the moment the Cardinals hired him in 2003.
Luhnow has degrees in economics and engineering from the Wharton School and a Northwestern MBA, and he worked as an Internet entrepreneur and global management consultant before gravitating to baseball. His unorthodox background and bookish demeanor prompted some baseball insiders to derisively refer to him as "Harry Potter.'' And it didn't help his cause when Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty, a popular figure in the industry, reportedly clashed with Luhnow before leaving St. Louis for Cincinnati in 2008.
Luhnow reacts to the personal attacks with an admirable good humor that belies his reputation as a polarizing figure. He's a lot more engaging and less doctrinaire than some "old-school'' baseball types prefer to see him. Spend 20 minutes talking to him, and he'll spend lots of time telling you why an area scout's opinion on a draft prospect should carry the same weight as the position espoused by a national cross-checker, the scouting director or the general manager. Luhnow even hauls out the old scouting buzzword, "makeup,'' as a pivotal factor in judging a prospect.
"People tend to think about things in an overly simplistic way and label different teams, scouting directors and general managers,'' Luhnow said. "It reads well and it's fun to blog about, but the reality is that all this is incredibly complicated.
"The thing I brought to the table in St. Louis was a discipline about the process. I believe in capturing as much valuable information as you can -- whether it's a scout's opinion on an arm grade or a player's performance in wood-bat summer league -- and combining it all in a way that makes sense. You need to make sure all voices are heard. You're still going to have a high failure rate. That's the nature of our game. But if your failure rate is a little less high than the next team, you start gaining an advantage.''
If Luhnow's tenure in St. Louis proved anything, it's the futility of linking him to a specific approach or methodology. He vividly recalls his first draft in 2005, when everyone expected him to load up on college players. The Cardinals selected Alabama high school outfielder Colby Rasmus in the first round, and added 16 more prep or junior college players among their 51 picks.
From 2006 through 2011, Luhnow used eight of his 11 first-round picks on college talent. But pitcher Shelby Miller, St. Louis' top prospect, was a high schooler. And Luhnow signed two other highly regarded prospects, pitcher Carlos Martinez and outfielder Oscar Taveras, as free agents out of the Dominican Republic.
The expectation is very high internally that we're going to hit a home run with this draft. But I think that has to be the case every draft. We're going to be relentlessly focused every round, from 1 through 40, trying to make sure we get guys who have a chance to make the big leagues.” -- Jeff Luhnow
Luhnow was particularly adept at mining talent after the first round. The Cardinals signed pitcher Jaime Garcia as a 22nd-round pick in 2005. Pitcher Mitchell Boggs was a fifth-round choice and outfielder Allen Craig was an eighth-round pick out of Cal in 2006. Luhnow's first three drafts in St. Louis produced 24 future big leaguers, the biggest haul in the majors.
"He tried to combine two worlds -- the analytical and the scout world -- and I think he was very successful at it,'' said Cardinals GM John Mozeliak. "He has a great appreciation for scouts, and a lot of the success we've had in St. Louis was due to his ability to put a good scouting team together.
"Jeff's not a traditional baseball guy, but the face of the traditional baseball guy is changing. Clubs are evolving and executives are evolving. Jeff had a very difficult landscape to navigate here. But given his background, he had a tremendous amount of success by sticking to traditional values.''
Luhnow faces a major challenge in Houston, where the system is thin and bereft of impact talent. ESPN's Keith Law lists three Astros minor leaguers among his top 100 prospects, and two of them, first baseman Jonathan Singleton (No. 46) and pitcher Jarred Cosart (No. 78), were acquired from Philadelphia in the Hunter Pence trade last summer. Former University of Connecticut outfielder George Springer, the 60th name on Law's list, was Houston's first-round pick in 2011.
In February, Law ranked Houston's farm system as the 27th best in the game. Baseball America was more charitable, ranking the Astros at 17th because of the prospects acquired in the Pence and Michael Bourn trades last summer.
For years, the Astros paid a price for coloring between the lines. While Kansas City, Pittsburgh and other less affluent organizations were stretching their budgets to sign prime talent in the draft, owner Drayton McLane Jr. chose to avoid the obligatory scolding phone call from commissioner Bud Selig and refused to pay above MLB's recommended "slots.'' Once Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman left the scene, there were no future stars to perpetuate the organizational legacy.
The last Houston first-round pick to have a significant impact at the big league level was pitcher Brad Lidge in 1998. Robert Stiehl, Derick Grigsby, Eli Iorg, Maxwell Sapp and Jiovanni Mier are among the organization's regrettable draft misses.
Luhnow aims to change all that, with the help of scouting director Bobby Heck and an array of supervisors, cross-checkers and area guys beneath him in the hierarchy. Baseball observers who expect him to run Houston's draft like the quintessential "stats nerd'' might be in for an awakening.
"I understand the perception, and I don't resent it,'' Luhnow said. "It's fun to surprise people."