MMQB debate: The Luhnow Chronicles


Turning the microscope to Jeff Luhnow on this final Monday in April while giving the two-year GM the benefit of the doubt and wondering if Jonathan Singleton will have a ticket to Minute Maid Park as the Astros take a day off to catch their collective breaths.

Most general managers make a handful of off season moves in an effort to replace a player, upgrade at a position or fill in a hole or two. Since Luhnow became general manager of the Astros over two years ago, the Astros have had to ship in replacements, gap-fillers, upgrades and other cavalry by sea and by air.

Here’s the point: With as many needs as the Astros have had the past couple of years, Luhnow is bound to have some misses. Though he shouldn’t get a free pass, his work should be graded by the work-at-hand (read: number of holes to fill) rather than by a report card compared to other GMs. In fact, you could argue he hasn’t only had holes to fill, he started from scratch with the foundation, plumbing and electrical.

Rules for today: Since those acquired in the off season should technically get an incomplete at this point, we’ll endeavor to assign everyone to a particular category. The grades and assignments may change next week or next month, but there will be no incompletes today.

LUHNOW WINS.

  • Scott Feldman. With only four starts before he hit the DL last week, Feldman looks like a win. He seems to bring a maturity that this team needs. With the untimely death of his father and some tendinitis, hopefully he picks up with his out-of-the-gate form.
  • Matt Albers. Has been dominant in 10 innings. No business closing games, but he is huge in seventh and eighth innings. May be a bit overpriced at $2.25 million ($3 million 2015 option), but if that’s what it takes.
  • Collin McHugh. Hey, nobody — no, you didn’t! — saw this coming, but if you blame Luhnow for the flubs, you have to credit him with the luck. You may have to go back to McHugh’s little league days to get a hint of what we’ve seen the past two outings.

LEANING LUHNOW.

  • Dexter Fowler. When the Astros traded Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes for Fowler, Houston fans cheered, Rockies’ fans jeered. Who’d have guessed Lyles would start the season 3-0 (in Colorado, nonetheless) and Fowler would get a debilitating virus? This one still leans Luhnow’s way (Fowler’s hitting .333 in his last 7 games), but may need more time to develop.
  • Jesse Crain. This one leans Luhnow in my book because the possible upside is still intact. Yes, the Astros’ bullpen is still desperate, but Luhnow could not have predicted the bursitis. Everyone knew Crain would be mid-May coming back, yet most fans and onlookers begged for and applauded the signing. If he’s healthy this time next month, he’ll be a game-changer for the Astros’ pen.
  • Raul Valdes. You could put the 36-year-old lefty in another category, but this is a low-risk, high-reward possibility. He pitched five times in the last week and didn’t give up a run — much less a base runner — in the last four. If he pans out more like 2012 than 2013 (or even halfway between), he’ll be in the Luhnow wins’ category.
  • Chad Qualls. Qualls has no business pitching in the ninth as a closer. That said, take away the ninth-inning, three-run debacle against the A’s April 19 and Qualls has been stellar. A Qualls-Albers-Crain bullpen has much upside, but with Qualls setting up.

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD.

  • Anthony Bass. Okay, this is about as close as we’ll come to incomplete, and basically because I just don’t know where to put him. His 1.18 WHIP follows a similar minor league career line and he could be serviceable. Picked up in a trade for Patrick Schuster.

LUHNOW HEAD SCRATCHERS.

  • Jerome Williams. This was an eye-brow raiser from the outset. However, you could argue it a reasonable $2.1 million gamble given Williams pitched 169 innings in 2013. But he is likely nothing more than an expensive version of Lucas Harrell.

LUHNOW LOSERS.

  • Jesus Guzman. He hit third Sunday, but had no business there since his OBP is lower than five Astros’ batting averages…though that ain’t sayin’ much. Can’t tell me Singleton isn’t a better option today.
  • L.J. Hoes. He was part of the Bud Norris deal (didn’t remember that, did ya?) and has been a decent place holder for grooming outfielders. If Robbie Grossman hadn’t bombed in the first two weeks, Springer would have replaced Hoes on the roster. When will Domingo Santana and/or Austin Wates be ready?
  • Japhet Amador. This song and dance came with much bally-hooed fanfare. He’s back in the Mexican League now.
  • Darin Downs. This was nothing more than trying to spread the risk with bodies, if that makes sense. One of the many low-risk attempts by adding another potential lefty. He’s not helping Oklahoma City and won’t help the Astros.

There may be others who should be on these lists, but the 2014 season thus far simply demonstrates that as deep as the organization is and as highly-ranked as the minor league system is, there is still work to be done.

Chris Carter and Marc Krauss joined the Astros a couple of winters ago, but it’s quite possible they will “un” join the organization soon if Luhnow finds replacements at OKC.

With so many needs in the organization and at the major league level, Luhnow has to have some grace. It’s a five-year plan, but we’ll reach the halfway point in that program in a couple of months. The major league club should start realizing some of the harvest this season.

Next season, we shouldn’t be having these conversations.

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19 comments on “MMQB debate: The Luhnow Chronicles

  1. Chip – this a natural progression piece from what we have been saying lately – which has been more critical towards Luhnow. Some thoughts on your list and on other things:
    – I can’t put Crain as a leaner – latest news is that with his bursitis acting up he probably will not be ready in May.
    – I am middle of the road on Fowler – but hopefully it was the virus that tripped him up for awhile.
    – I would give Luhnow a thumbs down on Porter – just not sure if he is the right guy at all.
    – I would give him a thumbs up on Strom as pitching coach. I see more improvement there – though the pitchers need to stop getting hurt.
    – I would give him a big thumbs up for the 2012 draft – Correa, McCullers, Fontana, Heineman, Rodgers, Aplin, Ruiz, Tucker, Sclafani, Cokinos, Hauschild, and others – there is good stuff here.
    – It is early – but I would give him a shrug on the 2013 draft – not feeling it so far from Appel on down.
    – I am wondering about the tandem pitching in the minors – does it work or not.
    – Juries out on all the extreme shifting they are doing on defense – though some times it seems to work well.

    Yes, he did not have much to start with – but it is time for him to own it and it is still not close to a complete house.

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    • My opinion on tandem pitching is that it is a brilliant strategy as long as it only takes place in April to mid-May. These guys aren’t used to the professional grind. 4 v 5 days rest is a red herring – the throwing programs dictate the amount of work their arms get in either case. Once into the heart of the season I think they need to be going the traditional route though…because so much of the game is mental.

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  2. There is no short season stats(SSS) talk here because all we have are SSS make these judgments. The Fowler trade is leaning Colorado. Barnes is hitting over .500 his last 7 games and his stats are much better than Fowlers. .360 BA (and he is now hitting righties as well as lefties) and a .429 OBP with less a 20% K rate. Lyles stats are terrific. He hasn’t been just lucky, he has been good, with a very good groundout %
    The huge question is not who is winning the trade, but why are these two now thriving in Colorado when they were obviously not performing very well in Houston. The real answer to that is a scary thought as the Astros continue to lose much more than they win and most of their lineup not hitting well.
    Feldman, Albers and Crain are all on the DL and yet they are considered wins or leaning Luhnow? What is that? And taking away Quall’s ninth inning debacle is not right. He did that and that was the worst loss of the season and it was on him. You can’t take away that performance in order to throw him into the leaning Luhnow. Luhnow is the guy who decided closer by committee by not going out and getting a closer and Crain on the DL is not a closer. How can you assess early season Luhnow returns on investment and not give Luhnow a big zero on Crain, who’s earliest pitching is probably the beginning of June? The guy is getting paid and hasn’t thrown a pitch! Seriously, how is that not a booger of a no-brainer Luhnow loss?
    Chip, I love ya, but your heart is messin’ with your head on a few of these.
    Collin McHuge is a winner for Jeff. Remember that old adage about throwing enough stuff up to see if anything sticks to the ceiling? In the early going, Feldman and McHuge are winners.

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    • oldpro, I do believe you have to consider circumstances in making grades. I’m not sure if Luhnow or Porter decided on the closer by committee. Still, I think there are certain players that shouldn’t be on the committee. Everyone knows what Qualls and Albers are capable of, so they should plug them in in the seventh and eighth and worry about the ninth with other players. With this committee thing, you haven’t plug ANY holes, including the seventh and the eighth!

      It’s kinda like batting Altuve first or second when, on a decent lineup, he’d be better suited for either eighth or possibly ninth.

      Still think Crain is a good signing, but everyone knew he’d be coming later.

      Dan, yes, at this point, the Porter hiring is certainly going against Luhnow, but the rest of the season will be the tell-tale since there’s hardly anyway Porter is fired during the season.

      And, yes, the first five players of the 2013 draft came from upper echelon colleges, so they should be producing sooner than later!

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      • Chip, Crain has earned $500,000 in salary so far this year and hasn’t thrown a pitch. I liked the signing before I knew he was going to miss at least the first two months. His contract pays him $3.25mil for 2014 and that is $540,000 a month. Since we are evaluating Luhnow for what we have gotten so far, he gets an F- for Crain. The grade can be pulled up to a passing grade by September 31.
        By the way, almost the entire team is made up of guys playing for $500,000 for the complete season.

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  3. I’m fine with the Crain signing…even if the injuries prevent him from playIng for us in 2014. Low risk signings have only paid off in improved draft positioning.

    Someone pointed out last season that HOU was running out mostly guys who couldn’t start on other rosters. I suppose the final record makes that a valid point. My opinion is we have too many guys who would be great (relative term here) in 150 AB seasons but are disasters in 600. For us to consider Luhnow successful we need to see the trend reverse such that we enter the offseason with questions about how great can so and so be rather than can he give us replacement level performance.

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  4. I’m not going to rattle off all of the good and not so good things Luhnow has been responsible for. But he is the general manager, and it’s his job to manage the franchise. By all accounts, from experts to guys like me and you, he’s done a great job in rebuilding the minor league system. No dispute there. The one worrisome issue would be the tandem system which I approved of as recently as last week. If the pitchers do not buy into it, it will fail.

    However, I see little or no improvement at the major league level. The little good I see is with a rotation that is beginning to show signs of stability. And I’m not including Collin McHugh at this point. Two starts is not enough to go by. I think they are his first two major league wins. And as far as Feldman goes, we really can’t determine yet if his first four starts mean he’s going to have one of his good years or one of his bad years. Too early. But I do think that Keuchel is a keeper. And I think Cosart has really good stuff. And I think Oberholtzer is a battler. I think these guys give us stability at the back of the rotation that we have not had.

    But I also think the pen is an injury away from imploding. And there is no help on the horizon. Don’t say Luhnow can’t be held accountable for the injuries. That’s part of his job. Feldman and Crain both have an injury history. Albers is fat and fat guys get hurt more frequently. Qualls is almost fat. And maybe the manager that Luhnow hired is not doing a great job in using his pen, especially in the early, cooler beginning of the season.

    To date, our offense frankly sucks. We’ve seen glimpses of improvement over the last week or so, but that’s Luhnow’s problem, regardless of the budgetary constraints he’s having to deal with. If he asked the right questions of his owner when he took the job, then he should have been prepared to work within these conditions. Back to the lineup. Let’s face it, Luhnow’s guys, the guys he’s brought in, have simply not done much. It’s on him.

    Lastly, we might have the dumbest team in the league, at least as far as baseball IQ goes. If there is a stat somewhere for lost men on the bases, we must lead the league. And do we need a manager that creates controversy with an opposing player, starting a bean ball war that is bound to continue next time we meet Oakland. Good managers yell at umpires, not short stops. Ultimately, I hold Luhnow accountable for such embarrassment.

    What is comes down to is the level of achievement at the major league level. Luhnow has given us nothing as of yet.

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  5. So, oldpro, should he have NOT signed Crain? Indeed, Crain may have “eaten” up $500,000 of salary, but I’m guessing that insurance covers some of that. If the Astros hadn’t signed him, another team would have and he’d be filling in their gaps sometime over the next 30-45 days.

    And, there are scores of guys who are now out for the entire season and getting paid millions: Luke Hochevar, Jose Iglesias, Rafael Furcal, Matt Harvey, Ivan Nova, Josh Johnson.

    More than Crain or Feldman, I think it’s more appropriate to hold Luhnow’s feet to the fire with the hitting. Those averages <200 are losing more games than the blown saves.

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    • League average is about $4 million, right? We didn’t take on an albatross in Cain. If it doesn’t work we (Jim crane, rather) is only out some of his profit sharing haul.

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  6. It’s only the end of the first month, and I’m willing to let this try and iron itself out in the next 6 weeks or so. Bo Porter has got to stop using (or abusing) his bullpen.
    Luhnow has done what he set out to do, build a good farm……..will he still be around to see it become a great MLB team?? I’m gambling on yes. The front office seems to be too ridged, maybe that’s why we haven’t seen Reid Ryan making any moves to “please” us. I’m willing to wait to see how this turns out when Crain is
    set to make his debut. Until then……….I’ll keep my Rosary beads handy for McHugh’s next start!!!!!

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  7. Uh oh……….the Diamondbacks picked up Harrell today for cash and a PTBNL.
    I’d loved to have been in on THAT deal!!!!!!! Just kidding, I hope he does well.

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  8. Kevin……….I’ve thought for a long time that Lucas was ADHD, and had never been tested. He lost focus in a New York minute, and hardly ever made sense when he was interviewed after a game. I hope for his sake he can regain his 2012 self.

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    • Yea something isnt right with him for sure. The thing that i noticed late last year and this year was that he was not, um a dugout favorite. I think he has the tendency to rub people the wrong way with his flakiness. One game this year a pitcher came out of the game(Cant remember who) and was high fiving everyone and he basically turned his back on Harrell and Harrell was like stalking him down like hey what about me. I was LMAO. He never acknowledged Harrell.

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  9. Good luck to Harrell unless he’s pitching against us. But I won’t miss him.

    Somehow I doubt we will be kicking ourselves like the Rockies must be now over McHugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • McHugh is/was a terrible fit for Coors. I believe they received him on a waiver claim/trade from the Mets. Its the Mets who should be blaming themselves.

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      • Crystal, actually, the Mets traded him to Colorado for Eric Young. But, honestly, there was little in his minor league career — at least the upper minors — that gave any indication of what we’ve seen the last two games. That’s what will also make the next 3-4 starts very interesting. Is he a flash in the pan, fool’s gold, or the real thing?

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  10. Brian, isn’t it just wonderful to think that anyone was kicking themselves about something we did? I thinkin’ that Oakland is kicking themselves over the last two games this past weekend.

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