Jeff Luhnow cut his teeth in the St. Louis Cardinal organization. He would love nothing better than to have a team that is like the Cards, a sustainable winner that has 11 playoff appearances in the last 15 seasons and only one losing season in that time.
But to get to that spot, the Luhnow Plan for the short term must parallel the paths taken by two 2014 playoff teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals.
People might wince at the comparison, because both the Pirates and Royals have been wandering in the desert for what seems like the proverbial 40 years.
Before the last two seasons, the Pirates had not been to the playoffs since 1992 when Barry Bonds was built more like Steve Finley than Greg Luzinski. In the last 15 seasons they have two winning records and two playoff appearances (the last two – 2013 and 2014) but also had two 100 loss seasons and eight seasons with 90 or more losses.
The Royals, as has been widely reported, have not been to the playoffs since 1985, back when MTV actually played music videos. In the last 15 years they have only this year’s one playoff appearance and three seasons with winning records including the last two. They have four 100 loss seasons and nine seasons of 90 or more losses in those 15 years.
There would be a temptation for Astro fans to despair thinking that they have to wait 21 or 29 years for a playoff appearance like the Pirates and Royals have respectively. But in both cases, recent management changes have occurred for both clubs.
In the case of the Pirates, Bob Nutting took over as the principal owner in 2007 and brought in a new team president, Frank Coonelly, and as GM the sabermetrically leaning Neal Huntington. They then brought in current manager Clint Hurdle in 2011. Hurdle had previously managed the Rockies unsuccessfully finishing with seven losing seasons out of 8 in Colorado
The Royals have kept the same owner since 1993, David Glass who made his fortune with the free-spending, high budget Wal-Mart corporation (that was sarcasm by the way). However, in 2006 they went a new direction hiring Dean Taylor as the VP of operations and Dayton Moore out of the Braves organization as GM. They brought in Ned Yost to manage in 2010. Yost, like Hurdle and AJ Hinch had one previous managerial stint — with the Brewers — but his stay was more successful including winning Manager of the Year twice in 6 seasons in Milwaukee.
Follow the money
There have been arguments that the Astros’ payroll situation is not that much like the Royals or Pirates and perhaps that is true this season, but let’s take a closer look.
The Pirates between 2004 and 2009 ran either 27th or 28th in mlb payroll. In 2010 they finally bottomed out as #30 at $35 million. They then took steps up the ladder: 2011 ($45 million), 2012 ($63 million), & 2013/2014 (approx. $78 million).
The Royals from 2001 to 2010 bopped between 21st to 29th in payroll. In 2011 they took the 30th spot with a $36 million payroll. Since then they stair-stepped upward: 2012 ($61 million), 2013 ($81 million) and 2014 ($90 million).
None of this payroll increase has put either team in the top 1/2 of baseball in salaries, but it has thrust each team into the playoffs and the Royals sit one series win away from the World Series.
Building a contender
The Royals and the Pirates are both built eerily similar and it is easy to see the Astros morphing into a team built with similar bricks.
The Pirates foundation is built on:
- Draft choices. Pitchers Gerrit Cole (1-1 2011), Jared Hughes (4th rd 2006) and Tony Watson (9th rd 2007), 2B Neil Walker (1st rd – 11th overall – 2004), SS Pedro Alvarez (1st rd – 2nd overall – 2008), Andrew McCutchen (1st rd – 11th overall – 2005) and SS Jordy Mercer (3rd rd – 2008)
- International FAs. (Dominican Republic) – LF Starling Marte and RF Gregory Polanco
- FA pickups. C Russell Martin, P Edinson Volquez and P Francisco Liriano
- Cheap pickup. Bought P Vance Worley from the Twins
- Trade of established players. P Charlie Morton and P Jeff Locke (for Nate McLouth) and P Mark Melancon (for Joel Hanrahan)
- Trade off young talent. 1B Ike Davis and UT Josh Harrison (picked up for young pitching)
The Royals foundation is built on:
- Draft choices. 3B – Mike Moustakas (1st rd – 2nd overall – 2007), DH Billy Butler (1st rd – 14th overall 2004), Eric Hosmer (1st rd – 3rd overall – 2008), LF Alex Gordon (1st rd – 2nd overall 2005), P Danny Duffy (3rd rd – 2007) and P Greg Holland (10th rd -2007)
- International FAs. (Dominican and Venezuela) – C Salvador Perez (VZ), P Yordana Ventura (DR) and P Kelvin Herrera (DR)
- FA Pickups. 2B Omar Infante, P Jeremy Guthrie and P Jason Vargas
- Trade of established player. CF Lorenzo Cain and SS Alcides Escobar ( for Zack Greinke)
- Trade off young talent. RF Nori Aoki (for Will Smith, no not that Will Smith), P James Shields and P Wade Davis (for Wil Myers and others)
Optimistic Astro fans will point to how the Astros, like both KC and Pittsburgh have had no success lately and passed through a definite bottoming out. The Astros have also gone through a complete front office change over and multiple manager changes like the other two teams. They cut the payroll more severely and longer than either the Royals or the Pirates, but are beginning to trend up as their team is improving. Finally, they are using similar tactics to build a completely new and competitive team.
The more cautionary Astros’ fans will point to the fact that both the Royals and Pirates re-built over a longer period of time and that most of their high draft choices were chosen 7+ years ago and were not expected to carry the team to the promised land the minute they made the majors. They would say the Astros are still attempting to get a great core of draft choices to the majors and that is going to take time.
- Do you believe the Astros should be following the “plan” of the Royals and Pirates?
- If so, do you believe they are successfully following that “plan”?
- How soon do you believe the fruit will ripen into playoff appearances and success?