Astros: Following in the Pirates, Royals footsteps

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.

Management Changes

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:

The Royals foundation is built on:

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.


  1. Do you believe the Astros should be following the “plan” of the Royals and Pirates?
  2. If so, do you believe they are successfully following that “plan”?
  3. How soon do you believe the fruit will ripen into playoff appearances and success?

52 comments on “Astros: Following in the Pirates, Royals footsteps

  1. I believe they should be following The Luhnow Plan. It’s a bumpy road that occasionally has a dead end or two, but it’s pointed in the right direction and is slowly morphing from a country road to a highway.

    I think the 2012 draft will provide our top future stars. I think the 2013 and 2014 drafts will provide high-quality key pieces.

    I think a few years from now, we’re going to be happier with Colin Moran and Jake From State Farm than Jarred Cosart.

    And I think this is the year we start picking up real free agents and trading for real contributors. 2015 will look pretty good and 2016 will be very respectable. I think the Astros will be a playoff power by 2017. So, just 12 years from our last playoff appearance, and 11 since the last respectable Houston team.

    I’ll take it.


    • I will take that too – I am hopeful they get over .500 this coming year – but I keep worrying about injuries and regression – not a lot of depth right now.
      We need to get some of these young guys to the majors and get them experience – we cannot expect them to shine the moment they show up.


      • That’s the argument for staying out of the free-agent pool. You sign a third baseman for three years, and Moran is ready in August and ready to be major contributor by April 2016. You go out and get that left fielder, but Marisnick is a .260/.330/.380 guy with THAT glove and arm. Or you pick up a first baseman, and Singleton figures it out in winter ball.

        I’m not advocating standing pat, but if we trade for or sign an established major leaguer, we need to understand that guy is trade bait the moment we’re sure about the young guy. Because those established guys are already 28-30.


      • It is an interesting thought process Brian – for success you have to have some veterans mixed in with the youngsters.


  2. I think they need to stick to the Luhnow plan for now. They have committed to it with players and coaches that are oriented to it so it would be silly to change at this moment. If they get through 2017 and are struggling to stay above .500, that would be the time to look at another plan.
    I think that 2017 is that key year to compete. By that year Correa should be the established SS, Altuve the established 2B, Springer the established CF, Singleton or Reed or Ruiz or Gregor at 1B, Moran or Ruiz at 3B. And there should be a choice between Kemp, Tucker, Teoscar, Santana, Marisnick, DDJ or Phillips in the OF.
    All those arms in High A and AA start to hit in 2016 and by 2017 the rotation should be full, especially if you have signed one, long term, high value, TOR starter from free agency.
    My advice would be to try to fill their biggest hole nearing the end of the 2016 season with a good experienced FA to help carry them into the playoffs in 2017.
    That leaves them to figure out who their catcher for 2016 and beyond will be and they have Luhnow and Hinch to try and figure that out.


    • OP, guessing that the Luhnow Plan is more than just replenishing the minor leagues. At some point, The Plan transitions from building through the draft, to adding players like Feldman and other free agents where you can’t or don’t have a natural pipeline. I would suggest that the Plan continues on its proposed track if the Astros do add a middle-of-the-order hitter or even ace pitcher. No, you don’t abandon the base of the draft and minor league pipeline, but adding a key player here or there through trades or free agency must be in The Plan at some point, no?

      Then again, maybe we’re just debating at what point the transition begins too? If so, I’d suggest the transition has already begun since Luhnow signed Feldman last year and will continue this winter.


      • Chip, the question should really be when do they want to start winning? Springer and Singleton both struggled this year, but produced 20 and 13 HR, respectively, in half a season of play. We should expect every rookie that comes up will require time to adjust and learn.

        If you want the playoffs in 2017, we want to see that period of struggle occur towards the end of 2016. I believe you can reduce the duration with the presence of veteran leadership and strong coaching. I’m not sure we have that yet, which is why I would advocate spending in FA this off season even if it brings a multi-year contract for a guy who doesn’t factor into the plan down the road.


      • Springer and Singleton were part of the old guard. Good projected players who can help you trend upward. However, I would also suggest that the trend upward should become a spike upward when Luhnow’s guys start to arrive. As in Correa, Appel, Moran, Hader, Fisher, Reed, etc. How many of those may — may — arrive at some point in 2015?


      • Interesting point, Chip about Springer and Singleton being old guard – not the newer better contact guys. – but believe me, Springer putting up HRs and RBIs at a 50 HR / 100+ RBI pace means we can put up with lower contact rates. But you are right – they need to get 2 or 3 of that list of Luhnow guys up by the end of 2015.


      • If I were to make a guess, I would say Moran and Appel – college standouts who both did well at AA – have a legit chance to see MLB action in the second half of 2016. I can’t see the others being ready to contribute. Well, I can see Correa as his game is built around consistency, but expect he’ll get the Springer treatment.

        I understand your point about Springer not being Luhnow’s guy, but if he wants to be employed entering 2016 he better wrap his head around the idea. Springer brings the excitement the franchise needs. Ownership would fire Luhnow on the spot for trying to replace Gorgeous George (or is there a real/better nickname) with Derek Fisher.


      • I think that’s what I was saying. A TOR pitcher acquired outside and the one position player to fill the hole that your prospects haven’t done as well at. Those are the two places I see using help from the outside to make a good run in 2017. A team needs two or three TOR- type pitchers to get deep into the playoffs, or two Aces. But you need a good bullpen, too. Detroit has the bats and they have the TOR pitchers. But they spent their money on those two things and would not go after the big closer and it killed them. They miscalculated how much a dominant closer would mean to them and the leads they got from their strengths did not hold up in the playoffs.
        Now Detroit has an aging core, pitchers that stand on the cusp of free agency, a poor minor league system and no bullpen. They also have teams in their division that are building up their systems.


  3. I guess I have a question for both old pro and Brian T and whoever else joins in – In what way does Luhnow’s plan differ from the Pirates and Royals plans?


    • Well, that’s a good question. Since none of us is privy to anyone’s plan, it’s impossible to answer with certainty but to speculate on. I guess the big difference in the plans would be the tactic of complete tanking in order to get top draft picks. The tandem system is a difference in development. I think you would really have to be on the inside to know the differences in procedure. There might be differences in scouting or grading or developing that we just don’t know about.
      It’s a bit like house hunting. You can compare houses by what you see, but the major differences lie in what you can’t see, especially if you don’t know what your doing.


    • It’s really not. We talk about how Luhnow is trying to do what the Cardinals have done, but it’s also what the Royals have done and the Pirates have done.

      I don’t pay much attention to Pittsburgh, but in the case of the Royals, they were always “on the cusp” of making a run. But they also always traded a key piece to continue rebuilding. They were perpetually rebuilding. I guess the Pirates were the same.

      I think the difference is Houston can afford to keep some players and pay for some free agents to fill some holes. I know Crane talked about $20 million more in 2015, but that’s chump change. I’m talking about bringing the payroll up to or even above the $100 million mark. By 2017, if Crane isn’t spending at least $85 million, he’s not serious. But with or without the TV deal, Houston can afford that. And it should. Even with all of our low-cost pieces.

      I don’t think we’re different now, but once the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter, we need to not fall into the perpetual rebuild trap that kept the Royals from respectability for more than two decades.

      For Houston, one decade is plenty.


      • The Pirates were just like the Royals always rebuilding but never rebuilt.
        Yes in this big of a market there should be a good budget available not a starvation budget


  4. Yeah that was announced yesterday – I guess he is from that area so it was doubly appealing that he can still be a hitting coach and could be at home half the season. I’m guessing he thought it was unlikely he was staying here.


  5. Dan, of interest is how players are acquired. I assume those are 25 man rosters, but the amateur drafted players for KC (6) and PIT (7) make it clear having high draft picks is not enough. Houston, FWIW, has 7 players on the 40 man that came from the amateur draft: Keuchel, Castro, Springer, Buchanan, Nitro, Footy, and Luis Cruz.


    • Well they also have the FA international players the same as Altuve is. I think you need to develop and bring up a constant stream of draft choices and international youngsters, you have to make selective / focused FA signings, you have to have guys you picked up by trading vets for multiple youngsters and you have to pick up guys from trading your own prospects to fill a difficult need.
      The one thing the Astros have is picking up some pieces rejected by others like McHugh and Sipp. That is a bargain way to gain value.


  6. You can also make the point that as of right now, BOT the Pirates, and Royals are an aging team. I think Luhnow’s “process” is for these guys (next year or 2016) will be young AND should be winning a lot of games, and maybe in the playoffs. In other words, Luhnow doesn’t want to se these kids get to be 30yrs. old before they taste
    victory. He and Jim Crane want them to start competing as soon as they join the big club……..hopefully we get a nice group of young guns that can prove Luhnow’s plan works. Corpus Christi Hooks are your future studs. In the mean time…this club has some glaring needs, and I hope like heck Luhnow can work some magic soon!


    • I think that is a good point Becky – plus the fact that Luhnow will have a lot of these kids under club control.
      The Royals have a lot more “older” gentlemen than the Pirates. .
      For the Royals Infante (32), Aoki (32), Gordon (30), Shields (32), Guthrie (35) and Vargas (31) are major contributors who are Thirtysomethings.
      For the Pirates only Russell Martin (31), Volasquez (30), and Liriano (30) are over that hill. Morton who is on the 60 day dl is also 30.
      The Pirates are below league average for both their pitchers and hitters, the Royals hitters are below league average but their pitchers are above average.


    • Aplin had that very good 2013 at hitter’s paradise Lancaster (more than 100 runs scored and more than100 RBIs) and then had a so-so year at sea level CC before performing below average at OKC. Hopefully he gets more ab’s at AAA and finds that good stroke again this season. We need another run producer that is for sure.


      • Aplin started the season 3.6 years younger than the average AAA player. I wouldn’t be too hard on him. He has a plus glove, above average arm, above avg speed and a BB rate higher than his K rate.
        After Springer/Grossman got moved up and then Wates getting traded, Aplin got moved up out of necessity. It would have been better for him to have remained in AA. Maybe the good pitching in the AFL will help him catch up.
        An OF of Tucker, Aplin and Santana in Fresno would be fun to watch.


      • I agree – he needs more abs and more seasoning.
        Look at the big club – their weighted average for the hitters was 25.7 – the next lowest was 27.4 – a huge difference expecting the kids to kick butt the minute they move up a level.


  7. Speaking of the Tigers, feels a lot like the beginning of the Yankees model, and the wheels are starting to fall off. As far as being all in for this year, well, they most definitely were. They traded Doug Fister to free up money to sign a big time closer, Joe Nathan. Unhappily, he aged horribly over the winter and was a mess. None of the other bullpen acquisitions – Joel Hanrahan, Jim Johnson, Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria – panned out. So, their bullpen was a mess, but it wasn’t due to lack of spending or lack of trying. The situation is eerily similar to the … Houston Astros.


    • Sorry Steeve, but The Tigers paid as much for Johnson ($10 million) or Nathan ($9 million) as the Astros paid for their 3 major bull pen acquisitions together – Qualls, Albers, and Crain.
      The two teams have real problems in their pen – but they have not chased it with near the same amount of money.


    • I think he means the Drayton McLane Astros. Looking at that club, if you were VMart, would you want to sign for 3 more years with Price being a free agent next winter, scherzer leaving this winter, Cabrera starting to look mortal, and the aforementioned bullpen? Oh yeah, they are also paying Verlander handsomely.


    • Even at $9 million, I didn’t think of a 39-year old Nathan as a premium closer. If they were all in, choosing a fellow that age doesn’t make sense.
      I will agree that Detroit and Houston both are having a lot of similar trouble building a bullpen. The Astros need to figure it out before they get into playoff contention because the O’s plowed through Detroit’s bullpen and all the money Detroit spent for everything else won them zero playoff games.


  8. Dan, they paid pennies on the dollar for Johnson after Oakland released him in August – he was a long shot who failed in his September trial and didn’t make the post season roster. Soria, on the other hand, cost two premium pitching prospects (the rough equivalent of Folty and Tropeano). Ouch. Anyway, both tried to fix the bullpen with established free agent relievers, both spent a similar percentage of their payroll on the endeavor, and both had disastrous results.


  9. I guess on a percentage basis that is true but having $3 million not work out does not hurt like having $9 million for Nathan not work out


  10. Interesting to compare KC and Pirates to the Astros. First, Luhnow has not had an opportunity to trade MLBer for MLBer, yet. But why would the Pirates trade Hanrahan for Melancon. (Two years with a WHIP below 1.00.) Did they know something that others missed? And why would KC trade Wil Myers? Or why would Tampa Bay trade Shields and Davis? Is it luck, or better scouting, or a small nagging injury? Whatever happened, KC is still playing and winning.


  11. A note from my son, Adam
    “This got me looking at how rough things have been for us. Now that teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh are making the playoffs, we are inching into the longer post season droughts. the current longest droughts are: Toronto – since 1993, Seattle – Since 2001, Miami since 2003, and then us (2005).

    Obviously, we’ve never won a World Series, but at least as far as when our last appearance was, we’re not so bad. Even after KC or Baltimore makes it, there will be 18 teams with longer droughts for making it there.

    We are one of 6 teams to never win a World Series (Astros, Ranger, Mariners, Nationals/Expos, Brewers, Padres). Washington and Seattle have never been. Cleveland hasn’t won since 1948, and the Cubs are possibly the worst of the whole bunch. They haven’t been to one since 1945, and they haven’t won since 1908. Yes, Boston, boohoo, you had a curse.

    So, hopefully we can break this streak. A city as large as Houston should have more competitive teams. The Rockets/Comets championships are getting a bit stale. Nobody cares about Soccer/futbol (sorry Dynamo). The Texans and Astros need to step up. If not for a championship, at least get us some exciting post season action!”


  12. While things are slow, there is an article everybody on this blog might want to read. It is a rather in-depth evaluation of most of the Astros prospects compiled from scouting sources. I found it googling: Fangraphs evaluating the prospects Houston Astros. It is really a must read for Astros fans who are waiting for all our prospects to come and save the day. Would really be interested in your thoughts on this article by Kiley McDaniel.


    • Thanks oldpro – here is the link if someone wants to check it out.

      Interesting article – shoots straight on these guys and their pluses and minuses. Interesting / quandry? that they basically have 3 guys they say should be 3rd basemen in the top 5 – Correa, Moran and Ruiz.

      Also found it interesting that Appel was still #2 despite a very spotty 2014 – must be taking the tandem into account.

      Folks should read this – good info here.


      • I wish hearing footsteps meant a better offensive approach for Matty D. He has left the door wide open at 3B – when he could have solidified his hold until the young guys got promoted.


      • They actually had a good profile of MattyD’s troubles over at TCB. I question whether the Astros have an approach to hitting based on his performance, as well as Singletons. I know daveb will point out the hitters gotta hit, but both were unable to make adjustments to the league AND in the case of Dominguez, had a terrible degredation in swing mechanics through the year. Early in the season he was the only middle of the order hitter who consistently would have decent at bats. As it progressed, well, let’s just say it shocked me when he had a good at bat.


    • It was interesting to see the comments from unnamed sources in other organizations belittling our prospects. I know there is some old guard protecting their way of life mentality, but the concern I have is (not even counting recent blunders) whether Luhnow will have enough partners to trade HIS players for those final pieces we need.

      It is also tough to read the evaluations for some guys – Hader, in particular, would seem to have a lower ceiling based on what they write than we have been hoping. Ideally, he develops as he ages and proves them wrong.


  13. I read the article yesterday, and I thought it hit all of them spot on. I think they got it wrong on Hader, he’s still so young, I think his ceiling is only going up. Most of us have either thought, or commented about Correa being moved to 3rd. at some point in the next few years, as his size might be better suited for 3rd. The cool thing about our farm teams, is these guys are VERY young, and doing very well. Man, I can’t WAIT to see how this team starts to round out in 2015-2016! Speaking of the Royals, do you think they will be able to keep James “Big game” Shields next year?
    I love they way the Royals are playing fun, and loose. It ought to be a real interesting
    World Series this year! Happy Sunday y’all!


  14. Devin – I’m with you on that questioning of the coaching of the hitters. I just did not see that much change in the approach of almost anyone last year. I know Altuve made great leaps over 2013 – was that due to coaching – I don’t know – he seemed to just be focused on working his tail off. And frankly he was successful because he seemed to have his own plan on how to approach each pitcher. He approached his at bats differently than anyone else on the club.


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