I’m still a Jeff Luhnow fan. His resume as the Astros’ general manager is replete with success stories. Yes, sure, just as with any leader in an organization, you can point to weak spots or failures. Overall, though, Luhnow has guided the Astros to the best record in the American League. He has used every tool in his belt — including an open check book from the owner — to navigate the hazardous stream to the top. Yes, it took him several managers, a few dozen trades, countless minor-league signings, some high draft picks and even a few radio and TV teams, but today, the Astros are one of the best organizations in all of baseball.
No one can argue otherwise. No one can take that away.
While the focus is on the short-term goal of a World Series championship, Luhnow also has the same focus — and responsibility — for the long-term. Continued, stable, steady, repeatable performance, year-in, year-0ut. Quite frankly, it’s one reason he may not have wanted to mortgage the future. And, honestly, he does have the roster here to win it all. Now, if that roster isn’t healthy, we have another story of course.
But let’s look forward just a bit and past 2017. Yes, yes, the story line can change. If the Astros falter down the stretch, lose the division, get kicked out of the playoffs in the first round, can’t recover, have more injuries, can’t pull off a big trade this month, players revolt, then Luhnow may be more than just on the hot seat. But Jim Crane has been on one crazy roller coaster ride for several years now and my guess is that he’s committed to Luhnow and The Plan for the rest of the decade at least.
But Luhnow has a bigger problem than winning the World Series in 2017. He has a bigger challenge than pulling off a trade in mid-season. He has a bigger mountain to climb in 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond.
It’s much easier to get to the top than to stay on top. Just ask the Giants, Mets and Royals, all World Series participants in the last three years. Brief stops at the top aren’t the long-term goal. Sure, everyone wants to get to the pinnacle and in baseball, the World Series is the pinnacle. But many “in the business” are striving to produce a winning product year-in and year-out. That means a steady hand at the helm and a delicate balancing act. By my judgement, that’s some of what we have seen this summer. The delicate balancing act, that is.
The big trades and the names that we know about were too much to give up. And, in the case of the Orioles, they apparently nixed trades because of some so-called health issues in certain Houston players. Otherwise, Zach Britton may have been in the fold by now.
And, you can bet that Luhnow was looking at 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond and just got queasy.
Do you mortgage those years from one shot at winning it all? Do you give up three top picks like the Yankees to pick up a pitcher you can argue may not be a top-of-rotation guy? Do you dig into the stash or a minor league system you have built so intricately over the years to solidify an already-best record in the AL? Or do you try to mitigate the injury damage by putting your finger in the dam, praying, crossing the fingers on the other hand and holding your breath?
Here are some thoughts of what Luhnow may be looking at in 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond.
The threat of a $200 million payroll.
- Yes, Crane has opened the check book this season as he said he would. But there is a limit, especially in a market like Houston. Where is the limit? Have they established that limit, even as a percentage of revenue? Does Luhnow know the limit for the next few years? Even if that magical mark hasn’t been set, it’s obvious that Luhnow faces that bottle neck I predicted a few years back. Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, Carlos Correa are all faces you’d like to build around, but will Luhnow have that ability?
Depleting a farm system.
- By virtue of living at the bottom for the past several years, Houston has had the advantage of living on top of the draft. Correa, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and others are part of the harvest. But those days are over, at least for the immediate future. Now, the real work begins. Finding — or getting lucky with — a Roy Oswalt in the 20th round isn’t the norm. Even more of a challenge, though, is taking that diamond in the rough that most organizations didn’t see and molding them into something useful for the majors. That requires building a strong coaching, teaching and scouting organization. Are the Astros there yet with that? Me thinks not, or at least we haven’t seen a lot of fruit of that.
He knows his weaknesses.
- Yes, if they’re good, they know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Luhnow can read the tea leaves just fine. He probably doesn’t believe he’s as much of a failure at trades as many of us do, but he knows it’s not his strong suit. And, he has a vested interest in the Bregmans, the Derek Fishers, A.J. Reeds and even the Colin Morans and Francis Martes. Those guys are, indeed, part of The Plan to build an organization through draft and the minor leagues. No matter what you think, it’s difficult to part with those homegrown pieces that you know will be in the big leagues someday.
- For all that it is, Luhnow, Crane and the management team may have already made the call on Keuchel or others. Perhaps they’ve decided they won’t ante up when Keuchel becomes a free agent and that they’ll need the farm pieces to bring in that top-of-rotation stopper. It’s quite possible that Keuchel, McHugh, Lance McCullers Jr., Brad Peacock, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann, Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez and/or others will not be part of the lineup on opening day 2019 or 2020. Gulp! That lineup could include Bregman, Correa and others like J.D. Davis, Tucker, Moran and other as-yet-undisclosed players.
Just a few thoughts to whet the conversation appetite on this Tuesday. I’m sure you have some thoughts. Stay clean. Keep it above-board. And let’s have some fun out there.