Astros’ Progressive Approach Draws Criticism

The Astros’ drastic rebuilding process has included not only a shedding of commitments at the major league level, but also many non-traditional methods, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle writes in an interesting look at the reactions to the team’s baseball operations strategies. Since the hiring of GM Jeff Luhnow in December of 2011, Drellich reports, certain arguably radical aspects of his approach have drawn some measure of criticism.

The tear-down orchestrated by Luhnow has undoubtedly reaped dividends, even if they have not yet materialized at the MLB level. A deep list of prospects has led most observers to rank the club’s farm system at or near the top of the game’s best stockpiles of talent. (ESPN.com’s Keith Law has Houston at number one, while Minor League Ball’s John Sickels, Baseball America, and Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus all place the system in the top five.)

But with that young talent beginning to filter up to the MLB level, tension has arisen with regard to the team’s attention to service time considerations. In addition to the well-documented situation of George Springer, the club has attempted to lock up other players — such as third baseman Matt Dominguez and outfielder Robbie Grossman — at a very early points in their careers, for relatively modest guarantees. (Drellich reports that Springer was offered a $7MM guarantee, while Dominguez and Grossman were offered $14.5MM and $13.5MM, respectively. Before those extension efforts, Houston successfully extended second baseman Jose Altuve with a $12.5MM guarantee.)

Those efforts, combined with the fact that several talented players are still in the upper minors while the big league club struggles, have led some to express concerns. Offers of multi-year, multimillion-dollar commitments would seem to be positive for the players involved; after all, they need not be accepted. But one anonymous player told Drellich that he feels the team “view[s] [players] purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria,” and “wield[s] service time like a sword.” And Drellich indicates that the sentiment is shared by at least some others. For his part, Luhnow says that the decision of whether and when a player gets to the big leagues “has nothing to do with what contracts they have signed or not signed.”

Some of the tension appears to be a result of the front office’s heavy focus on statistics. While statistical analysis is, of course, widespread in today’s game, Drellich suggests that the particular qualms in Houston could be a result of the fact that, “[I]n totality, the Astros appear more overt in their efforts and have moved with a greater speed for simultaneous change than anyone of late.”

Former Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie said that, while he understands the approach “from a business standpoint,” he feels that “you can’t have [a purely statistical] approach and expect to have good personal relations.” A current, unnamed Astros player said that he was unhappy with the organization’s approach. “They just take out the human element of baseball,” he said. “It’s hard to play for a GM that just sees you as a number instead of a person. Jeff is experimenting with all of us.” Luhnow says that his focus is on “trying to win big league games and … trying to produce major league players in the minor leagues,” though he notes that “any time you’ve got human beings involved … you want to understand how they’re impacted.”

Other elements of Houston’s approach — such as the team’s tandem pitching throughout its farm system and heavy use of defensive shifting — has also drawn some criticism, though it seems less strident. Ultimately, Drellich poses the question whether the overall perception of the organization around the league could have negative consequences. “They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now,” says recently-dealt pitcher Bud Norris“When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there’s going to be some opinions about it, and they’re not always pretty.” Of course, as agent Scott Boras notes, “one thing about this organization, there’s a real opportunity.” 

Needless to say, perception can change quickly, and there is little doubt that an increasingly talented MLB roster — and, presumably, a climb up the standings — could make many of the actual and apparent issues fade away. “Houston is a very attractive place to play,” says Luhnow. “We have a great stadium, we have a great city. And clearly it’s easier to attract free agents when we have a winning ball club, and when we get to that point, I think it’ll be even easier for us.”

Ultimately, Luhnow stresses that “there’s a process we’re going through to get to a winning ball club,” and “we’re doing it for the right reasons.” He said that the club is cognizant of perception, but will act in those interests. “I would expect [some unhappiness] to be out there, and yes, of course we care about it,” he said. “But is it going to change what were doing if we believe we’re doing the right thing? Not, it’s not going to. … We’re sensitive to it. If it starts to affect us in a meaningful way that we can’t sign players, or players quit, or players don’t give us their best effort, then we’ll have to address it. As of now, that hasn’t happened.”


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