Posted on: March 4, 2012 2:30 pm
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- For a guy who came to baseball relatiavely late in life and who runs a team that is by all accounts overmatched, new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow seems quite relaxed. He appears to have the right outlook and demeanor for a team that may again lose 100 games. "Of course, he is (calm),'' one skeptic from a rival team said. "There is absolutely no pressure.''
Luhnow, an intellectual ensconsed in the stat crowd (he just got back from the MIT Sports Sloan Analytics Conference), is always going to have his critics. He and Rays GM Andrew Friedman are the only ones to take the non-traditional route to the GM's chair, meaning they didn't start out as baseball executives. But Friedman quickly proved himself one of the best execs in baseball by now after starting out in the investment business.
Pressure or not to win this year, folks are looking to Luhnow to prove himself. Not everyone is going to be rooting for him, either. Some folks like tradition, and he's taken an unususal route to get where he is. He has a dual engineering and business degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Northwestern University, and he got into baseball in his mid-30s with the Cardinals, in 2003.
Now 45, he spent nearly a decade as an executive with the Cardinals, contributing to two World Series teams as a high-level front-office person. Though, with the ongoing old-school vs. new-school denate raging (he is firmly in the latter crowd), there were definitely some critics in St. Louis. He tried to hire ESPN's Keith Law for a top scouting job in Houston, which wouldn't necessarily have endeared him to some older scouts. (Law turned the job down.)
Say this for Luhnow, the Cardinals generally thrived in his time in a top scouting and player development job there. And say this, too, he seems to have an excellent handle on where the Astros are today. Luhnow said he seeks progress, which is precisely the right answer for a team that lost 106 games last year and threatens to repeat that output. He also said their seemingly dire situation will be aided by a lucrative TV contract that begins next year and that they also hope to become a free-agent player if they can recapture their audience in what he pointed out was a big market.
Luhnow provided a positive-as-he-could be rundown of the Astros playing personnel, but it isn't fair to recount any of that here because his job is to be as upbeat as possible, no matter what the roster looks like. While Luhnow mentioned several nice things about many of their players, he isn't about to pretend the team is ready to contend, which shows he's far from delusional. He does seem to have high hopes for new Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie, whom he acquired in a trade for ex-Astros closer Mark Melancon, as well as a few others.
The reality, though, is that even his relatively honest portrayal of his team's situation doesn't say how bad the Astros are thought to be. Their rotation led by Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ is somewhat presentable, but their everyday lineup threatens to be the worst in baseball. Everyone has their own evaluation of course, but one scout said he believed that besides veteran Carlos Lee, who Houston would love to trade, only two players have a chance to be major-league average, catcher Jason Castro and third baseman Chris Johnson, and Castro missed last year with a knee injury and Johnson hit .251 with seven home runs. "Two years ago, he hit,'' the scout said. "Last year he forgot how.''