For many years, the Houston Astros seemed to be an organization without a plan. After the 2005 season, in which they experienced some of their greatest successes, including their first pennant, the franchise fell quickly into disarray. The team’s veteran leaders, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, retired. The players who led them to success in 2005 started to age. And the well of minor league talent, which had produced the likes of Biggio, Oswalt and Berkman, began to run dry. The front office, under GMs Tim Purpura and Ed Wade, and the ownership group led by Drayton McLane, attempted to spend their way out of dire straits. They signed big-ticket free agent Carlos Lee to a 6 year, $100 million deal that looked foolish from the moment the ink dried. They added veterans starters on questionable deals, the most absurd of which was the 2 year, $12.5 million contract they gave to the 40-year old Woody Williams, who struggled in his first year then retired in his second. And the little talent they had in their minor league system, including future all-star Ben Zobrist, they traded away for veterans like Miguel Tejada and Aubrey Huff. All this led to a team whose payrolls continued to rise, even as the product on the field deteriorated.
In the 2011 season, the Astros finally committed themselves to rebuilding the franchise from the ground up. They traded away established players, like Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, receiving enough talent to help restock their barren farm system. McLane ceded ownership of the team to businessman Jim Crane, and Crane decided to fire Wade and bring in Jeff Luhnow, a man with extensive experience in both player development and advanced statistics. Luhnow then proceeded to institute a rebuilding strategy never before seen in the major leagues. He stripped the major league club of all its talent, trading away any player that had value. Thus, the Astros, who finished 56-106 in 2011, did not improve on that mark in 2012 or 2013 — in fact, they even regressed, losing 107 games in 2012, and 111 last year.
But as Luhnow ignored the major league club, Luhnow used the high draft picks afforded to him by his club’s lack of MLB success to turn his minor league system into one of the best around. The team consecutive first overall picks, shortstop Carlos Correa in 2012 and fireballing college righty Mark Appel in 2013, are looking every bit like major league stars. George Springer, another first round pick who can play all three outfield positions, has the best combination of power and speed in the minor leagues — he slugged .600 and hit 37 home runs between AA and AAA, while stealing 45 bases. The starting pitchers received in the Pence and Bourn deals are just beginning make an impact at the major league level; lefty control specialist Brett Oberholtzer managed a 2.76 ERA and a 3.46 K/BB ratio in 71.2 IP, while hard-throwing righty Jarred Cosart posted a sparkling 1.95 ERA in 60 IP, despite control issues (5.3 BB/9 and a 0.94 K/BB ratio).
With such a strong foundation in place, Luhnow finally feels ready to turn his sights back on the major league product. He has made several moves this offseason to acquire proven major league talent, moves he seemed averse to making in previous offseasons. For a pittance (failed prospect Jordan Lyles and non-prospect Brandon Barnes), Lunhow managed to get a center fielder in Dexter Fowler, who while by no means a star, should provide solid production. He signed free agent starter Scott Feldman to a 3 year, $30 million deal, making Feldman the highest player on a team whose entire payroll last year was only $22 million. They have signed veteran relivers Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls, and Matt Albers (who was actually traded by the Astros in the Miguel Tejada deal) to bolster a beleagured bullpen.
The benefits of these acquisitions are twofold. All of these players have varying degrees of trade value, and can be flipped at the deadline for prospects if Luhnow chooses to go that route. But these moves show that finally for the Astros, the light at the end of the tunnel is within sight. The young core in the minor leagues is developing rapidly — Appel, Springer, and fist base prospect Jonathan Singleton should make their debuts in 2014, with the rest of the cavalry not too far off. Respectability finally seems within reach for the franchise, with contention not too far in the future. The Astros have been through the depths of despair — they have become the first non-expansion team in major league history to lose 100 games. But under Luhnow’s watchful eye, a phoenix seems destined to rise from the ashes.