Offseason decisions: a GM for the Astros

Welcome to life as the game’s newest punchline.

When the Houston Astros lost a franchise-record 106 games, they supplanted the Kansas City Royals and perpetually bad Pittsburgh Pirates as the go-to joke about bad teams. Honestly, they deserved it, with an owner who couldn’t recognize when it was time to rebuild, with a general manager who had an unnatural fixation on aging middle relievers and a team president who… well, we’re not really sure what he was doing.

Now, all three are gone. The shame of it is that the new owner, Houston businessman Jim Crane, had enough demons in his past to delay the sale long enough for Bud Selig and the other owners to decide it was time to even out the leagues.

Thus, a new owner comes in with a pending move to the American League West on his plate. It’s only natural that he cleaned house on the baseball side, but the timing of the sale’s finalization means the Astros were under the gun to find a new GM and make the rest of their offseason decisions.

What are those decisions? Well, things got a lot easier after the Astros hired Jeff Luhnow, the former St. Louis vice president for player procurement, Luhnow as their new GM. His decisions begin with how to structure his new front office in light of how the top brass wants to build this team. He’ll also shop around the best player left on the roster, left-handed starter Wandy Rodriguez. Oh, and they need to find a replacement for departed shortstop Clint Barmes that doesn’t cost any money.

Building a front office

At the very least, Crane and new team president and CEO George Postolos know what they want in a new GM. They let Ed Wade go, not because he was incompetent, but because he was merely average. Crane’s new leadership team wanted something more than that, which is why Wade was dropped at such an inopportune time.

More than just an above-average GM, the Astros’ goal is focusing on building a strong farm system. That’s why Luhnow was hired—he has a strong background in player development. By now, Baseball America’s comment on the 2005-2007 drafts has gotten Luhnow plaudits.

He put the Cardinals at the top of the list for producing major leaguers from those drafts, but there’s a slight flaw in that logic, since it doesn’t take into account contributions of the players who reached the majors. Certainly, Astros fans would take exception with Brett Wallace being listed as a Luhnow success (though he was drafted in 2008).

Crane has said repeatedly that this team cannot be fixed just with money. That means the draft and player development will be a much bigger focus early on than a big payroll. It doesn’t rule out Crane spending money once that farm system starts paying dividends, but it does present a grim picture for near-term success. This will not be a quick fix and there will be plenty of bumps in the road. Even in the most optimistic projections, the top of Houston’s system (first baseman Jonathan Singleton, right-hander Jarred Cosart and outfielder George Springer) won’t be ready until 2013 or 2014.

And that’s merely ready for the majors. It’ll take them a little more time to make any sort of impact in the lineup, which means Astros fans could hope to have a competitive team by 2015 at the earliest. If any of those guys busts or doesn’t become an impact player, the timeline is set back even further.

So, Luhnow has some big shoes to fill. That’s why Levine, White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn and others turned down the opportunity to interview in Houston. GMs don’t have a lot of time to fix what’s wrong with a team, and Houston will take time.

He appears to have that time, however, and a plan for getting there. Crane declined to reveal the details of Luhnow’s contract, but it’s not a short-term one. That gives Luhnow the flexibility to build his front office for long-term success.

The biggest question will be whether current Astros scouting director Bobby Heck will keep his job. Heck has drawn both love and criticism from fans. He was the one who tabbed Jordan Lyles in 2007, but he also has seemingly whiffed with decisions on Jay Austin, Delino DeShields and Jiovanni Mier.

The Astros farm system is worlds better than where it was when Wade and Heck took over, but it’s still not great. There’s little pitching depth, even after the Astros brought in three high-profile arms at the trade deadline. That’ll be job one for Luhnow, but the question of whether Heck keeps his job until the Astros draft next summer is less clear.

There’s also the matter of the analytical side to the operation. Luhnow used analytics, or “science” as he called it in his press conference, to find trends in medical information, past performance and even character. Since the Astros’ infrastructure in that department is sorely lacking, one of his first jobs will probably be finding the best and brightest stat guys to fill out the front office, create proprietary metrics and really bring the Astros into the 21st century.

For saber-slanted Astros fans, that alone is worth the wait to hire him.

Trading Wandy

Now that the Astros have a GM in place, they’ll look to trading their most interesting assets. That includes Rodriguez, left fielder Carlos Lee and right-handed starter Brett Myers.

Wandy has the most value, but it’s not nearly as high as it could have been. When the left hander signed his three-year, $34 million extension last offseason, he went from being a good asset with a contract below his value to a guy who’s pretty evenly paid to his abilities.

Unfortunately, that did not bode well for his trade value. Teams looking to trade for starters want guys who have more surplus value than Wandy suddenly found himself with. As a lefty with a great curve but so-so velocity and a medium-risk injury history, he wasn’t bringing in half the league as suitors.

He does have value, especially given the market for guys like Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson. Ultimately, Houston and the Rockies couldn’t come to an agreement on compensation, but the path has been laid partly there for a trade down the road.

It’s because of that waiver claim that Colorado is the most likely destination for Rodriguez this winter. Other teams in need of a No. 3 starter might come calling, but his market probably won’t be huge.

That market should be even smaller for Lee and Myers. If Crane authorizes the Astros to eat a good amount of both contracts, trades might be possible. However, Lee’s insistence to not play for an American League team (and thus, not DH), limits his value.

Similarly, Myers is a tough sell to other teams. As a general rule, right handers with an average fastball velocity of 88.4 mph don’t make $11 million per season. In fact, there were only 12 starting pitchers who had an average velocity less than Myers did and only four of those were right-handed. In an even smaller sample, one of those four was knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

Add in Myers’ regression from an excellent 2010 season and his value is very low right now. Could he bring back a lower-tier prospect Houston takes a flier on? Certainly. The Astros could also do well to reallocate that money to finding a shortstop.

Who will play shortstop?

Another casualty of Crane’s post-sale belt-tightening was that the Astros let starting shortstop Barmes leave via free agency. While the Astros probably couldn’t have justified playing him over $5 million next year, he was a solid defender at the most important defensive position on the field.

With Barmes in Pittsburgh, Houston gets a valuable supplemental draft pick, but also has no clear replacement. If Astros manager Brad Mills tries to play Angel Sanchez full-time at short again, Houston fans might claw their eyes out. Sanchez had a UZR/150 of -5.9 this season at shortstop and -3 Defensive Runs Saved.

The biggest thing that holds Sanchez back is his arm, which is well below average for short. That’s why the Astros have been collecting guys who can play there this winter in the least expensive ways possible.

Houston claimed Brian Bixler off waivers from the Nationals and signed minor league free agents Joe Thurston and Diory Hernandez. Oh, and they’re also considering moving rookie third baseman Jimmy Paredes over to short, even though he had an uneven season at third base in limited major league time. They also traded for Cubs minor leaguer Marwin Gonzalez, who was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft. He’ll also get a shot at shortstop in spring training.

If the Astros are able to add payroll, there could be some cheap options still on the market in January that might help. Guys like Ronny Cedeno, Nick Punto and even Yuniesky Betancourt could be unsigned still and might take a one-year deal to fill in until a prospect like Jonathan Villar is ready for the majors.

But, until the Astros can move some of those crippling contracts, there won’t be a lot of movement at shortstop. Luhnow said in his press conference that by Jan. 1, he’ll know a lot more about the team and where it’s going. Expect him to jump in with two feet and make some moves, but don’t expect him to sell the future for the present. If you knew anything about former owner Drayton McLane’s tenure in Houston, that’s a very refreshing concept.

References & Resources
Statistics used from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs with contract information from Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

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