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Richard Justice: ‘Astros Have Stayed The Course’

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HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 26: George Springer #4 of the Houston Astros is greeted by Jose Altuve #27 after Springer hit a solo home run during the seventh inning of their game against the Atlanta Braves at Minute Maid Park on June 26, 2014 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Houston Astros (Credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

If you believe the Astros – or this week’s cover story in Sports Illustrated – Houston, which has lost at least 106 games in each of the last three seasons, will win a World Series in the next three to five years.

Seriously?

“I’m fascinated by it,” MLB.com columnist Richard Justice said on Ferrall on the Bench. “A Houston businessman named Jim Crane bought the club in September 2011, and he said, ‘I’m going to hire a general manager who’s good in player development, and I’m going to give him the complete freedom to tear the franchise completely apart and to rebuild it.’”

At the time, Justice discussed that statement with then-Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who rolled his eyes. Leyland had heard that song and dance from losing teams many times over the years, but sports executives are competitive people. You don’t shrug off six-game losing streaks; you go out and overpay for a veteran.

The Astros haven’t done that. Crane hired Jeff Luhnow, who worked in the Cardinals’ scouting department and helped bring two World Series titles to St. Louis. In 2012 – Luhnow’s first year as GM – the Astros went 55-107. In 2013, they went 51-111. That’s a two-year total of 106-218.

“They’ve paid a price here,” Justice said. “They’ve stayed the course. They showed the discipline. They lost 100 games three years in a row, and everything they’ve done has been to replenish the farm system.”

And now they’re starting to see the fruits of their labor.

George Springer – “a dynamic, dazzling young talent” – leads the Astros in home runs (16) and RBIs (43), while Jose Altuve is among the major league leaders in hits (118), average (.343) and stolen bases (37). Both are 24.

“The pipeline is flowing,” Justice said, “and they expect to be better.”

That pipeline includes 19-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa and 22-year-old righty Mark Appel, who is expected to be in the rotation in 2015.

As for this year, the Astros (36-50) could flirt with 70 wins, which would be their most since 2010.

“They’re all in on the analytics,” Justice said of Houston’s front office. “They have guys from NASA. They have a Pepperdine law graduate there. They’re all in on the math and finding a different way to do it. There’s still a cultural war in baseball between the analytics – the Moneyball guys – and the traditional scouting guys. And I said to Jeff Luhnow, ‘Hey, what guys tell me all the time is a computer can’t find a player in Venezuela.’ And he said, ‘That’s true, but a data base can tell you where the players come from in Venezuela, how much money they sign for, what position they play, where teams distribute their scouts in the part of that country – so it’s just better decision-making.”

“I think they have a lot of momentum in that direction,” Justice continued. “Building a farm system is not the same as building a winning major league roster, but it’s pretty interesting to watch how they’ve gone about it.”

 

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