Monday, January 27, 2014

Interview with Jeff Luhnow

Note: Our buddy and sometime-contributor @KevinBassStache had a chance to talk to Astros GM Jeff Luhnow last week. Here's the transcript. 

It was a blustery and cold Thursday when the Houston Astros Caravan blew in to Austin as part of their annual winter caravan.  The first stop was at Auditorium Shores, near downtown, for the ceremonial raising of an Astros flag to declare the city as “Astros Country.”  Current (Jason Castro), former (Jeff Kent), and future players (George Springer) were on hand plus Astros broadcaster Alan Ashby and team president Reid Ryan.  But the star of the show, at least for me, was Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.  No other person, besides Astros owner Jim Crane, is more influential in this organization and few are as bright and interesting.  I’ve thought awhile about what I’d like to ask Jeff Luhnow if I was given the chance and, as luck would have it, was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a handful of questions.  Below is that exchange:

KBS:  Mr. Luhnow, first off, thank you very much for your time.  I want to start by asking about George Springer.  If he has a big Spring Training this year, what are his chances of making the team?

Luhnow:  Well, we want to field the best team possible.  We have 64 players coming to camp and we expect to take the best 25 to Houston with us for opening day.  We’ve got a lot of different permutations of that, but that’s why we go there--to sort it all out.  But I would say, given the success he experienced last year, George Springer is going to spend a significant portion of this year—if not all of it—in Houston and he’s going to help us accomplish our goal to win a lot more games.

KBS:  I was looking at the 40 man roster recently and, with the depth that’s already there, it’s going to be difficult to find space for 25 guys.  Do you feel the team is done adding players, either on major or minor league deals, at this point in the winter?

Luhnow:  We’re still talking to a few free agents still out there and, whether or not something happens, to be determined.  The work really never stops, even as we go in to camp in just a few weeks time.  Injuries tend to play a factor, not just for us but with all other teams, and players come available.  Also, players who haven’t signed yet become a bit more willing to sign at your terms, so we’re going to continue to be opportunistic.  We do feel like we’re good with what we have right now, but there’s always an opportunity to improve and we’re going to be looking for it at every turn.

KBS:  This is your second year now as Astros GM and I’m wondering what some of the things are that, maybe, have been expected or unexpected about the job?

Luhnow:  The challenge with a job like this is that you can’t control the outcome.  All you can do is bring in the players, the staff, and front office to put everything in to position so you can make the best choices you can possibly make to increase your chances of winning as many games as possible.  Going through a period at the end of last year, when we lost 15 straight games, if you play those games over and over again, very rarely would you lose all 15.  There might be cases where you split, or win more, but that’s something you can’t really control and it’s a little bit frustrating.  All you can do is dust yourself off, find your weaknesses, and go in to the off-season by adding to the bullpen, or another bat, or another member of the starting rotation.  You cross your fingers and hope it works out. 

KBS:  As a follow up to that, I feel like the Astros front office really valued the construction of the 2013 team (prior to the 2013 season), but it never quite came together.  Are there things you see now, or multiple things, that caused the team not to achieve its goals?

Luhnow:  Well, there was some variability in terms of performance.  We were counting on Lucas Harrell to have a year similar to what he did in 2012 and he wasn’t able to repeat that and Altuve wasn’t exactly the same sort of player he was the year before.  But we had some up-ticks in performance as well and 2013, at the end of the day, was an opportunity for many of our young players to get significant exposure in critical situations.  You know, Josh Fields had a good year as our closer.  Josh Zeid and Kevin Chapman were put in situations where the game was on the line—that’s a lot of pressure to put on young kids.  Robbie Grossman was out there playing everyday for awhile, Jake Elmore was playing everyday.  We gave our young roster an opportunity to prove to us whether they belong and I think the answer, by the end of the year, was that some of these guys do belong.  Matt Dominguez deserves to be the everyday third baseman, Jon Villar looks like he has the capability to be an everyday shortstop, so we discovered a lot more about guys we wanted to find out about.  But at the same time, we didn’t have the veteran presence last year.  We tried it with Pena, Ankiel, Bedard, Veras and a couple of others, but we feel like the veterans we have for 2014 are a little bit better established and we are planning for them to stick around a little while.  It sets a little better tone for them to be in that leadership role because they know they’re going to be there for a few years.

KBS:  Something I’ve been thinking about awhile:  Why aren’t there any sign-and-trade deals in the MLB?  You look at a player like Kendrys Morales (a current free agent), who turned down a $14.1 million one-year arbitration offer even though he won’t receive the same sort of annual average value in a long term deal.  For the team losing the player, they could have the opportunity to maybe obtain a higher-level minor-league player from the signing team who’s already passed through a few levels.     

Luhnow:  It’s a good question and you sometimes see it with free agents that are signed and then traded mid-season.  Typically, if a team is interested in a player, they’d be active in signing him right upfront.  But as the season develops, and teams sort themselves out in to those that are and aren’t contending, that’s when the transactions tend to happen.  You’ll occasionally see a free agent signed and in spring training where he doesn’t win the job and gets traded, but it doesn’t happen as much as you think it might. 

KBS:  Do you think that’s something that’ll change?

Luhnow:  It could.  I think teams are getting a lot more creative in different ways of maximizing their return.  Teams in the past few years, because of the collective bargaining agreement, have been creative about finding ways of bringing talent in because they’re restricted in terms of the amateur and international world.  To a certain extent, that’s what we did the past couple of years.  We were able to take major league players and convert them in to prospects.  Even with the limitations of the international draft, we were able to go from a bottom five to a top five farm system utilizing all those avenues at our disposal.