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Between 2011 and 2013, the Houston Astros won 162 games and lost 324 of them. They scored 1,808 runs and allowed 2,438 of them. They averaged finishing over 42 games out of first place per season. It was a stretch so futile that even the early 00’s Detroit Tigers were rendered speechless and took a bow.
Jeff Luhnow took over the general manager’s role in Houston after the 2011 season. The organization had just finished trading off almost everything of value (mostly to the Philadelphia Phillies) and the team was set up for another season in the abyss. Brett Myers was the closer, Carlos Lee was still getting semi-regular at-bats, Lucas Harrell started 32 games (sort of successfully!) and a 5’6” second baseman by the name of Jose Altuve was set to start at second base after posting just a .654 OPS in his rookie season. To start the Astros’ mission to contend, Luhnow didn’t begin with a bunch of marketable trade assets or even a respectable farm system. He was “starting from square one” in every sense of the phrase. Let’s look at how the AL West juggernaut was built.
High Draft Picks
The lean years in Houston gave Luhnow the gift of the first pick of the draft each year from 2012-2014 and the second overall pick in 2015. His selections illustrate great arguments for and against tanking. While Mark Appel and Brady Aiken both proved to be a complete waste of seasons with a winning percentage below .350, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman would eventually combine to give the Astros an elite combination on the left side of the infield.
World Series record-breaker George Springer certainly panned out for the Astros as a power-hitting outfielder (who significantly reduced his strikeouts last season), but it’s hardly unusual for an 11th overall draft pick to turn into a star. The humble beginnings of some of the other Houston stars are far more remarkable in retrospect. American League MVP and all-around offensive force Jose Altuve was the Astros 28th-ranked prospect heading into his rookie season, per Baseball America. Dallas Keuchel was a grade-C pitching prospect who turned into one of baseball’s premier wormkillers. Swiss Army knife Marwin Gonzalez started the 2012 season as a Rule 5 pick by the Red Sox that got flipped to the Astros and ended the 2017 season with a .907 OPS. Whether you want to call it great coaching or great luck, the Astros developed some breakout stars from unexpected places.
The Astros have done quite well in the dumpster-diving department. Curveball artist Collin McHugh has done good work in the Astros rotation since he was claimed off waivers from the Rockies; he’s in the bullpen now because they’re so deep. Relief ace Chris Devenski was a player-to-be-named-later in the White Sox’ deadline acquisition of Brett Myers (d’oh!) in 2012. Electric swingman Brad Peacock was an older prospect who looked like he might wash out when he was the second piece in Houston’s return for Jed Lowrie back in 2013. Peacock kept the Astros humming as a fill-in starter and extremely reliable fireman, depending on where they needed depth over the course of last season.
The late-August acquisition of Justin Verlander immediately springs to mind when thinking of major recent Astros trades. The former Detroit ace racked up nearly two WAR in five starts in Houston last season before anchoring the Astros’ rotation for the playoffs. He’s off to another frighteningly good start this year, and the White Sox’ bats will have their work cut out for them tonight.
Still, a bigger portion of Houston’s championship roster was assembled via trade than you might recall. Low-OBP slugger and underrated defensive catcher Evan Gattis was acquired from the Braves before 2015 for the would-be-superfluous Mike Foltynewicz and a couple others. Offense-oriented catcher Brian McCann came over from the Yankees before last season. McCann’s framing ability has slipped since his heyday, but he’s still a competent offense-oriented catcher with the ability to enforce all the rules that MLB failed to put in writing (they ran out of time before completing Section 10.00–Tomfoolery). The Astros were also able to pluck glove man Jake Marisnick from the Marlins in the Jarred Cosart deal. Last but not least, they sent Vince Velasquez (among several others) to the Phillies for yet another big relief arm in Ken Giles.
The Astros had built their team so well that they didn’t need to dip too deep into free agency to round out their roster. Still, their efforts in this department have been very successful. Signing Josh Reddick turned out to be a stroke of brilliance, as the contact-hitting outfielder was a consistent force in the lineup and a means to help wash away the memory of Houston’s strikeout-laden lineups of the recent past. Beanball savant Charlie Morton was healthy enough last season and ate league-average innings all year, but what everyone will remember is the way he held down a potent Dodgers lineup in the last four innings of Game 7 of the World Series.
The Astros doubled-down on their strong position by acquiring Gerrit Cole from the Pirates over the offseason. Cole’s 40% strikeout rate so far this season makes him one of four Houston starters (Verlander, Morton, Lance McCullers) who have been striking out at least one of every three hitters. This is the deepest and probably best pitching staff in baseball, which will make Houston World Series favorites yet again. Jeff Luhnow entered this situation on a mission to take the deplorable state of the Astros organization and build a perennial contender through patience and an analytics-oriented process. Mission accomplished.
Probable Starting Pitchers
- Friday, April 20: Lucas Giolito vs. Justin Verlander
- Saturday, April 21: Reynaldo Lopez vs. Dallas Keuchel
- Sunday, April 22: Miguel Gonzalez vs. Lance McCullers
- George Springer – CF
- Jose Altuve – 2B
- Carlos Correa – SS
- Josh Reddick – RF
- Alex Bregman – 3B
- Yuli Gurriel – 1B
- Evan Gattis – DH
- Brian McCann – C
- Derek Fisher – LF
- SP1: Justin Verlander – RHP
- SP2: Dallas Keuchel – LHP
- SP3: Lance McCullers – RHP
- SP4: Gerrit Cole – RHP
- SP5: Charlie Morton – RHP
- CL: Chris Devenski – RHP
- RP1: Brad Peacock – RHP
- RP2: Ken Giles – RHP
- RP3: Will Harris – RHP