-- One of the big stories of the 2015 regular season has been the sudden, seemingly premature rise of the recent bottom-feeders known as the Houston Astros, who vaulted from 70 wins a year ago to 86 wins and a trip to the postseason this season. This, in GM Jeff Luhnow's fourth season at the helm, caps a remarkable turnaround that has been marked by big trades, adventurous drafts and even hacked computer systems. This might be a convenient time to remind ourselves that it wasn't long ago the club was at a much different kind of organizational crossroads.
As the sun set on the 2008 season, the Astros were probably feeling pretty good about themselves. They finished 86-75 that season, 3½ games out of a playoff spot, after a season-ending 39-19 flourish that saw them nearly overtake the Milwaukee Brewers for a wild-card spot. They had finished above .500 in 14 of 16 seasons (counting that year), and made the playoffs six times in nine seasons between 1997 and 2005.
Savvy baseball followers knew, however, that the bottom was about to fall out. These were the death throes of the Biggio/Bagwell Astros; Craig Biggio had retired after the 2007 season, and Jeff Bagwell two seasons before that. Their compadre Lance Berkman was the only remaining member of the "Killer B's," and his brilliant .312-.420-.567 campaign was the driving force behind that '08 club. At 32, however, he was one of six Astros regulars, along with five of their six most often-used starting pitchers, over the age of 30. The clock was ticking, and the Tim Purpura/Tal Smith era was set to end, with Ed Wade set to take over as GM.
Even worse, the minor league system was in severe disrepair. After a productive 2004 draft crop that included second-rounder Hunter Pence and sixth-rounder Ben Zobrist, the well had dried up. Their entire 2005 draft has yielded 3.2 career WAR to date, with only four players reaching the big leagues. The 2006 draft wasn't much better, as only two Astros signees ( Bud Norris and Chris Johnson) have reached the majors, combining for just 3.7 career WAR.
Even compared to those two, the 2007 draft was downright crippling. First, the Astros sacrificed their first two picks, chasing free agents to keep their long competitive run alive. To make matters worse, they were unable to sign their third- and fourth-round picks, Derek Dietrich and Brett Eibner, high-schoolers who opted for college. Exactly zero players signed by the Astros in the 2007 draft have made the majors. That hasn't happened often in recent years.
The Wade era
Wade and his lieutenants, including new scouting director Bobby Heck, had obviously not been dealt a very good hand. While the bulk of the heavy lifting for the Astros' current renaissance has been accomplished by the current regime, Wade's and even Purpura's groups certainly planted some seeds that have come to bear fruit.
Jose Altuve was a relatively low-dollar amateur signing out of Venezuela in 2007. Heck's first-round picks included Jason Castro (2008 draft) and George Springer (2011), though his best draft pick of all was 2015 Cy Young Award candidate Dallas Keuchel, an unheralded seventh-rounder out of the University of Arkansas.
Each season, I prepare my own minor league position player and starting pitcher rankings, based on a combination of performance and age relative to the league. It basically serves as a follow list, with traditional scouting techniques then used to tweak the order. These rankings, for instance, marked Altuve -- who never made a Baseball America top-100 list -- as a potential star; he had two top-100 rankings, according to my metrics, peaking at No. 9 in 2011.
The following table below shows the Astros' minor league hitter and pitcher rankings according to my method, along with their major league wins, from 2007 through the Wade era:
The Astros' position-player core made material strides during the latter stages of this time frame for two reasons. First, the emergence of Altuve; and second, the trade of a prospective free agent, in this case Hunter Pence, for a mother lode of minor league talent, including Jon Singleton and Domingo Santana. This would become a staple of the upcoming Luhnow era.
Still, there was little the Wade regime could do about the big club's prospects. The combination they inherited -- old major league club with a barren minor league system, coming off of historically unproductive drafts -- proved too much to overcome, and another change was made in the GM seat following the 2011 season.
Luhnow steps in
The Luhnow administration, unlike the previous one, did not inherit an 86-win team and an aging core; they took over a 56-win club that would pick first in the draft. Plus, for the very first time, draft budgets were introduced for the top 10 rounds, complete with the institution of significant penalties for clubs incurring substantial financial overages.
This development kept overall industry draft expenditures in check, but also created a major talent-amassing opportunity for clubs with the first few picks in the draft. In short, evaluate the players properly, negotiate a below-slot deal with your first-round pick, and use the savings to "overpay" borderline unsignable targets in later rounds.
The Astros got right down to business in Luhnow's first draft, in 2012. They selected Carlos Correa first overall, paid him well but under slot, and used the savings to sign Lance McCullers with their next pick.
Scout well, negotiate well, reap additional talent. Rinse and repeat. Interestingly enough, those two, plus 2012 seventh-rounder Preston Tucker are the only Luhnow-era draftees thus far to play for the Astros at the major league level. They have built a substantial war chest of minor league talent utilizing this method, as they've picked at or near the top of the draft every year since.
They've done far more than cherry-pick premium talent at the top of the draft, however. In 2012, they tabbed center field prospect Brett Phillips (sixth round); in 2013, it was 2B Tony Kemp (5th), C Jacob Nottingham (6th) and 1B/3B Tyler White (33rd); and in 2014, it was 1B A.J. Reed (2nd), among others. They have snagged impact bats throughout the draft. Some, like Phillips and Nottingham, were dealt for big league help (Phillips was sent to Milwaukee in the Gomez deal, Nottingham was traded for Scott Kazmir in July). The rest form their current organizational core.
Their other method of amassing talent has been the direct descendant of the Wade-era Hunter Pence deal: the veteran-for-prospects trade. Wandy Rodriguez yielded Robbie Grossman, Jarred Cosart brought them Jake Marisnick, and Bud Norris brought Josh Hader and L.J. Hoes. Some of the acquired players have worked out, some have not, and Hader was part of the package that landed Carlos Gomez at the trade deadline this year.
In fact, the worm has now turned, and it's the Astros who are now packaging youngsters to net veteran aid for their own playoff run. Now let's look at the exact same minor league talent/major league wins table we looked at earlier, this time for the Luhnow years:
That's right, it's now four straight for years at No. 1 in position-player talent, and their drop to No. 11 in starting pitching talent in 2015 is mostly due to their trade of Hader and Adrian Houser in the Gomez deal. Their amazing organizational depth has allowed them to move scads of talent at the deadline, and still have plenty left in the cupboard. In fact, at times it has been a challenge to protect all of their minor league talent on the 40-man roster. Such a crunch resulted in the loss of Delino DeShields to the Rangers in last year's Rule 5 draft. He didn't just stick with Texas; he's now their full-time center fielder.
Not to rain on the parade, but ...
Not everything has worked, and it hasn't exactly been an express train to the top for these Astros. They took Mark Appel over Kris Bryant in the 2013 draft. There was the whole Brady Aiken saga, the blown first overall pick and all the negative attention it brought the franchise. They also released one of the best draft picks of the Wade administration, 2009 20th-rounder J.D. Martinez, who has blossomed into a 30-homer hitter in Detroit.
The Astros' organization isn't exactly popular among many of its peers, either. Of course, there was the hacking scandal originated by members of Luhnow's previous employer, the Cardinals. While a good deal of the animosity directed toward the Astros is rooted in resistance to change and plain old jealousy, there a couple themes I've heard so often from my MLB contacts that there would seem to be at least some truth at the root: 1) That they are not a very scout-friendly organization; and 2) That they pinch pennies on baseball-operations personnel expenditures.
There also have been whispers that Luhnow and his group haven't always seen eye to eye with owner Jim Crane, and were under pressure to perform this year simply to secure the front office's viability. Honestly, just a week ago, it seemed that maybe the Astros had gotten "good" and raised expectations too high too soon, unloading a parcel of frontline talent at the deadline, potentially for naught. After playing poorly on the road all season, this young group had to buck up and win six of their final eight regular-season games, and four of six on the road, just to get to this point.
These Astros had a plan, utilized the new draft rules to their advantage, and, most of all, out-evaluated their competition time and time again through their own mix of traditional and cutting-edge methods, to produce one of the most notable worst-to-first stories in the history of major league sports. Even if their postseason run lasts only one game this time around, this bunch is going to be heard from in October quite frequently moving forward.