MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Astros' Luhnow continues to stockpile talent

Astros' Luhnow continues to stockpile talent

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow may one day look back and see this as the most fulfilling time he had in baseball. Once he gets the Astros back in contention, that'll be plenty rewarding, too. When that happens, though, there'll be expectations and pressures he hasn't had before. Rather than simply collecting talent, he'll have to shape a roster, manage a payroll and navigate his way through countless other issues.

His job now is unlike any in baseball, one almost every baseball executive has dreamed of having. First, he is attempting to build a great baseball operation. That is, to hire talented people up and down the chain, from scouts and instructors to new-age analysts.

And his job is to collect as much young, inexpensive talent as he can get his hands on. In 14 months on the job, he has made every player on his roster available, asking only for talent and youth in return.

If you've followed the Astros for a few years, you understand what a dramatic change in thinking this is. After making the playoffs six times in a nine-year stretch that ended with the 2005 National League pennant, the Astros tried for years to put together one more run by collecting big-ticket free agents and aging veterans.

Free agency is addictive. A team convinces itself it needs just one more player to contend, and then when that doesn't work out, it adds two more the next year and three more the year after that.

Finally, it all comes crashing down. One day, the Astros looked up and they were an old team, and a really bad one. That's the price every franchise pays when there's a decline in player development, which the Astros had.

No team can contend without a productive farm system. That's true of the Angels and Yankees and Red Sox, and it's especially true for middle-of-the-pack revenue teams like the Astros.

When Jim Crane bought the Astros 15 months ago, he said there'd be no more patching a roster together. Rather, he wanted to build something lasting. In return, he was prepared for some short-term pain.

He hired Luhnow, in part, because of the terrific work he'd done in constructing a first-rate farm system with the Cardinals. One of the highlights of Luhnow's rookie season as general manager was standing near the visitor's dugout at Minute Maid Park before a Cardinals-Astros game and watch a string of his Draft picks -- Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Lance Lynn -- stop by and thank him for the opportunity.

Luhnow's remake of the Astros is flying down the road at 200 mph. He has hired an assortment of new personnel at every level, including manager Bo Porter. In doing so, he has focused on men and women who can give him access to the newest and best data.

Rather than spend his money on Major League talent, Luhnow has poured it into Draft picks and scouts and instructors. This June, the Astros will have the No. 1 pick in the First-Year Player Draft for the second straight year. Luhnow's first pick in 2012 was 6-foot-4 shortstop Carlos Correa, who was all of 17 years old at the time.

Luhnow knows that these two picks will help define his legacy with the Astros, and he's fine with that. Also -- thanks to the patience and vision of Crane -- the Astros are willing to accept some tough times at the Major League level.

There has been progress. During four years on the job, Lunow's predecessor, Ed Wade, elevated the Astros from near the bottom to the middle of the pack in farm-system rankings. And MLB.com's Prospect Watch had five Astros farmhands among the top 77 in baseball.

The Astros now have some kids who could be fast-tracked to the Major Leagues, especially infielder Delino DeShields Jr., outfielder George Springer and pitchers Ross Seaton and Jarred Cosart.

And that's what Monday's trade of veteran infielder Jed Lowrie was all about. He'll make an immediate difference for the A's, who are in a win-now mode. He's also 28 years old and two years from free agency, so it made sense for the Astros to deal him for players who can contribute beyond that two-year window.

Luhnow acquired him with right-hander Kyle Weiland from the Red Sox for reliever Mark Melancon a year ago. Now he has flipped him to Oakland for right-hander Brad Peacock, catcher Max Stassi and first baseman Chris Carter.

So for Melancon, a player he inherited, Luhnow acquired two of the A's top 11 prospects and a 26-year-old in Carter, who hit 16 homers in 67 games as a rookie in 2012. In other words, the Astros gained talent and depth. Luhnow's work has not gone unnoticed. Last fall at the General Managers Meeting when someone joked about the A's getting some easy victories against the Astros in the American League West, Billy Beane stopped the conversation.

"They're getting better, and quickly," the A's general manager said. "They've hired some very good people."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.