A Win-Later Franchise Makes History
How the Astros built a winner by tolerating losses.
The Houston Astros have been in existence since 1962. They’ve accomplished many things, but they had never won a World Series — not even a World Series game — until the epic 2017 season in which they toppled the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games.
For their long-suffering fans, all season long, this didn’t just feel like a great year — it felt like the year.
Which makes it particularly notable that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow doesn’t believe in win-now imperatives in baseball.
“When we talk about winning we talk about being competitive for division titles, and having a chance to win the championship for over a period of multiple years,” Luhnow said in a phone interview last month. “We’re not talking about going all-in any one year. We can’t afford to do that for two reasons. One is we don’t have the resources, that some of the teams with bigger markets and more revenue do. And we can’t buy ourselves out of a prospects hole, if we don’t have prospects. And the second thing is that the way Major League Baseball rules are now to promote competitive balance, you are limited in how quickly, and how much resources you can put into the future in draft and international markets.”
Still, the Astros have altered their trajectory, through deliberate changes from Luhnow, several times since he took the helm as general manager following the 2011 season.
Even this flexibility required a change in approach for him relative to the work he put in at his previous and only other professional baseball stop, as an executive with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Back in 2002, Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., believed his successful team needed to change ahead of the curve in Major League Baseball, and brought in Luhnow to modernize the team’s efforts in areas like statistical analysis.
Over nearly a decade that followed, Luhnow did that in a number of ways, serving as a critical builder of a team that won both the 2006 and 2011 World Series. But what remained constant in St. Louis were the expectations.
“I’d lived in an environment where going to playoffs was expected every year,” Luhnow said. “And we did everything we can to continue that pipeline. But then I came to an environment where not losing 100 games was considered a huge victory.”
Even that victory proved elusive for Luhnow’s Astros — following a 56–106 campaign the season before he arrived with a 55–107 mark in 2012, and 51–111 in 2013 — in part by design, shedding any talent marked present for potential future gains both by doing the shedding and the draft picks that come along with such futility. By 2014, the consolidation of that young talent manifested itself in a more respectable 70–92 mark. At that point, Luhnow understood that not only were things turning around, but he would have to move fast to maximize what he’d built.
“We finally accomplished that in 2014,” he said. “Our top prospect, [outfielder George] Springer, came up. Our next top prospect, [infielder Carlos] Correa, was on his way, and clearly looking like he might make it the next year. So I think that there’s an art and a science to these rebuilds — and you don’t want to waste too many years with your top guys in their early years.”
Luhnow benefited from what he also pointed out are some surprise outcomes, ones necessary for a successful baseball team. Dallas Keuchel, a soft-tossing lefty, turned into an unexpected Cy Young Award winner. And Jose Altuve, the smallest superstar in baseball since Yogi Berra, developed first into a major league regular, and eventually, into one of the most valuable players in the game.
“This player is one of the more unique players I think I’ve ever been around and observed,” Luhnow said of Altuve. “He wasn’t expected to go through the minors at the rate that he did. He wasn’t expected to continue to perform. He jumped from Double-A to the big leagues, and came in, hit the ground running. The first year I had him in 2012, he had a good year, but he was establishing himself as a big leaguer. But there still was no indication that this was an MVP-caliber player. The second year he got off to a mediocre start. And everybody thought maybe, or a lot of people thought maybe, the first year was a positive aberration, and that this second year performance was more like the player we’re likely to see.”
But instead of writing off his rookie season, Luhnow signed Altuve to a long-term extension in the summer of 2013. The deal gave Altuve $12 million over four years, a $6 million option in year five, and a $6.5 million option in year six. Both were club options, too. It is hard to think of a better bargain any team has gotten out of a long-term deal, with surplus value particularly important for an Astros team that doesn’t compete at the upper levels of MLB payrolls.
Just how much extra value are we talking about here? Fangraphs has a value estimator for individual players. It rates Altuve’s 2014 alone as worth $38.4 million. His 2015? $36.7 million. Then he posted a $54.1 million in 2016 and $60.1 million in 2017. So: a lot.
“We did think there was a chance that he was going to continue to improve because he was so young and early in his career,” Luhnow said of Altuve, just 23 when he signed the extension. “And such a hard worker and so diligent. But really what we were buying with that extension is expectation, that he was going to continue to be the player that he was his first year, and the big first half of the second year. Which is a good player, and a regular player. And it was worth us getting cost certainty in exchange for some security. But by no means did we envision him not only getting better every year, but reaching the level he is currently at, which is one of the top three or four players in the entire industry.”
But armed with this core, Luhnow finally shifted into a more present-based outlook. He traded prospects for Evan Gattis, a hitter ready to perform immediately, providing power from the catcher, corner outfield and designated hitter spots. He signed relievers like Luke Gregorson and Pat Neshek, built a team that internally, the Astros viewed as a true-talent .500 team, then watched the group exceed those expectations. A great start led to midseason trades for pitcher Scott Kazmir and outfielder Carlos Gomez. The future was, in some ways, upon the Astros.
They finished 86–76, won a Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium and nearly beat the eventual champion Kansas City Royals in the American League Division Series.
“I think the psychology of a team that gets off to a good start, it’s completely different from the psychology of a team who peaks towards the end, or has a big winning streak in the middle,” Luhnow said. “And were able to at that point, build the confidence both in our players, our staff, and our front office, that this team was better than a .500 team.”
Even so, Luhnow pointed out the downside of exceeding those hopes in a given year — again, within the framework of trying to create a sustained period of excellence, rather than simply going broke to try to win a World Series.
“At the end of the day we ended up with I think 86 wins, which is only five games above .500. But we weren’t that far off from what we thought we were going to be. And yet by performing so well early in the season, it built confidence, and it did propel not only our team, but our fans to start to come back to the games.”
Attendance rose steadily, from 1.75 million in 2014 to 2.15 million in 2015, 2.31 million in 2016 and 2.4 million in 2017. And yet the 2016 Astros performed similarly to their immediate predecessors, finishing 84–78, this time missing the playoffs.
Luhnow was selectively aggressive last winter, trading for catcher Brian McCann, signing DH Carlos Beltran. But the former was available for relatively little because the Astros picked up a large part of his salary (and the Yankees had a replacement in Gary Sanchez at catcher), while Beltran, once a star, is near the end of his career. Josh Reddick joined on a four-year deal, and Yuli Gurriel, the Cuban import, had signed back in August. But for Luhnow it required another leap of faith, that his young core, with additions graduating from the farm system like infielder Alex Bregman and pitcher Joe Musgrove, would combine with the already-established young stars to turn the Astros into a super team.
And so it came to pass once again: the Astros reached their goal of legitimate supremacy. 101 wins, a walk to the American League Western Division title. Sustained supremacy looms for this team. Luhnow knows that is the only real goal any general manager can attain — the magic of those final few wins is simply too subject to the whims of the small sample.
“It’s an interesting question, whether or not you can create for example a dynasty, or a team that going into the playoffs has a well above average chance of performing in the playoffs,” Luhnow said. “The math reveals a lot. If you assume that all teams going into the playoffs have equal talent, and the outcome is just flipping a coin, then everybody’s going to have a 12 and a half percent chance of winning the whole thing, if you spread it out across the teams.
“It’s how healthy you are, and how well you’re playing, and what your players are doing, and what your roster looks like on October 3. But let’s say you do everything you can to maximize your chances, and you get to pick the 25 best players in the big leagues to be on one team — you’re still not going to have a 90 percent chance of winning the World Series. You’re still going to have more chance of not winning than winning regardless of how good your team is.
“Because you roll the dice, and you don’t get the outcome you want, you’ve got to be prepared to go back at it next year, and the year after that. And if you give everything to go from 15 percent to 20 percent chance of winning, and you don’t achieve it you still have an 80 percent chance of not winning. You have to be prepared for the next year. You don’t want to go into next year with a 1 percent chance. You want to go into next year with better than that.”
Luhnow did end up going big with one final win-now move. But even then, it was a deal for now and later.
Just before the trade deadline on August 31 — really, with two seconds to spare — Luhnow acquired starting pitcher Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers for a trio of minor league prospects, Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez and Jake Rogers. A year earlier, Luhnow saw his Astros suffer from a lack of frontline starting pitching down the stretch due to injuries. This looked to him like his best way of moving the unforgiving postseason odds in his favor in the small way he could.
“This was an opportunity for us to capitalize on the situation that we’re in,” Luhnow said. “Having a team that was almost assured of a division title. A need that we had. Another guy that could help us at the top of the rotation in meaningful postseason games. Matched with resources, that we had been creating for the past five years in terms of both financial flexibility to take on a contract like that as well as prospects, that inventory to make a deal like that happen.”
Verlander pitched to a 1.06 ERA in his five regular season starts with the Astros. He won two games in the ALDS victory over Boston, the second coming in relief. He pitched what is almost certainly the greatest game in Astros postseason history in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Yankees — complete game, 13 strikeouts — and followed that with seven shutout innings in Game 6 of the ALCS, his Astros facing elimination.
Wednesday night, he pitched another six stellar innings in Los Angeles, ultimately drawing a no-decision, but fundamentally figuring in the first World Series victory in Houston Astros history, before pitching well again in Game 6.
And this is where it is important to separate Jeff Luhnow the baseball visionary, who understands how hard it is to win a World Series with even the best team, from Jeff Luhnow the baseball man, who so desperately wants to win one. His place in baseball history is already assured due to the way he altered the history of the Cardinals and, by influence, the game as a whole.
“The goal is to win a championship, no question,” Luhnow said. “But that goal is so difficult to accomplish. You can do everything correct over a period of a decade, and still not accomplish it. And you have to keep that in mind.”
“We’re going to continue to try and build a team that’s going to be competitive over the long haul,” he said. “But we’ll see what happens. And we’re realistic, but at the same time we are competitive and we want to win, and ultimately that’s the most satisfying thing in our industry, in any sports industry — is to win. And all lift the trophy at the end.”