Let's take a quick break from breaking down every bit of minor league news during Prospect Season. Today, I'd like to talk about how young the Astros are.
Nope, not referring to the major league roster. I'm talking about the front office.
One of the quotes that Jeff Luhnow gave after the Astros fell short in pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka crystallized something for me. For all our gushing over how wonderful this sabermetrically-inclined, whip-smart front office is, we neglect to see how inexperienced they might be in some areas. For instance:
"The point of the meeting was to expose (Tanaka) to the Astros and convince him," Luhnow said. "It was a good learning experience. Hopefully next time we'll get across the finish line because we want the best players in Houston."
The emphasis there is mine. It follows up quotes from him from around the winter meetings, where he alluded to meeting with agents and sort of being more visible on the market. Since the Astros haven't really chased any big-time free agents on his watch, it was maybe his team's first interaction with some of these agents.
What compounded this issue was that Luhnow came from a scouting/development background. He wasn't in the Cardinals front office, meeting with agents and negotiating contracts. He was on the farm, scouting guys for the draft and building a working, productive system.
Most of the time, when a young GM gets the reigns of the team, he's paired with a more experienced hand. Billy Beane still had Sandy Alderson around as a guiding force, to lend gravitas to the A's front office. Theo Epstein had Mike Port, who'd been around for a couple decades by 2003. J.P. Ricciarini had Bobby Mattick, who'd been around about as long as Port. Andrew Friedman had Gerry Hunsicker.
Who did Jeff Luhnow have? By choice, the Astros grabbed a young, hungry front office. David Gottfried was the only real holdover, and he didn't have an extensive history in the game. David Stearns was absolutely a great hire as Assistant GM, but he too has little experience in the game. Ditto Mike Elias.
When Ed Wade was GM, we speculated that he needed a designated trade coordinator. Wade had skills, like plucking relievers out of nowhere, making great waiver wire grabs and developing certain players. However, he got reamed in most of his trades, going back to his days with the Phillies. For every Roy Oswalt caper, there was the Michael Bourn disaster.
The Astros had talent. They had drive. They had smarts. They just didn't have the reputation. Instead of a trade coordinator, they needed a reputation giver.
That's what has to be learned, nay earned. I believe there's a learning curve for any first-time GM, but especially when it comes to free agency. Look at Epstein's tenure in Boston. His first major strikes came via trade, not by free agency. Ditto Friedman, who doesn't have the money to play the big-ticket free agent game.
Luhnow straddles that line. He's made plenty of impact trades, but that's working less with agents and more with other baseball types. He's created a name for himself among the baseball cognoscenti as a smart dude in charge of a smart front office, but how much of that leaks out to agents.
How many of them know more about what the Astros are doing than through third-party sources, like ESPN or Baseball Prospectus or the like?
Maybe this winter wasn't about signing Masahiro Tanaka or Robinson Cano. Maybe it was about the Astros navigating the free agent market and establishing their bonafides. We argued last week about why the Astros would leak information about coming in second to the White Sox on Jose Abreu or being a "finalist" on Tanaka, but maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe those leaks weren't aimed at fans.
Maybe they were aimed at agents and the players themselves. This young front office needs to make its mark. It needs to establish its presence with authority. But, that won't magically appear overnight. It has to come gradually, close calls and all.