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More notes from Astros FanFest 2014: Panel with Jeff Luhnow, Bo Porter and Reid Ryan

One of our newest writers, Idrees Tily, transcribed the blogger panel with Houston's front office brain trust last weekend.

Scott Halleran

(Ed. note: Idrees was part of Houston's hosted blogger panel with Astros president Reid Ryan, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter. Here is a summary of that panel, complete with Idrees' thoughts)

I very much enjoyed the Q&A sessions, and walked away very impressed with all three gentlemen. Here my thoughts and impressions for each individual session:

Reid Ryan

He started out by discussing the Community Leaders' sign first. He said it was an "awkward situation", as the program itself is very worthy and valuable for the community, but the original placement of the sign blocked the train, and "the train is us, it is our slide in Milwaukee." Therefore they went back to the donors and they were all receptive to placing the signs elsewhere.

Next up was the roof. He said that they did a lot of research with the analytics team, which I found most intriguing. He said that they are already in the process of submitting a proposal to MLB. Some of the criteria he specifically mentioned was the roof would be open on nights with no chance of rain, where it is expected to be 88 degrees or less, would meet a wind threshold (did not give a specific wind speed). He suspected and estimated the roof to be open for 30-40 games, with additional times where the roof is open after the 6th inning.

Then he briefly discussed the TV situation. He said that the next February court hearing will basically provide 2 outcomes, each vastly different from the other. He said the judge can either throw the case out, and the Astros would have their rights back to negotiate with anyone, or the judge can decide to proceed with the bankruptcy, and all parties would have to go through that process.

Next up was Spring Training. He said that we can stay at Kissimmee until 2016. They've looked into other areas in Florida (one being close to Jim Crane's club), that 2-team facilities make a lot of sense (provide flexibility and opportunities to get more practice in), and that if staying in Florida doesn't seem plausible, they can always looking into Arizona. He said they have about a year to decide, so they will look into all possible options.

Then he delved into our offseason plan a little. He said that they looked for two types of free agents; either a guy that would be here long-term (i.e. Abreu and Tanaka), or stop-gap veterans (i.e. the bullpen pieces we added). He specifically mentioned Anthony Bass as a "quality reliever," so that probably puts to rest our speculation that he could be a rotation arm. He said that the Fowler trade was exciting. He also named Grossman to be in LF, which I found surprising, and after going through the lineup, said that the only questions that really remain is who will be playing 1B and RF.



Tal's Hill was next on the agenda. He said this is a very divisive issue, and they have actually polled the fans, and the results are just about 50/50. Regardless if they keep the hill or not, he does feel that the whole centerfield area is not fully utilized. There is "un-utilized real estate" in center that they can do some interesting things with. Personally I feel they will try and get additional seating there, which would provide premium seats with a great view.

Then the questions came. Ryan was asked about the Round Rock franchise, and he mentioned that it is currently owned by his family and the Sanders family. He finds "tremendous value in having the central Texas market," but at the same time, they are under contract with the Rangers for this season plus 4 more. Regarding if the Astros as an organization can do more to promote awareness about Bagwell and Biggio for the Hall of Fame vote, he said that there is a fine line between promoting players and turning off the voters.

They actually had that discussion internally already, and it was decided that making a push (like colleges do with the Heisman) was something that would do more harm than good, but he did talk to a couple of voters and campaign for Biggio. He also mentioned a desire to have an Astros museum, mentioned that they will close Larry's Big Bamboo, and that they will extend the fan shop (and allow entrance from the outside of the building).

Lastly, when asked about specific fan initiatives, he said that they are planning on trying to play a Corpus Christie Hooks game at Minute Maid Park, which will allow the fans to see the future Astros in action. With the success of our minor league teams and the amount of exciting talent we have playing throughout the system, I think they would be an absolutely welcome idea, and that there would be plenty of demand from the fans.

Bo Porter

Bo started off by discussing the offseason additions. He started out with the bullpen, and stated that they were able to add relievers that pitched in high-leverage situations. I found it interesting that he also mentioned Anthony Bass by name.

Then he discussed Scott Feldman, and said he liked the fact that he had tremendous success in the AL West. He said that adding Feldman also will help by not having all of the young starting pitchers feel like they have to be front-line starters already. He then mentioned the Fowler trade, and how he was exciting about adding a "3-way player." He also said that he will help at the leadoff role.

He then went on to mention that the top 3 of our lineup, with Fowler, Altuve, and Castro, can keep up with any top 3. That seems a bit optimistic to me, but I think it would make for a great post to compare our top 3 to the rest of the league. He then mentioned that he is excited about all of the young guys in the minors, who will add sustained success.

Then the questions came in for Bo. When asked who impressed him the most in the AFL, he answered with Jonathan Singleton, and also mentioned that he will compete for the starting 1B job in Spring Training. He was also asked about his take on instant replay. He said he was in favor of it, and getting calls right is for the betterment of the game. He also said that he thinks concerns regarding how long it will take are overblown.

He compared it to how close calls were usually dealt with, with a manager coming out to argue a close call, and then the other manager coming out to argue. When all said and done, it could be a 6-7 minute delay with just coaches arguing. He also said that he prefers to know that his team earned the win, and that it was not a result of a bad call. He wants to win, and know "as a man to a man," his team deserved it.

He was also asked about his take on platoons. He said that most coaches would prefer to have your set of 9 players (position players and DH) that you can write in the lineup everyday, but you also have to utilize your team as it is constructed the best, so sometimes a platoon situation is more advantageous.

Another good question was what he learned during his first year on the job, and how he will approach this upcoming second year differently than his first. He said there are two big differences going into this year. First, he knows his players a lot better. When he first joined, he was just evaluating everyone. He also mentioned that the biggest mistake a team can make is when they mis-evaluate their own players.


David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

He is also bringing a different attitude to the table. He provided an example where he might have felt in his heart to take a player out of a certain situation last year, but he wanted to see how they would fare, and even allowed them to fail. He wanted to see if they have that fortitude.

Although I am not certain, the next question was about players' on and off the field. I found it interesting that he really seemed to stress how his players conduct themselves off the field. He said he wants his players to be "whole" people, be good community leaders, be good husbands, and be good fathers, when applicable.

He also wanted all of his players to consider him the "solve-it" person. If they needed anything on or off the field, he wants them to come to him first. A follow-up question was asked if he had that kind of person when he was a player, and he said yes, as he was very fortunate to have great coaches around him when he was a player.

I then asked him about the prospects, and what intangibles he looks for that helps him determine that they are ready for the major leagues, some things that might not be reflected in a stat line. He said first and foremost that the skill-sets will stand out among the young guys, and he specifically mentioned Correa, Appel, and Folty.

He then says that he watches their work habits, for example how they approach batting practice. Lastly, he notices how they respond to failure. He said many guys do not experience real failure until they get to the big leagues, so it is important to him to see how they deal with that adversity, and if they respond to it well or not.

The final question he was asked related to other managers in the league. He said he would never talk down about another manager, and he said that you simply cannot compare managers, as they each have different player personnel and rosters. He said that if you give him a different roster, that he would be a different manager. He said that his job as a manager is to take the players he has, and put them in a position to maximize their potential and give them the best opportunity to succeed.

He also said that one of his big philosophies is that you do not have to necessarily be the best team in baseball every night, you just have to be better than the team you are playing that night. I understand the point he is making, and it does make complete sense, but I wonder if that truly is the best attitude you want from your players. Don't you want them to walk on the field every night and think they are the baddest team in baseball, and they could not care less about who they were playing, as they have the confidence that they can beat any team every night? I think a very interesting discussion can be made about his last quote.

Jeff Luhnow

Last up was Jeff Luhnow. He started off by explaining their approach to the offseason. He said that although the major league record fell short of their expectations, and ending the season on a 15 game losing streak left a bad taste in their mouth, the minor league system exceeded their goals. He said that as they have an incredible pipeline of young players joining the major league team soon, they were looking for ways to add wins to the big league team without sacrificing long-term success.

Obviously, they started with the bullpen. Before last season even ended, they ranked every single free agent reliever, and also considered how much each of them would roughly cost. Although they did not get all of the guys they targeted, they were able to sign three of them (Qualls, Albers, and Crain).

He said they realistically were hoping for one or two of them, but were very happy to sign three of them. He also mentioned that he believe the under-the-radar guys like Peter Moylan, Raul Valdez, and Anthony Bass provide nice depth for the bullpen. Although they might not necessarily make the team out of Spring Training, it is nice to have these guys ready at AAA in case the bullpen needs their services.


David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Then he discussed the starting rotation, and how there are legitimately 8 or 9 guys that are competing for a scarce number of spots. Although he mentioned Wojo, Clemens, Peacock, and Harrell, it did mention that they were happy to sign Feldman so he could be a mentor for Cost, Obie, and Kuechel.

There is probably nothing to the way he listed the players, but I personally took it that Cosart, Obie, and Kuechel certainly have a leg up on the competition to make the rotation. Probably more speculation on my part than anything, but that is how I interpreted that exchange.

(Luhnow) also mentioned Raul Valdez who really dominated as a left-handed starter to finish the year last year. He actually mentioned him as a sleeper of possibly making the MLB team this year in some capacity. He also stated that the tandem duo of Rudy Owens and Valdez was dominating last year.

Onto the offense, he mentioned that strikeouts were a problem for us last year, so adding Fowler made a lot of sense. As I have read previously, he said that he let the Rockies know before the end of the season that Fowler was a guy they would want from their roster, and that he did not know if they were looking to trade Fowler or not, but if they decide to do so, to let him know. He said they called back a few weeks later, and obviously they were able to work out a deal.

Then he mentioned the 1B situation a little, and how they tried adding Abreu. Very interestingly, he said that they have their own way to value what a player is worth to the Houston Astros. He said he really does not care how much the Yankees value them. He said they fell a little short with Abreu, a little bit more with Tanaka, with a chuckle. At 1B, he feels like Guzman will be a sleeper.

He said that Tony D recommended both he and Petit. He also said that Altuve was very complimentary of Petit, even stating that Petit is the best defensive SS that he has seen. Although Luhnow sees Villar being the SS for the Astros for a long time, he said it is always good to bring in good competition, as they have added Izturis and Petit.

He also mentioned that although they are not out of resources, they have to determine how much better a pitcher they sign might be over Kuechel and Peacock. He did not say it, but obviously if the increase is merely incremental, then it would not be worth using those resources on. With that comment plus my speculation above, it looks like, before Spring Training starts, Feldman, Cosart, Obie, Kuechel, and Peacock are the early favorites for the rotation come Opening Day.

A question I had for him is if the scouting and analyzing these big international free agents come with additional risk, and how they try to mitigate those risks. He answered that yes, it does come with additional challenges, but they have an incredible analytics team that prepares a risk profile for the player.

He said that although they were not able to get to the finish line with either Abreu or Tanaka, he learned a lot about the Cuban and Japanese market. He said that they need to be much more aggressive in scouting internationally, For example, the Yankees had a scout watch every Tanaka start for the last two years.

He did say that the players and agents both came away with their meetings with the Astros, and thinks that that will help with potential future free agents. He also mentioned that they seek variability. For example, you know what you are getting from Scott Feldman. He has been consistent and consistently good, but you are not expecting him to give you a Clayton Kershaw-like season. With a guy like Tanaka, there is much more volatility there, so there is a chance for a greater-than expected outcome for him, and perhaps he could come close to elite performance. So that aspect of uncertainty is valuable.

Asked about sleepers, he said that he though that Feliz was a sleeper, before Baseball America rated him so highly. He also mentioned Raul Valdez who really dominated as a left-handed starter to finish the year last year. He actually mentioned him as a sleeper of possibly making the MLB team this year in some capacity. He also stated that the tandem duo of Rudy Owens and Valdez was dominating last year.

He also mentioned Leo Heras. Piggy-backing off of the Owens/Valdez tandem duo last year, the next question was about the tandem pitching strategy, and if we might even see it employed at the major league level. He said that we will not see it in the big leagues, as that is a huge deviation from tradition, and that would probably not go over too well. He then said they were very happy with how the tandem pitching went last year, and will probably see more of that at the minor league level.

He said that there are two main criticisms of the tandem pitching. One, a pitcher in a tandem duo might not be able to pitch more than 80 pitches when he leaves the tandem strategy. He said that the young pitchers were able to disprove that as they had no trouble going deeper into games late in the year. Secondly, a criticism is that this does not allow a pitcher to work on his pitchers in extended bullpen sessions between their starts. Luhnow believes that there is more value in a pitcher trying his change-up in-game as opposed to in a bullpen session. In-game work provides real-time feedback, and is a better learning experience for the pitcher.

He specifically mentioned that Jake Buchanan was another success story of tandem pitching. Another benefit of it was that the minor league pitcher seemed to stay a lot more healthy. He said he does not have any data that supports this claim, and it could all just be simple luck, but he does feel like tandem pitching keep the starters healthy. I also found it interesting that he named the elite arms as Velasquez, McCullers, and Folty. I am sure that it was not an all-inclusive list he named, but I still find it interesting nonetheless.