On Saturday, as the result of an invitation from the club, I attended Fan Fest, along with thousands of you. Idrees, Terri, Ryan and I were given an opportunity to question the Big 3, along with a group of about 20 bloggers covering the Astros. My initial impressions were, it is flattering and impressive that the club would pay attention to a group of unpaid guys and gals who love the team and write about it on their own time, out of passion and love for the game and the team. But THEN!
Ryan and Porter went first, I will cover their comments in a minute. But first, let me tell you what Luhnow did, which shows in a way why he is so successful at everything he does in life. Instead of opening it up for questions, Jeff flipped the script. He opened by asking US who we were, and who we wrote for. One at a time around the room. He then said: "You probably know this, but we are familiar with most of your work. We read you regularly, and believe it or not, the things you have written have actually moved us along in our thoughts from time to time."
When Idrees introduced himself, Jeff asked what he liked to write about. Idrees told him he was interested in the business aspect of baseball and Jeff told him that not many, outside of Forbes, were doing that kind of work, and he looked forward to reading his stuff.!
So, TCB'ers, if you wondered whether the club knew of our existence, and read what we had to say, be assured that they are, and they do. We all knew Mike Fast reads us, because he comments fairly regularly on our site. But now we have actual evidence that the Astros organization is paying attention. So, when you write that fanpost, or that comment, be aware that the heads of the industry are reading!
Now, to cover the nuts and bolts. Reid Ryan was first. Reid makes everyone feel at ease, like he's your buddy who looks forward to seeing you. He's comfortable in his own skin, and makes everyone around him comfortable as well.
Reid talked first about how they are listening to the fan base, and the first evidence of that was the removal of the signs in left field. We complained, they listened, went to the community partners and they all agreed to move the signs. As simple as that! They will be opening the roof more, both before games and after the 6th inning. He anticipates the roof being open for at least parts of 30-40 games a year.
Nothing new on the TV front. Next hearing is on Feb.4, at which time the Judge is expected to hear final testimony and final arguments, followed shortly by a ruling. Will the Court set aside the Bankruptcy and allow the Astros to cut their own deal? Stay tuned.
Spring training: The Astros have a lease in Kissimmee until 2016. As you know, Crane has been looking at Palm Beach, and they are also looking at Arizona. They would like to be closer to more teams, obviously. Florida has money available for teams, and I gathered that Florida is still the preferred option.
Bullpen: Fixing the bullpen was a high priority. Reid mentioned Feldman as someone who was signed for the rotation, but could even operate out of the pen if needed. He also mentioned Anthony Bass as a quality reliever, someone both Porter and Luhnow discussed as well. It's clear they have high hopes for Bass.
He talked about Fowler as the leadoff guy who can play Center or right (when Springer comes up?), and mentioned Hoes and Grossman as being in the mix. Nothing surprising there. First base and right field are where jobs can be won in Spring Training. With Feldman, Obey, Cosart and Peacock looking like locks for the starting rotation, there is 1 job to be won there as well.
I asked Reid about Tal's Hill. He said they have not made a long term decision on that as of yet. it polls about 50/50 with fans. They believe center field is under utilized, and there is a redesign of center in the works, possibly including an Astros Hall of Fame or museum of some sort. To be determined.
Minors: OKC is up for sale. All options are on the table including Round Rock and the Woodlands. I suspect OKC is not in the long term Astros future. Ryan said the most desirable league to be in right now is the Carolina League. California presents challenges with weather and travel. It's hard to get guys in and out of Lancaster, although he did NOT say they were looking to move out of Lancaster. They are thrilled with the Astros love they get in Corpus.
Ballpark changes: Larry's Big Bamboo is gone. They will be expanding the store into that area with a desire to build an Astros museum somewhere on site. Concessions changes are coming (no more sno-cones?). We will see more local chefs like Brian Criswell, more local sourcing of food, and more craft beers (YEA!). They intend to add unique but still baseball related type foods. There will be more of what Ryan called "In game entertainment", more info about players. I gathered the promotional stuff will be phased out in the last 3 innings to focus on building the crowd's involvement in the actual game as we enter the 7th, 8th and 9th.
Ryan was asked about how the Astros intend to promote the HOF campaigns of Biggio and Bagwell. He said they THOUGHT about sending about "Heisman type promotional package", but decided it was too "over the top". Ryan did a lot of 1 on 1 with voters, and will continue to do so.
Next up was skipper Bo Porter. First impression: this guy is a leader of men! Impressive, confident, in charge. I came away thinking this guy is going to be a success here and wherever else life takes him. A perfect fit for a young team, IMO.
He talked about Feldman as a FOR mentor for the younger guys. His presence should take some pressure off of Cosart and Oberholtzer. Fowler is a guy he really likes, entering the prime of his career. He will be the leadoff hitter opening day. The success of the minors bodes well for the organization and the next wave is on the way. He was happy to see Jon Singleton perform well in winter, he needed the AB's to make up for those lost at the beginning of the year. He's in favor of replay, and thinks it may HELP with the pace of the game. Manager arguing will continue though, as he often is out there to protect his team.
I asked Bo about platoons. He would prefer to put 9 everyday players out on the field as much as possible, but will platoon to put the best bats in the lineup. The main difference between this year and last year for Porter is that he knows our players. The worst thing an organization can do is mis-evaluate their own talent. Porter admitted that at times last year, he left struggling players out on the field, in situations where he would otherwise be inclined to remove them, in order to see how they dealt with adversity. "You have to allow them to fail", he said, "in order to measure their fortitude".
Finally, we heard from "In Luhnow we trust". Takes charge of the room. If he's not the smartest guy in the room, he's close, and he surrounds himself with people whom he listens to. Jeff acknowledged they fell short of W-L goals in 2013, but exceeded goals in the area of minors development. Astros have "an incredible pipeline coming". In 2014, they intend to "turn up the dial". Developing a strategy of long term development. They emphasized fixing the bullpen, knowing it was too much asking the rookies to take on the load they had to take last year, especially after Veres was traded. Lo, Zeid and Fields have great futures, but they were over-matched last July and August. Trading Veres was tough on the kids. The Astros identified 6 or 7 relievers they wanted to go after, even before the season was over, and ended up signing 3 of the guys on their list. Jesse Crain MAY not be available April 1st, but Jeff expects him to pitch the "vast majority" of the season. He mentioned Peter Moyland, Anthony Bass and Raul Valdes as guys that may or may not begin the season here, but are valuable insurance if assigned to AAA. There are 8 or 9 guys in contention for the rotation. Feldman was not their FIRST choice this offseason, but was high on the list. They want to see the club cut way back on K's, Dexter Fowler is part of that equation.
I came away with the impression they were very close on Abreu, obviously not as close on Tanaka. Jeff mentioned that Abreu didn't even know where Houston was! Getting the franchise and what it has to offer out there in front of potential free agents is important. Luhnow wanted to make it CLEAR: They were not in the Tanaka sweepstakes for PR, they wanted the player. They were north of 100 mill, but "at some point, the value to our organization maxed out, going further would have damaged the core strategy". He said he thought both agents were impressed by the Astros presentation. The Astros, in turn, learned a lot about presentation and negotiation with the Cuban and Japanese marketplace. The Astros intend to be more aggressive in scouting those areas. The Yankees, for example, had a scout at everyone of Tanaka's starts last year. Luhnow and Kevin Goldstein are going to Japan in May to set up Astros scouting there. We are a little late to the dance, but better late than never (my thoughts, not Jeff's).
Players to watch: Jeff mentioned that Tony D. managed Jesus Guzman in Venezuela, and recommended him. Altuve told the organization about Gregorio Petit, said he was the best defensive SS down there. Jon Villar gets the first shot at SS this year, but competition is waiting in the wings.
Jeff was asked about players in our organization that are flying under the radar. He mentioned Michael Feliz, Andrew Aplin,(a TCB favorite BTW) Nolan Fontana and Luis Cruz specifically. Raul Valdes DOMINATED in winter league ball. Big time sleeper. Rudy Owens and Valdes were among the best news to come out of winter ball.
Finally, I asked Jeff about tandem pitching and what we might see this year. He thinks pitchers stayed healthier because of it. It allowed them to see more guys throw more pitches, and it allows guys to work on stuff IN GAME as opposed to in a bullpen session. Jeff mentioned Jake Buchanan as a guy who got a chance to show what he could do, when he otherwise wouldn't have got one. He thinks it was successful, and we should expect to see more of it at both AA and AAA this year.
All in all, it was an incredible experience. We have some very sharp, very impressive people running this organization, success can't be far behind.