The Cubs’ complete teardown and rebuild began all the way back in 2011 with the hire of Theo Epstein and the first steps weren’t taken until 2012. Five years later, the Cubs are the class of the MLB.
But another general manager was starting his quest in 2011 with his first full season five years ago — the Houston Astros’ Jeff Luhnow. The only difference is Luhnow had a vastly more barren major league roster, a threadbare minor league system and less monetary resources to cover up holes in the system.
The prompt across SB Nation Baseball sites was to preview the upcoming season today while considering the changing face of MLB over the past five years. This fits perfectly with the Astros. The plan made by Luhnow and the front office, dubbed “The Process,” has created one of the largest windows for success in baseball — so much so, Sports Illustrated tapped the Astros as the 2017 World Series Champions after they lost 100-plus games for three straight seasons.
To see how far the Astros have come, we must return to the 2012 opening day roster. There are some recognizable names like Jason Castro, Carlos Lee, Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, and Wandy Rodriguez. Half of these players would be gone by season's end while the others like Altuve and Gonzalez would become the backbone of the work ethic on the Astros. But then there were players like Jordan Schafer, Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez (ignore that one), and Chris Johnson. The Astros started three players in 2012 that have a career WAR of -3.5.
The Astros sold off any player of value in 2012, committing to the future and becoming a science project. Houston tested to see what they could get out of castoffs and young bucks like Justin Maxwell, Chris Snyder, Brett Wallace, Fernando Martínez, Tyler Greene, Scott Moore, Fernando Rodriguez, Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris. Some of those names became legendary among the Astros fans who suffered through the early 2010’s but those same names wouldn’t make an impact on a major roster — minus J.D. Martinez.
It was Altuve that became the face of the changing Astros. The 5’5” second baseman looked out of place on the baseball diamond; he looked like a rec league player that wandered into the wrong place. Altuve’s effort made up for what he lacked in height and made him the first building block for the Astros turnaround.
2012 is also the year that the Astros committed to a skinny 18-year-old kid out of Puerto Rico Baseball Academy named Carlos Correa, and followed that up by drafting a young 18-year-old fireballer out of Florida with baseball in his blood named Lance McCullers.
Luhnow’s first two picks would make a world of difference in 2015 when the team made its first major jump. We’ll get to that.
So much of the changes that have happened for the Astros have happened in the minor leagues. It was a slow process with many fans wanting to stomp on the gas and see players up early (Does anyone remember HavetheAstroscalledupGeorgeSpringer.com?). But the Astros made sure the players were ready for long term.
Now, the core of the team has been built by the draft or manufactured by the draft. Eighteen of the current members of the Astros’ 40-man roster were either drafted or signed by the club. Eleven of the 40 players came by trade, 10 of which came before the 2016 season. Five players were waiver claims and six were free agent signees.
The current Mount Rushmore of the Astros (Altuve and Dallas Keuchel) added two more faces through the draft with Correa and McCullers.
The final push
The Astros made a surprise visit to the playoffs in 2015 with the injection of talent from Correa and McCullers. But the team backslid in 2016, thus the focus turned to finding the final pieces for a playoff push — the final phase of the Astros changing face under Luhnow.
The Astros had transitioned from dumpster fire into a promising team and finally, a contender. They went out and found players to improve the depth of the roster. In walked a few old faces from the Astros past: AL West foe Josh Reddick, former Braves and Yankees playoff foe Brian McCann (who hit a big postseason home run off Roger Clemens a decade earlier), and the one that got away, Carlos Beltran.
The Astros spent the past five years attempting to find diamonds in the rough and mold young prospects into superstars. Now it was time to play with the big boys.
Over the past five years, Jeff Luhnow has crafted the Astros into one of the best major league rosters and minor league systems in baseball. They have three players that could easily be a face of the Astros or the MLB for that matter with Altuve, Correa, and Alex Bregman.
It’s now time for the Astros to show they are the new face of MLB by hoising a World Series trophy and proving Sports Illustrated’s prediction correct.