Astros stockpile talented arms in farm system
GM Luhnow drafted, dealt for prospects preparing to make jump to Majors
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros have been at the forefront of utilizing statistical data since general manager Jeff Luhnow was hired 26 months ago, and they recently spent more than $300,000 upgrading the club's video equipment for advance scouting.
They've tried to take whatever steps necessary to give them a competitive edge as they continue to rebuild the Major League club, but no matter how many numbers you crunch or high-definition cameras you install, the game still usually comes down to one thing: pitching.
The Astros have tried to make sure they have enough of that, too, stockpiling arms through the First-Year Player Draft and trades in the past two years. The team has built what's considered the best Minor League system in baseball, thanks in part to an impressive influx of young arms.
"You've got to score some runs, but you've got to prevent runs," Luhnow said. "They're both equally important, but because pitchers tend to get hurt more often than position players, you have to have more of them."
Last year, the Astros saw 10 pitchers make their Major League debuts, including Jarred Cosart, Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, David Martinez, Jose Cisnero, Paul Clemens and Chia-Jen Lo. In camp this year are several players who could reach the Majors at some point, led by prospects such as Mike Foltynewicz and Asher Wojciechowski.
It's an impressive mix of young talent manager Bo Porter hopes continues to grow.
"We all know it starts and ends on the mound," Porter said. "You look at the young players we have coming, and obviously they are extremely exciting players. The additions which we were able to make to go with the core groups we had returning last year gives us depth."
With veteran pitching coach Brent Strom, pitching coordinator Dyar Miller, roving pitching instructor Doug White and senior pitching advisor Doug Brocail providing guidance, the Astros' young pitchers have also already heard from Roger Clemens this year. Nolan Ryan will drop by, too.
"I think they're taking the kid gloves off them a little bit and asking a lot of them to step up," Clemens said. "I hope they pay attention to detail and I hope they pay attention when they're not pitching, watching what's happening to a hitter they have trouble with or how they want to break that hitter down. That's all part of the learning process, but good Lord, you're a Major League player and you should already have that in your routine and your makeup and how you carry yourself."
The pitching depth runs so deep, the Astros plan to again use tandem starters in the Minor Leagues to give more pitchers more innings. By having two starting pitchers work in the same game, it gives eight starters at each level and 10 in rookie ball a chance to work on a third pitch or stamina or anything else.
Some of the pitchers are ultimately going to be moved to the bullpen, but the Astros want to give them as long of a look as possible as starters, and the tandem starting arrangement allows them to do that.
"Whatever they're working on, they get a chance to work on it," Luhnow said. "Ultimately, not everybody can start, so you do need some guys to go into the bullpen. It also allows you to build up more innings with them so when they do transition over the bullpen, they've got the amount of innings in the Minor Leagues they need."
Since taking over as general manager in December 2011, Luhnow has acquired 21 pitchers in 13 different trades, including Wojciechowski, Rudy Owens, Alex White, Brad Peacock and Anthony Bass, all of whom are in big league camp this year. Other names, such as Joe Musgrove, David Rollins, Blair Walters, Colton Cain and Josh Hader, aren't quite well as known.
The Astros took 24 pitchers in last year's First-Year Player Draft, including Mark Appel with the first overall pick, Andrew Thurman in the second round and left-hander Kent Emanuel in the third round. They drafted 19 pitchers in Luhnow's first Draft with Houston in 2012, taking Lance McCullers Jr. 41st overall and Brady Rodgers in the third round.
"There's a higher failure rate for pitchers coming through the Minor Leagues, so you have to have more of them," Luhnow said. "We definitely prioritized that in every trade that we made. We wanted to make sure we got a good, young arm coming back to the extent that was possible. We knew we would be picking some up in the Draft as well, but it takes those guys a little bit longer.
"From Owens to Wojo to Hader, we really prioritized getting guys in we thought could be starters and had already passed a couple of hurdles in the Minor Leagues. So maybe a little bit safer than guys out of the Draft. Even when you have a pitching prospect at Double-A, there's going to be no guarantees they're going to make it to the big leagues, so we wanted to make sure we had a enough depth there."
The Astros have been fortunate not to suffer many serious injuries among their starting pitchers in the Minor Leagues, though White is coming off Tommy John surgery and Owens missed nearly all of last year following foot surgery. Luhnow credits team doctors, trainers, coaches and strength and conditioning coaches for helping maintain health and giving the pitchers more time to develop.
"That's really what it's all about," Luhnow said. "You look at what we have in the big leagues, a lot of young pitchers and lot of guys made their debuts last year. Also, you look at guys who could potentially make the big league club this year, and Wojo is in that equation and Folty's not that far away.
"There's a big wave of guys after that when you look at Rodgers and Appel and everybody else. You kind of want to have that situation every year where you have three or four guys coming to the big leagues for the first time that are going to be in the mix sometime in the next season and a season and a half, and I think we're there."