Every action movie involving a huge, sinister piece of machinery has an activation scene. It usually takes several minutes and includes orders being repeated in triplicate and about a dozen levers and switches being pulled by different men in different rooms, all while stirring music — courtesy of Hans Zimmer or John Williams — thunders in the background. Huge, mechanical arms click into place, gears turn, and computer screens blink ominously. Sometimes everyone stops for a moment to sing.
This scene is in everything from Bond movies to Star Wars to Titan A.E. to the Houston Astros. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to work.
Since Jeff Luhnow took over the Astros in December 2011, he’s been building the kind of machine I just described. After surveying the terrain in Houston, Luhnow & Co. decided there was nothing of value to build upon and started from scratch. The construction process has been much discussed and debated, and it hasn’t been without the kind of setbacks that play into Luhnow’s supervillain reputation. Most notably, there was an embarrassing theft of Death Star plans and the equally embarrassing Brady Aiken affair. A young hero losing the use of his arm after refusing to join a supervillain’s cause does, after all, fit a certain theme.
But the building stage is almost over. After win totals in the 50s for three years running, the Astros started to turn the corner in 2014, going 70-92. While the exciting names (Mark Appel, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, and Colin Moran) still sit at Double-A Corpus Christi, and while we could see any or all of those players in Houston at some point in 2015, the first foundational elements of the next good Astros team — hi, George Springer — already began to peek out of the ground last year.
Now, the cast-offs, retreads and post-hype sleepers in Houston are 14-7, four games up in the AL West. Certain Astros are punching above their own weight, but the team’s three best power bats — Springer, Evan Gattis, and Chris Carter — are all off to slow starts that are bound to pick up. Even accepting that large parts of Houston’s success are likely a mirage, those seven games over .500 are in the bank now, and Baseball Prospectus has the Astros at 37.2 percent to win the division. That’s not surefire contender territory, but that’s a big enough number that you have to at least consider the possibility.
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And all of that brings us back to the superweapon. The Houston brass is coldly rational to a fault, so this is the last group you’d expect to make a rash win-now trade or to rush prospects up to the majors in order to fill an immediate need at the expense of long-term development. But there must be times when Luhnow’s sitting there, staring at the switch that starts the activation sequence. Eyes twitching, sweat pouring down his face, gaze fixed on the “IN CASE OF CONTENTION, BREAK GLASS” sign that adorns the cover of the lever.
Is it time?
Not for at least another couple of months. McCullers and Correa, both high school draftees in 2012, are mere weeks removed from Class A and still have some growing to do. Appel and Moran, both college draftees a year later, are still answering sticky questions about their athleticism and development from last year. None of those four is coming up before midsummer, and nobody else in the system is any better or any closer.
Will it be time come the fall?
The answer to that question is the same as the answer to this one: Do you think the core of the current group is for real?
Going from 55 wins to 95 wins isn’t a matter of only bringing in new players; it requires getting more than expected out of players you already have. This is perhaps the most important thing the Astros have done in the past four years:1 throwing a bunch of twentysomething cast-offs on the field and seeing if any of them work out. Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh were 26 and 27 last year, respectively, and without any meaningful pedigree or previous major league success — yet together they were worth 9.2 wins. Jose Altuve went from a circus act to the batting champion and an MVP candidate. Even though Carter didn’t perform at an All-Star level, he hit 37 home runs and had the best season of his career.2
Not the draft. I don’t think, given their high picks, that they’ve even come close to getting the most out of the amateur market.
The same can be said of Gattis, who came over from Atlanta during the offseason.
If that’s all for real, the Astros have half of a playoff rotation. Throw in Springer, who’s about as good as you can be while hitting .231 and striking out 33 percent of the time, and they probably have half of a playoff-quality lineup, too. That’s not a bad start, but add the four minor leaguers I mentioned and the gears start to roll.
Consider also the potential financial might of the only baseball team in the fourth-largest city in the United States, owned by a billionaire who’s spent, by major league standards, absolutely nothing on player costs since taking over the team. The Astros’ payroll this year is just north of $70 million, an improvement over recent years but laughable by modern standards: There’s still about $50 million between what the Astros are spending on players and the major league median payroll. In a media market the size of Houston, not eventually reaching the median would be exploitative. That $50 million would probably be enough to sign the best two players in a free-agent class or lock up most of the excellent pre-arbitration players who are going to come out of that farm system in the next few years.
The temptation to rush the process has to be incredible, but a month into the season, I’m not convinced the rest of the division will remain as much of a shambles as it’s been. Nor am I convinced that Keuchel, who struck out only 6.6 batters per nine innings last year, is actually the 200-inning beast he looked like last season. And with so much riding on the Corpus Christi Four in the long term, I’d want to be absolutely sure they’re ready before subjecting them to the major league meat grinder. There’s just too much that’s still unknown about the team and the league.
So, I’d be patient, and as tempting as it must be to go all in, I imagine that’s exactly what Luhnow will do. With so many moving parts to his machine, he can’t risk failure by giving in to impulse. A good supervillain knows to wait for his moment.