Astros try to beat SI Cover Jinx
We’ve all heard about the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Come late October/early November we’ll know if the Astros have beaten it.
If they do, one of the key parts will be a former blackjack dealer and rocket scientist.
On June 30, 2014 SI’s cover story was an article entitled “Houston’s Grand Experiment”, written by Ben Reiter. The article outlined how the Astros were into a serious rebuilding project, essentially a “burn down the house overhaul”. A plan conceived by an innovative front office which included a former blackjack dealer turned rocket scientist named Sig Mejdal.
Current GM Jeff Luhnow had joined the Astros in October 2011 from the St. Louis Cardinals, where he had worked in scouting and player development. Luhnow hired Mejdal to run the Cardinals Analytics Department in 2005. Over the following seven seasons the Cardinals drafted more players who became major leaguers than any other MLB organization.
When he moved to the Astros, Luhnow surrounded himself in the front office with many non-traditional/non-baseball types. Mejdal, Mike Elias (31 year old Yale graduate), David Stearns (29 year old Harvard graduate) and Kevin Goldstein who had previously been a writer for Baseball Prospectus, but had no pro-baseball experience all became part of Luhnow’s management team..
Elias was hired as Director of Amateur Scouting, Stearns, who had been with the Indians was hired as Assistant GM (he now works as the GM in Milwaukee doing an outstanding job with the developing Brewers). Goldstein was hired as Director of Pro Scouting.
Luhnow and his team began the rebuild which they knew would be lengthy and often painful. As the SI article details, by 2014 they had gained sufficient traction that it appeared they were on the right track, by drafting, signing and developing a significant amount of young, controllable talent, which would form the core of the Astros.
This group was subsequently supplemented by some cagey free agent signings, some astute trades and perhaps the last piece of the puzzle minutes, if not seconds, before the August 31/17 trade deadline.
The Astros strong farm system had not only developed a young core (Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Kuechel, Lance McCullers, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman among others), but the strength of that farm system allowed them to acquire a top starter. Luhnow traded right handed pitcher Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers to the Detroit Tigers for Justin Verlander on August 31. The Tigers are clearly in a rebuilding mode and Verlander is signed through the end of the 2019 season with a full no trade clause.
Perez, Cameron and Rogers were the Astros 2nd, 9th and 11th prospects (respectively). They were all given up for two years and one month of Verlander, a move the Astros saw as a good chance to get to the WS and make SI’s prediction come to life.
Verlander is 34 and will cost Houston $28Million in each of the next two years. He can activate a player’s option for 2020 by finishing in the top five in voting for the 2019 Cy Young Award. With Detroit this year, he was 10-8 with a 3.82 ERA but in his last nine starts for the Tigers he was 5-1 with a 2.32 ERA, so he is far from being finished as a front line starter. He will allow Kuechel and McCullers to both move down in the rotation, taking some pressure off them while strengthening the rotation. By extension, this will strengthen the bullpen as the Astros focus on Cleveland and Boston as their two most likely hurdles to getting to the World Series.
The NL winner will provide strong opposition for the Astros if they get that far and none of the three favourites in the senior circuit; the Dodgers, Nationals and Cubs will be pushovers.
But it isn’t just the addition of Verlander that gives Houston (an AL best 83-56 as of September 7) the feeling that this can be their year. All-star shortstop Correa is set to return from a thumb ligament injury that has sidelined him since mid-July. McCullers looks like he might be healthy again. Kuechel appears to be the Kuechel of 2015 again. Outfielder Cameron Maybin was claimed from the Angels waiver list when the Angels got Justin Upton from the Tigers. Evan Gattis is on a rehab assignment at Class A Quad Cities. Lefty relief specialist Tony Sipp recently came off the disabled list. Francisco Liriano came from Toronto in a July 31 trade (the cost of which included prized outfield prospect Teoscar Hernandez).
With those additions and those returning from injury the Astros have added key pieces without giving up very much of the major league roster. They sacrificed “only” prospects. As we mentioned in a previous column, prospects don’t show their true value until long after these types of trades are made.
Couple all of these factors with the off season acquisitions of veterans Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann and it is clear the Astros are all-in in 2017.
By late October we will know if the SI Cover Jinx really is a jinx or if the Astros have figured out a way to beat it.