HOUSTON -- To fully understand the ideology of Astros first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow will require supreme patience and constant reminders that such processes take time to reach fruition.
During his introductory press conference on Dec 7, Luhnow revealed a philosophy shaped by an extensive background in traditional scouting methodology combined with an adherence to data analysis derived from his Ivy League education and subsequent career in the business sector. Luhnow aroused curiosity, but until he completed his first series of transactions to advance the Astros' rebuilding, his words were mere theory.
Then came the acquisitions of Jed Lowrie and Marwin Gonzalez, the signings of Jack Cust and Chris Snyder, and the spring training invitations extended to Zach Duke, Livan Hernandez and Justin Ruggiano. Now there was some substance to what Luhnow had shared, a basis for which one could begin the process of forming an opinion.
The Astros will invite 61 players to Kissimmee, Fla., a collection that includes clubhouse stalwarts, promising youngsters, and journeymen veterans who have enjoyed varying levels of success as professionals.
"One of the priorities for this offseason was to put ourselves in a position where we had some depth and some flexibility and some choices," Luhnow said. "And that's why the theme going into this spring is that we're going to have competition for every spot out there, and everybody on the team is going to have to earn their spot."
That approach explains in part why the Astros will take looks at Duke and Hernandez in spring training despite the fact that, according to a recently published article by Sports Illustrated, Duke (4.80) and Hernandez (4.71) have the third- and second-highest earned run averages among National League pitchers with at least 100 starts since 2008. By signing Duke and Hernandez to minor-league contracts, the Astros acknowledge that their projected rotation isn't quite set in stone.
That thinking sheds light on why the Astros took a low-risk flier on Cust, whose power production and walk rate have been in steady decline since he slugged .504 and walked in 20.7 percent of his plate appearances with the Athletics in 2007. It adds clarity to the acquisition of Lowrie, whose promise with the Red Sox had been curtailed time and again by injury.
"Adding players with a performance history where they've done things in the past and appear that they can help us here now was part of the equation," Luhnow said. "You look at guys like Jack Cust and Livan Hernandez and Zach Duke and Jed Lowrie for that matter, these are guys that have done it at the big league level and proven that they can play at this level. And we wanted to make sure we added depth across all areas: starting pitching, infield, outfield, etcetera. That was part of it.
"The other part of it is making sure we have enough choices so that come late March, we're making some decisions about who's going to make this team and who's going to be on that 25-man roster to start the year that gives us the best chance to get off to a good start and yet doesn't block the prospects or players that are ready to come and ready to really start contributing in a meaningful way. It's really a balance."
So instead of simply conceding a spot in the rotation to 21-year-old right-hander Jordan Lyles, the Astros will make him earn his position. Instead of dumping the duties of mentoring 24-year-old catcher Jason Castro on Humberto Quintero, the Astros brought aboard Snyder, 30, who has 630 games under his belt with the Diamondbacks and Pirates.
While many assume that Lowrie will be handed the starting job at shortstop, the Astros will evaluate whether Gonzalez, an intriguing 22-year-old infielder they acquired from the Red Sox during the Rule 5 Draft, could be a superior option. Cust lacks the defensive acumen to play right field every day, but his presence should alert J.B. Shuck and Brian Bogusevic that nothing will be handed to them despite the ongoing rebuilding.
"There's a lot of value that veteran players bring to our organization," Luhnow said. "Guys like Livan and Cust and so forth, they've been in various organizations. They have seen young kids come and go. And I think a lot of their presence in the clubhouse, the way they go about their business (is valuable).
"We had 21 rookies I think it was last year, which is an incredibly high number. When you have that many young players on your roster it makes it important to have some veterans around them that can show them the way. That balance is definitely something we're trying to strike."
Astros manager Brad Mills won't have it easy. The Astros will shift former first baseman Brett Wallace into a crowded mix at third featuring Chris Johnson and Jimmy Paredes. J.D. Martinez and Jordan Schafer appear to be solid bets in left field and center, but veterans Jason Bourgeois and Ruggiano add flavor to the competition. Outside of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris, the rotation is in flux.
As the Astros transition into their future of Jarred Cosart and George Springer, Delino DeShields and Jonathan Singleton, their need for veterans who've been around the block becomes paramount. Luhnow realizes that the process of rebuilding the club will be arduous, but laying the foundation involves more than new bricks and fresh mortar.
"It's not what they say, it's how they go about their business," Mills said. "Let these (youngsters) see the reason they've been pros and in the big leagues for so many years. Let them see how they work in the weight room; let them see how they work in practice, whether it's in spring training or before a game. That's how it works and that's the real value of having those veteran guys."