added 7/10/2014 by Scott Barzilla
Last week was a big week for the Astros organization. They finally rid themselves of the albatross that was Jerome Williams and called up the last dividend of the Hunter Pence trade. Pence was a pretty good outfielder that was no longer a Phillie yet he spawned four different guys that were all on Houston's big league roster at once. It was a crowning day for the Astros, but, primarily, it was a crowning day for Ed Wade.
See, he was the guy that engineered that trade. That's right - the "bumbling fool" we used to love to make fun of. Many of the prospects that are currently with the big league club (or have been) are his. This was from the same farm system that was called the worst in baseball by some observers as recently as 2012. The Jeff Luhnow regime has seen that turn around into one of the top five farm systems by most accounts. Despite the reversal of fortunes, the new regime has had its fair share of black eyes lately. In no particular order...
They were hacked.
This is embarrassing indeed, but it is one of those deals where blame is hard to assign. The organization is understandably tight-lipped about the whole affair, so we don't know exactly how it happened. The only thing we do know is that the whole baseball world saw the organization with its pants down. Whether it was simply a junior high prank or something more sinister, we don't know. The big question is why the hackers chose the Astros.
What we do know is that this is bound to have a chilling effect on their ability to make trades. Whether they were bumbling idiots or the victims of superior minds doesn't matter. If you know there is a possibility that your conversations will be broadcast, then you are less likely to have that conversation. Again, no one can assign blame without facts, but this is the sort of shiner that will leave a mark.
Aiken has a bum wing.
Building a successful organization requires a lot of guesswork and nowhere is this more plain than in the area of player development. Baseball's draft is more of a crapshoot than in any other sport. This is a sport where if you get five players that have significant big league careers from any one draft, you have been really successful. In point of fact, Luhnow's success at drafting in St. Louis was the main impetus for him getting the Houston General Manager position.
So, the lack of success early on from the first overall selections has to be a little disconcerting. Mind you, it is still early in the process. 2012 first overall selection Carlos Correa was probably a few weeks from a promotion to Corpus Christi before he broke his leg. Freak injuries happen and no one is to blame. That being said, the early returns from 2013 top choice Mark Appel are beyond disappointing. This is particularly true when measured against Kris Bryant of the Cubs. Bryant could have been the first overall selection and he is already mashing in AAA. Appel's first few starts this season were terrible. He has turned in three consecutive five inning outings with three earned runs surrendered in each. While that's not a disaster, you don't expect your number one overall pick to be struggling in A-ball.
Brady Aiken hasn't even signed yet and they've already discovered an elbow problem. Again, this is where public relations is a lot worse than the actual truth. His trainer denies there is anything wrong with him and he was handled carefully in high school and in amateur competitions. They are trying to sign him for less than they agreed to. If he doesn't sign by July 18th, they will lose him to UCLA. They will get the second pick in next year's draft (in addition to whatever pick they earn), but they will lose $7.9 million in bonus allowance to sign other players (including Mac Marshall). Let's not forget the embarrassment of having an entire decision science department that missed out on the elbow problem. Let's also not forget that they would be the first team not to sign the first overall selection since, um, well, anyway.
Is he ready?
Now, let me be very clear about this one. It isn't the fact that Domingo Santana (the aforementioned last dividend of the Pence Trade) failed in his first call-up that looks so bad. Prospects fail all the time. Of course, they usually don't fail like Santana did. He struck out in 11 of the 13 times he stepped up to the plate. I can't imagine anyone doing much worse. However, that wasn't the issue and it wouldn't change the issue if he had been 11-for-13. The issue is that most of us knew he wasn't ready even before he had his first plate appearance last week.
How did we know that? Jeff Luhnow told us so less than 24 hours before the call-up. Simply put, he strikes out too often. Luhnow told us it was because he was a bit of a free swinger. Others say he has good plate discipline, but he has a long swing that makes him susceptible to swinging and missing. I've never seen Domingo Santana play and that hasn't changed in the last week. See, I can't watch the Astros on television, but that's a different discussion for a different day. I say that because I'm not rendering an opinion on why he isn't ready. For me, that was never the issue anyway.
Folks on Twitter were trying to clarify the issue. They said his long arms made his swing long. That's great, but it has nothing to do with the issue. The issue is that the general manager said he wasn't ready and then, the next day, called him up to the big leagues. I can think of only three reasons for such a reversal. First, he could be admitting that his assessment was either wrong or based on faulty or incomplete information. Second, he didn't have anyone better to call up (going back to Robbie Grossman was an underwhelming choice). Finally, he could have been giving into public perception that Santana was ready because of his AAA numbers.
I love numbers, but I'd be a fool to assert that they tell the whole story. Like I've said, I've never seen Domingo Santana play. I have no idea of whether he is ready beyond what his numbers say. Even if I had seen him play, I get paid to teach English, not determine which prospects are ready for prime time. If the Astros allow public perception to tell them when players are ready, then they are in really bad shape. Perhaps, this was some sort of master plan to provide Santana with a lesson in hard knocks. If that's the case then I hope the gamble works.
What does it all mean?
The battle in baseball is between old school and new school. Truth be told, those of us in the commentary business don't want the old school to go away. It would leave us with less to talk about. Still, being new school and smart doesn't mean you will be right all the time. It doesn't mean you will ultimately be successful. After all, only one team can claim the prize every year and only ten teams will make the playoffs each year. Failure is not only an option, but an inevitability. The question is whether they are too smart to learn from it.