Just call them the Houston Astro-nots, but GM is doing his best to rebuild

Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow answers a Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow answers a question during a news conference in Houston. (Dec.8, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City

The Astros, who will begin a three-game series Monday in the Bronx, are more of a lab experiment than what many would consider a viable Major League Baseball team. So perhaps it's only fitting that the club's second-year general manager, Jeff Luhnow, is a former engineer and technology consultant.

Thinking outside the box, or beyond the checkbook, is Luhnow's primary responsibility in attempting to turn the Houston franchise into a winning organization, something that still is a number of years away. The Astros have a $26-million payroll -- or $2 million less than Alex Rodriguez's salary for 2013 -- as Luhnow attempts to rebuild his operation from the ground up.

In this case, it's less of a metaphor than a business plan. The Astros, a longtime resident of the NL Central, switched to the AL West for this year and ditched their recent uniforms for more throwback-type threads. They also have a new manager, Bo Porter, a first-timer and former player who served on the coaching staffs of the Diamondbacks, Nationals and Marlins.

The makeover was designed as part of a fresh start for a team that has mustered only two winning seasons since it lost to the White Sox in the World Series in 2005.

"I think the timing actually works to our advantage," Luhnow said. "We're beginning a new chapter. A lot of the changes we made in 2012 were really about laying the foundation for the future, and I think from now on, we're going to see that foundation begin to grow.

"Now we're going to put the house on the foundation. We've got new uniforms, new opponents, and I'm not the least bit worried about playing in the American League West because our goal is to win a championship. The more we can train in a division considered to be one of the best in baseball, the better we're going to be."

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It's no surprise that the Astros are at the bottom of the AL West -- let's just say they had modest expectations for this season. But heading into Saturday night's games, Houston's 7-16 record was only slightly worse than the Blue Jays (9-16) and a few notches better than the gutted Marlins (5-18).

Not bad for a team that batted Ronny Cedeno fifth as its designated hitter Saturday night against the Red Sox. Philip Humber, the Mets' No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft, is a member of the Houston rotation. Outfielder Fernando Martinez, the one-time jewel of the Mets' organization, also is on the roster.

But the Astros haven't gone completely belly-up with Chris Carter as their cleanup hitter and Bud Norris at the top of the rotation. The Astros' .730 OPS ranked 10th in the majors and their 93 runs scored put them in the middle of the pack overall. Pitching, however, tends to be expensive, and Houston is predictably at the bottom of the pile with a 5.41 ERA. The Angels, No. 29 on the list, have a 4.57 ERA.

Luhnow has the pedigree -- and the prospects -- to turn things around. The Astros used last year's No. 1 pick to select 18-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, currently ranked 13th by Baseball America, and they also have the top pick for this June's draft. Jonathan Singleton, a power-hitting first baseman, could make it to the majors this season and Houston has five youngsters in Baseball America's top 100 list.

Obviously, patience is key, and Luhnow is used to building things after running two tech start-up companies before jumping to the majors. His first baseball job was with the Cardinals, who actually recruited him through a former colleague and had him revamp their whole baseball operations department in 2003 with the eye of a management consultant.

The intersection of baseball and business didn't seem like a stretch to Luhnow, who grew up a Dodgers fan in Mexico only because his older brother was a Yankees fan -- and forbid him to root for the same team. But Luhnow never had any involvement with the game until the Cardinals hired him. That type of non-baseball background still is met with some skepticism, even in this day and age, as it falls into the old school vs. new school debate.

"It's both an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time," Luhnow said. "This is my 10th year in baseball. I'm still considered an outsider and I understand that.

"But the reality is it also gives me some license to do some things that maybe are non-traditional, the fact that I had three careers before I got into baseball. I will always have an open mind, I'll always be open to new ideas, and when I look at things, I don't necessarily start with the way things are today and build from that."

One thing that immediately comes to mind for Luhnow is the hiring of Kevin Goldstein, a former writer for Baseball Prospectus, to be his pro scouting coordinator. That got people's attention, but to Luhnow, it wasn't as radical as some believed.

"I don't think he ever played baseball one day in his life," Luhnow said. "He's a journalist. But he's an accomplished journalist who knows how to collect large amounts of information and boil it down to what's necessary to make decisions.

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"To me, that's what we needed in pro scouting. He was able to do that for all 30 organizations by himself. Imagine what you can do when you give him 10 full-time baseball people working for him.

"I think people might scratch their head a little bit. But at the end of the day, if it helps us be successful, I'm happy about it."

Magic numbers

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131 - Millions of dollars in divorce settlement for Jamie McCourt, who reportedly now wants more from former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. She claims McCourt initially assessed Dodgers worth at less than $300 million. They were sold for $2 billion. She may have a point.

77 - Items of memorabilia being auctioned off by Bret Saberhagen. Top bids are coming in for his two Cy Young awards ($19,865 each) and 85 World Series ring ($19,489). Havent seen a bid yet for the bleach-filled squirt gun.

70 - Age of Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who surprised TV viewers when he was seen doing push-ups in the dugout before Mondays loss to the Cardinals. Johnson, MLBs oldest manager, said he was getting blood flowing. Too bad his team is barely showing a pulse.

2:45 - Targeted time of game for Atlantic League, which will now have its umpires file a report when that goal is exceeded. The league has called for a more by-the-book strike zone, less mound visits, and a mandate to stay in batter's box. Rooting for this to work.

0.37 - Home runs per game in NCAA Division I this season, the lowest since it was 0.40 in 1970, the first year such a statistic was kept. The shrinking power production has alarmed coaches and officials, who want to juice the baseball. Oh boy. Have we learned nothing?

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