Jeff Luhnow found his seat in the visiting executive’s box at Citizens Bank Park earlier this week and glanced at the Phillies’ lineup. He thought about 2013. It was a time when Luhnow, the Houston Astros general manager, endured ridicule from across the game. His first three teams lost a combined 310 games.
“When you’re in the middle of it,” Luhnow said, “it seems like it’s never going to end.”
The current Astros own the best record in the American League by 12 games. They are hailed for their deep roster of young players, which Luhnow augmented this past winter with four veteran acquisitions. They have made mistakes and they have not yet won a postseason series. But their World Series aspirations are real. Houston is on pace to reach the franchise’s single-season record for wins.
His group’s ideas, rooted in analytics, defied conventional baseball thinking. Now, they are copied by many teams — the Phillies included.
“I feel a little bit vindicated, but at the same time, I didn’t really think we had a choice,” Luhnow said. “I didn’t see any other path given the resources we thought we would have available to us to get our team to this point. So it wasn’t like we were trying to be radical just for the sake of being radical.”
There are parallels in the Phillies’ process, although team officials believe the Phillies’ considerable financial resources could, one day, hasten the path to contention. Luhnow, a Penn graduate, became Houston’s general manager before the 2012 season. His team tasted the postseason in 2015. All rebuilding schemes are not alike, but the Phillies have studied Luhnow’s process for clues about what did and did not work.
Luhnow, 51, said he often extends advice to general managers undertaking a similar direction. He continues to adjust and analyze his own practices, while observing the rest.
That is why, when he looked at the Phillies’ lineup, he began to contemplate the past.
“You see guys like [Nick] Williams who are really exciting and look like they can be a part of winning in the future,” Luhnow said. “I thought back to our lineup in 2013.”
That team featured just two players, Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez, who survived the painstaking process.
“One core player,” Luhnow said. “But it did give us an opportunity to evaluate players in a more challenging environment.”
That is something espoused by Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, who is, like Luhnow, a product of an Ivy League institution. The Phillies, Klentak has said, will learn about their current players — be it good or bad knowledge. Most will not be here for the next great Phillies team. A few will.
Luhnow used Dallas Keuchel as an example. Keuchel pitched to a 5.20 ERA in 239 innings over 2012-13, all before his 26th birthday. He won the Cy Young Award in 2015 and has a 3.04 ERA since the start of the 2014 season.
“If we had been spending money on free agents and trying to win a few extra games, I’m not sure we give him as many starts as we did to work through the ups and downs,” Luhnow said. “Therefore, I don’t know if he becomes what he became in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“You don’t want to put your team in a position where they have no chance to win. You want to give opportunities to players that are major-league caliber players, even though they’re young and unproven. It’s a fine balance.”
Aligning in tough times
It’s a balance, Luhnow said, that required acceptance at every level.
“The things that make it a little easier in reflecting on what happened with us was alignment between the owner and the entire front office — and the field personnel as well,” Luhnow said. “No player or manager or coach wants to lose any games. When you’re trading away a player they know would help them win a couple of more games this year, you really have to be aligned with why you’re doing that. Allow them to participate in the discussion, not just tell them you’re losing this guy.
“That was key. And having an owner with the fortitude to withstand those tough periods. There was a period in time when, I don’t know if he was joking or not, but my owner used to say, ‘I can’t really go out for dinner in town anymore these days.’ As a GM, leading this process, it makes you feel like, ‘Well, we better hurry up.’ ”
The first-round picks of Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Alex Bregman helped that. So did inherited talent like Altuve, Keuchel and George Springer. Luhnow’s mistakes are notable: He drafted Mark Appel over Kris Bryant; he released J.D. Martinez; he drafted Brady Aiken with the No. 1 pick and failed to sign him. The Phillies will make mistakes, too.
Houston is a tamer baseball market. Can a teardown really work in Philadelphia?
“There’s going to be other markets that have always maintained they can’t rebuild and we’re going to see them be forced to rebuild,” Luhnow said. “Rebuild has a lot of connotations to it, negative and positive. I think at the end of the day, what the fans want is a team they can be excited about. The best path to get there is to spend a few years going through this transition period. That’s what you have to do.”
That is what Houston, on pace for 107 wins this season and a promising future beyond that, did.
“We finally got to the point where you’re having success and there is nothing more rewarding than looking at the people around you who supported you during that time,” Luhnow said. “It’s a pretty special feeling.”