Astros GM offers blueprint for how Blue Jays can succeed in rebuild

Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Freddy Galvis (16) celebrates his three-run home run off Houston Astros relief pitcher Cionel Perez with Vladimir Guerrero Jr.. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)

HOUSTON – Over the past week the Toronto Blue Jays experienced both ends of baseball’s competitive cycle, starting at the bottom by taking two of three from the Baltimore Orioles before avoiding a sweep by the now-we’re-here Houston Astros. As you no doubt have picked up on, at the moment they’re far more like the former, aspiring to one day be like the latter. Much work and more pain stands between now and then, if they get there at all, and a key part of the process, both internally and externally, is trust.

The Blue Jays, as a front office, must have conviction that what they’re doing now will pay off in two or three years. The players must believe that amid the current lumps they’re being developed in a fashion that will one day carry them to success. Fans and corporate partners need to have faith that their investments of time and money will be rewarded down the road.

Everyone needs to trust that this rebuild will one day actually work.

"For us it was about communication," Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said during an interview in his suite before Sunday’s 12-0 Blue Jays win. "We had a plan, we communicated it to all the stakeholders, including fans, corporate sponsors, the internal stakeholders, media, everybody else and then we had ways of measuring whether or not our plan was making progress.

"And it didn’t involve wins at the major-league level because we knew that was going to be a while. It did involve how we felt about our pipeline of players, how we felt about our scouting department, our player development department, things we could measure that we felt would ultimately lead to success in the big-leagues."

The Astros, you may recall, lost a barbarous total of 324 games from 2011-2013. Luhnow came over from the St. Louis Cardinals on Dec. 8, 2011 to try and turn the franchise around. "We didn’t really have a choice," he said of delving deeper into the abyss over the next two seasons. Among his earliest hires was Mike Elias, who initially came over from the Cardinals as a special assistant to the GM, later becoming director of amateur scouting and, eventually, an assistant general manager, scouting and player development.

This past Nov. 16, Elias was named GM of the Orioles, who are in as dire a condition now as the Astros were back then. Having been through it once already, he understands fully the across-the-board trust needed to make everything work.

"It’s difficult (to build trust) and it helps to have a track record, which certainly the Toronto front office does and I think that we do with what we’ve done in Houston and St. Louis," said Elias. "And the reason that helps is because you’re going to make some mistakes. This isn’t going to go perfectly. It’s impossible to get all your decisions correct. Even if you do get them all correct, players are going to get hurt, they’re going to have random variances that are out of your control. So just having a long history in the game, relationships and the experience and credibility it takes to navigate a process like this, but also the self-security to make tough decisions for the long-range benefit of the franchise, even if they’re going to be difficult in the short term, helps."

Unlike the Astros, who hadn’t been to the post-season since losing the 2005 World Series when they embarked on their bottoming out, the Blue Jays and Orioles are not that far removed from success. In 2016, they met in the wild-card game decided by Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run, and its relative recency has made the comedown of the past two-and-a-half years more difficult to stomach.

Luhnow made clear when he took over the Astros that more pain was coming and that it would take a few years. "We weren’t hiding that fact," he said. And while he insists they tried to make big-league team on the field as watchable as possible in the interim, "there’s really not much you can do when you don’t have a team at the big-league level that can compete for a playoff spot," he said.

"You can try on the margins to make it better and we did every day and bring up players that were ready, but there really wasn’t a ton we could do," Luhnow continued. "So we focused on the things we could control."

That was in building out an organizational infrastructure in scouting, player development and data that would fully leverage any and every asset put into place. In making sure minor-league teams experienced success with young players who would one day transition successfully. In acquiring talent at every chance possible.

And to ensure that they were on track, the Astros measured everything they did.

"It’s trying to understand how robust your farm system is relative to others," explained Luhnow. "We saw tangible results, not only from third-party rankings, but also our own internal ways of measuring things. We also saw a tangible turnaround in things like win-loss record in the minor-leagues, strikeouts for pitchers, walks and home runs for hitters, metrics that demonstrate that we’re making progress in the minor-leagues, that players are getting better, they’re more competitive, are we winning there with good players who are young at every level. There were a lot of things we could look at to say the future is pretty bright, it’s not here yet, but it’s bright and getting brighter."

The Blue Jays began the season with a farm system ranked third in the game by Baseball America. It’ll take a step back with the graduations of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen, Trent Thornton and the looming addition of Bo Bichette, but that leaves them miles ahead of the Orioles, who BA had at No. 22 in its organizational talent rankings.

Similar to what Luhnow says about adding at the margins mid-rebuild, Elias talks about the opportunities to give players chances a rebuild allows as a way to identify players. It’s also a way to help prevent talented players from slipping through the cracks because they didn’t get a good enough look, since even though front offices "have statistical projections and we have a lot of info coming from technology that tells us how a minor-leaguer should do in the major-leagues, there is still some unknown in the actual experience of making the jump."

"The thing to remember with any kind of projection system is it’s just giving you the odds," added Elias. "So these are broad odds. Over hundreds or thousands of cases, they should bear out, but we’re operating in a handful of cases. And you can’t rely on the odds to be a hundred per cent correct in the outcome when it’s only a handful of cases."

All of which helps to explain why the Orioles, as well as the Blue Jays, continue to throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Tough as it is to swallow, what’s happening at the big-league level by and large is secondary to what’s happening beneath the surface.

There’s another conversation to be had about whether the game’s structure needs to be reworked since losing is incentivized by the way it offers the best springboard back to winning. What fans of the Blue Jays, Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins are being force-fed is dreadful. The concentration of talent among a small handful of clubs is a fundamental flaw in the sport.

Until that’s corrected, rebuilding is the game clubs in a bind believe they must play. The road to a top-five pick is a brutally ugly one, travelled with the aim of becoming what the Astros are now. Those that argue that the process of bottoming out is so corrosive that it permanently scars a clubhouse won’t find much of an audience in Houston these days.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

"I think it’s an easy thing to talk about but realistically it’s not there," said Luhnow. "Every player down in that clubhouse wants to win. They get tired of losing. We get tired of losing. The managers get tired of losing. Everybody does. Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel – they were on this team when we lost 111 games (in 2013). They were all also on the team when we won 112 including the World Series (in 2017). It’s not going to suddenly make them worse players or less motivated. If anything, it makes them more motivated to win games as soon as possible. I don’t buy that argument.

"It’s hardest on the fans who have to suffer through losses because the want immediate gratification and they’re not really thinking much about life in 2022. They’re thinking about life in 2019 and it’s a challenge," added Luhnow. "So you do what you can to communicate with those fans, do what you can to keep them in the loop and let them know you’re making progress."

Depending on your point of view, Luhnow and the Astros either rewarded or earned back the trust of their fans by delivering on their promises. Fans in Toronto, Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit and Miami must judge what they hear and decide whether to offer their trust, and have faith in an eventual payoff.

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