If you missed Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow roaming the stands at Chukchansi Park over the weekend, that’s fine with him.
More than fine, actually.
“I like being incognito,” Luhnow said before the Grizzlies topped the Nashville Sounds 5-3 on Sunday afternoon for their third straight series victory.
With his silver hair and clean-shaven visage and wearing a blue polo shirt and khakis, the Ivy League-educated Luhnow looks more like a management consultant or entrepreneur (two of his previous careers) than a crusty baseball executive.
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He can get away with it for now, but the longer the Astros remain in first place — hands down the most surprising story in MLB over the season’s first two months — the less Luhnow will go unrecognized. Even here.
Luhnow elicited a few chuckles back in January when he predicted the Astros would finish with a winning record. After all, this is a franchise that has been below .500 every year since 2008 and is just one season removed from being a 51-111 laughingstock.
No one’s laughing anymore. Not with Houston sitting at 29-16 and leading the American League West by 3½ games on Memorial Day.
“It’s a testament to all the hard work that’s gone into it,” Luhnow said. “People don’t realize what’s involved to get to where we are right now.
“Granted, we’re just over the quarter-point of the season and there’s a long way to go. We’ve seen teams get off to hot starts and then have late collapses. Our team is young and untested, so we still have a long way to go.”
Ensuring the Astros remain in first place is Luhnow’s job. And to accomplish that, there’s a pretty good chance he will have to dismantle the first-place Grizzlies.
Yup, that’s the reality. Besides shortstop Carlos Correa, the 20-year-old phenom who draws comparisons to Alex Rodriguez, everyone else on the roster is trade bait.
Don’t think Luhnow made the trip to Fresno just so he could try carne asada tacos at La Elegante.
Every good poker player must know each of the cards in his hand. Luhnow came here to personally evaluate Grizzlies players who could make a difference on the 2015 Astros — or be included in a trade for a player who could make such a difference.
Start with Jon Singleton, who has turned Pacific Coast League pitchers into his personal chew toys by leading all of minor-league baseball in home runs (14) and RBIs (47). He added to both totals Sunday with an opposite-field blast off rehabbing A’s closer Sean Doolittle.
Luhnow has to decide if Singleton is ready to supplant incumbent Astros first baseman Chris Carter, who is batting .170 after hitting 38 homers last season. Or, if he isn’t, whether to offer up the slugger in a potential deal for a frontline starting pitcher like Cole Hamels or Scott Kazmir.
The same goes for outfield prospect Domingo Santana, batting .299 with 10 homers and a .601 slugging percentage, or any of the young position players with big-league experience (i.e. L.J. Hoes, Robbie Grossman, Matt Dominguez).
It may not happen until just before the July 31 trade deadline, but someone’s going to be on the move.
“We don’t have enough spots in Houston for all the players we have coming through the system,” Luhnow said. “Not only here, but we’ve got some pretty good players in Double-A, High-A and so forth. … At the right time we will move pieces.”
In other words, don’t get too attached to any current Grizzlies standouts. Because the longer Houston remains in first place, the more of a chance one or more current Fresno players will be wearing some other uniform.
Correa is the one untouchable piece. He won’t be going anywhere except Houston, and not until the time is right.
When will that be?
Top prospects who don’t make the big club out of spring training typically don’t arrive in the majors until early to mid June, which ensures they won’t have enough service time to be eligible for salary arbitration until after their third season.
The same thing likely will happen to Correa, though Luhnow insisted his top prospect isn’t following any timeline.
“There’s a pretty good chance Carlos will reach the big leagues this year and stick around for a long, long time,” Luhnow said.
With the Astros in first place, the urgency to make the leap becomes even greater.
“Everybody is dying to be a part of that team,” Correa said. “When you’re winning, it’s fun. It’s really fun when you’re winning, especially at the big-league level.”
Luhnow expects the winning to continue and insists he won’t make any trades that mortgage the long-term future. Still, he can’t expect Astros fans to be patient forever. Not after what they’ve been through.
Grizzlies fans have experienced their share of losing, too, but Luhnow isn’t concerned about them. Nor should he be. Houston boasts one of baseball’s deepest farm systems. If a Singleton or Santana get traded, reinforcements will arrive from a Double-A Corpus Christi squad that is 28-14 and also leading its division.
Should make for an interesting summer.