You remember the cover.
On the front of the June 30, 2014, edition of Sports Illustrated, the editors of the country's most storied -- and arguably curse-imposing -- sports magazine had placed a photo of Houston outfielder George Springer mid-swing, tongue out, looking up at the words "Baseball's Great Experiment" that SI was using to describe the Astros organization. The more sensational phrase is to Springer's right, a phrase that made the cover an instant collector's item.
"Your 2017 World Series Champs"
In today's jargon, that cover was about as click-bait-y as a physical medium could get. The Astros finished that month 36-48, 16 games out of first place in the American League West, en route to their sixth straight losing season. But the point of the piece was that plenty was going on under the surface. Jeff Luhnow had taken over as general manager before the 2012 season and had brought sweeping changes -- a move toward analytics, trying to build up a barren farm system, drafting well with high picks -- to a dire situation.
The results were obvious everywhere but the Majors. In 2012, Astros affiliates had the Minor Leagues' fourth-best winning percentage (.527), one year after finishing last (.408). In 2013, they were second (.569); a year later, they were back down to 13th but still had a winning record (.512).
Now, consider the Astros farm system's 2015 resume.
- The best Minor League winning percentage in baseball (.553, 502-405)
- Seven playoff teams (Triple-A Fresno, Double-A Corpus Christi, Class A Advanced Lancaster, Class A Quad Cities, Class A Short-Season Tri-City, Rookie-level Greeneville, Rookie-level Dominican Summer League Astros Blue) out of nine affiliates
- Two champions, including Triple-A National Champion Fresno
- Five Top 100 prospects, three of whom were taken in the 2015 Draft
- An AL Rookie of the Year candidate in shortstop Carlos Correa
And one more thing:
- The Astros' first postseason berth since 2005 and a meeting with the eventual World Series champions in which they came within two innings of a trip to the ALCS
In other words, 2017 almost came early.
As a sports website, MiLB.com doesn't have a "cover" like SI. But there's this: the Astros are winners of the 2015 MiLBY as Best Farm System, as voted on by both fans and the MiLB.com staff.
Although the above may be individual bullet points, consider them collectively as the fruit of an overall philosophy, one that Luhnow & Co. have tried to instill over the last four seasons.
Start with the graduation of prospects, considering it's the most visible measure to the average fan. In 2012, Luhnow's first Draft, the Astros held two of the top 41 picks, including the top overall selection. They could have their pick of five-tool high school star Byron Buxton, Golden Spikes winner Mike Zunino or college arms Kevin Gausman and Mark Appel. Instead, Houston surprised the industry by taking Correa and making him the first Puerto Rico native drafted first overall, despite his consistent ranking outside the top four in his class. It was a shrewd move made with signability in mind -- again, the organization needed to stock a depleted system with as much talent as possible -- and Correa eventually signed for a reported $4.8 million bonus, well below the $7.2 million allotted for the pick.
Knowing they might have some extra cash in their pool, the Astros were able to take Florida high school right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. at No. 41 -- a supplemental pick following the loss of Clint Barmes -- after signability concerns and a commitment to the University of Florida caused him to drop. With the extra money, they inked McCullers to a reported $2.5 million bonus, double the allotted amount.
Flash forward three years, and in the same way the organization was aggressive in getting both players into their system, the Astros were aggressive in getting both to the Majors.
McCullers, coming off a season in which he posted a 5.47 ERA in 97 innings in the hitter-friendly California League, had a 0.62 ERA with 43 strikeouts over 29 innings in his first six starts at Corpus Christi. On May 14, he was promoted to Fresno, but the Astros decided he was too good for the level before he even pitched there. He debuted in the Major Leagues on May 18 and made 22 starts this season for Houston, going 6-7 with a 3.51 ERA.
In his age-20 season, Correa batted .335 with 34 extra-base hits in 53 games at Corpus Christi and Fresno before being making his Major League debut June 8 -- three years and one day after he made history in the Draft. He quickly became one of the AL's most exciting young players and, after hitting .279/.345/.512 with 22 homers and 68 RBIs in 99 games, he's a favorite for Rookie of the Year honors along with Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor.
"The most important measure of a system is, 'How does it graduate its players?'" Luhnow said. "We were able to do that pretty well this year, especially in the case of Correa. The guys who came up were much accomplished, and we think that's because they had the experience of winning in the Minor Leagues. We're always walking the fine line between winning and development, though, and when we can do both, it's a reflection on the scouts and coaches we have. We're pretty happy with how everything's shaken out."
When it comes to identifying a farm system's strengths in a given year, we have to keep digging. Otherwise, this would easily be the Cubs' award, what with the way rookies Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, etc., performed at the top level for the NL runners-up.
Rather, the evaluation has to go from the top all the way down and, in that way, the Astros checked all the boxes this year. Each of the organization's six full-season Minor League clubs qualified for their respective playoffs and two won championships -- Triple-A Fresno (our MiLBY pick for Best Team) and Rookie-level Greeneville -- a fact anyone in player development will bring up. That kind of organizational depth is nearly unheard of in the Minors.
One of the most exciting things for the organization was the fact that it got to see the mettle of its prospects in big situations, situations the Astros hope to reproduce at higher levels in the future.
"You can see the makeup of players in playoff baseball -- who can step up, who can't," said Allen Rowin, who's been promoted from Astros assistant director of player development to director of Minor League operations. "Lance McCullers had a rough year in 2014, had more walks than he'd like or we'd like. But when we got to the playoff game in Lancaster [in which he tossed six scoreless innings], you could see what he's capable of. It translates to the big leagues, if guys can step up on a big stage."
Of course, you can't have the good teams if you don't have the good players, and the Astros had those in spades. MiLBY Offensive Player of the Year winner A.J. Reed led the Minors with 34 homers and 127 RBIs and hit .340/.432/.612 at Lancaster and Corpus Christi. Tyler White was the fans' choice for that award after batting .326/.442/.496 with 14 homers and 99 RBIs at Corpus Christi and Fresno. Matt Duffy was named PCL MVP after slugging 20 homers and plating 104 runs for the Grizzlies before making his big league debut in September.
On the pitching side, No. 9 prospect Joe Musgrove went 12-1 with a 1.88 ERA and a 99-to-8 K-to-BB ratio over 100 2/3 innings. No. 7 prospect Francis Martes, pitching the entire season as a 19-year-old, finished at Double-A and posted a 2.04 ERA with 98 strikeouts over 101 2/3 frames.
Tony Kemp, Michael Feliz, Derek Fisher, Colin Moran, J.D. Davis, Chris Devenski. The list of Astros prospects with standout numbers in 2015 goes on and on and could be even longer considering that 2015 standouts Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Jacob Nottingham and Daniel Mengden were shipped out in trades for Carlos Gomez and Scott Kazmir.
"We're just trying to put them in the right position to have success and develop their particular skill set," Rowin said. "At the same time, there are some guys who show up and make us look good. Later-round guys like Jon Kemmer, who came from an NAIA school [Brewton-Parker College in Georgia] and led the Texas League in average [.327] this year -- that's fun for us."
Kemmer, a 2013 21st-rounder, is a good example of the way the Astros have been able to build such depth through the Draft and not just by having three straight No. 1 overall picks. After Correa, that narrative falls apart. Mark Appel (2013) is still a promising prospect but hasn't reached the Majors and hasn't put up standout Minor League numbers. Brady Aiken (2014) famously failed to sign and is now in the Indians organization.
Even Reed fits the description as a Golden Spikes winner who fell to the Astros in the second round of the 2014 Draft, because some teams were worried about his size at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. The Astros were bigger fans of his athleticism than most, given that he also pitched in college, and haven't regretted the move. Luhnow noted that the slugging first baseman will enter the spring as a Major League candidate.
"Every player has his weaker areas. A.J. doesn't have very many left," Luhnow said.
But the poster boy, without a doubt, is White, who was drafted in the 33rd round out of Western Carolina in 2013 and signed for $1,000. In three Minor League seasons, he has a .311/.422/.489 line and, given the way he performed at Triple-A (.362 average, 1.026 OPS in 57 games), he also could play his way into the big league conversation in 2016.
"We stress that we can't just take the last 10 rounds off," Luhnow said. "At that point in the Draft, a lot of teams are trying to hit home runs and take risks, but there's a low probability you're going to get even an average Major Leaguer. What we're trying to do is make it a high probability that will help our Minor League system at some point in some way. You look at the Cardinals, and guys like Matt Adams and Trevor Rosenthal were taken late while we were there and have turned into quality players. That really comes down to scouting and finding the right makeup for guys that late or any round, really."
All that said, the Astros' conveyor belt only got stronger at the back end with this year's Draft. By losing Aiken, they got the No. 2 overall pick as compensation to go with its own pick at No. 5 and a Competitive Balance pick at No. 37 (acquired in a previous trade with the Marlins). Houston took LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, Florida prep outfielder Kyle Tucker and Georgia prep outfielder Daz Cameron, all of whom were ranked among MLB.com's top seven Draft prospects. Like McCullers, Cameron fell to 37 because of high bonus demands, but with Bregman ($5.9 million) and Tucker ($4 million) signing below slot, the Astros were able to give Mike Cameron's son a $4 million bonus, equal to that of a top-five pick.
An advanced college bat, Bregman hit .294 with a .781 OPS and four homers in 66 games at the Class A and Class A Advanced levels, while Tucker and Cameron were impressive enough to move off the complex level of the Gulf Coast League and over to the Appalachian League, just in time for their first pro rings.
"It was our goal," Luhnow said of getting all three players. "It worked in 2012 and, fortunately, we've had the resources from ownership to spend the money we needed to make this happen. We think we were lucky to get Daz and work something out with him, and then if you look at the year he and Kyle had, they started out at the complex level and ended up being key to that Greeneville team. It was a great experience for them. And Bregman just absolutely whipped through our system. As a staff, we're very happy with the starts for those three."
With success in the present and the future secure as far as on-field talent, the Astros already have announced that the bulk of their Minor League coaching staffs will return, including the managers of all four full-season clubs. On the front-office side, director of player development Quinton McCracken, whose name came up in connection with general manager openings earlier this fall, has moved up to director of player personnel, while Rowin, as mentioned, takes over as director of Minor League operations.
"We've had a great retention rate," Rowin said. "We're happy with the guys we have in the Minors, and there are some real potential Major League staff members here. It's a really good blend of good, young coaches with experience. It's a credit to those guys in the trenches.
"As for me, hey, the success we've had, I guess a rising tide lifts all boats. It's been great to work under solid leadership. [McCracken] has taught me so much over the years. The credit for the system is really directly related to what he and Jeff have done."
Though staff members have been recognized with jobs and new titles, the players on the seven postseason squads will be recognized come Spring Training. Those who played for Fresno and Greeneville will be rewarded with rings.
"We want them to get used to that feeling," Luhnow said. "Guys like Correa, McCullers -- they're used to winning. They've done it everywhere here. That's something we want out of all our players."
And with those rings, the Astros will try to lay the groundwork for another successful season in a stacked system. At the Major League level, they hope that 2017 arrives a year early.
"This is the beginning of the next chapter -- that's all it is," Luhnow said. "We're still maintaining our same philosophies, even if we've had some success here, but the culmination of our work won't come until we're sipping Champagne."