DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 12: Framber Valdez #59 of the Houston Astros pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the fifth inning at Comerica Park on September 12, 2022, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
That the Astros are on the verge of wrapping up a sixth consecutive trip to the postseason and winning 100 games for the fourth time in five full seasons is a tribute to a whole bunch of things, beginning with team owner Jim Crane.
He has done virtually everything right since purchasing the club in 2011, from hiring the right people to giving them the resources and freedom to do their jobs to occasionally pushing them to make deals they weren’t comfortable doing.
That was especially true of the most important acquisition of this era: the 2017 trade for Justin Verlander. In the final minutes before the deadline for playoff eligibility, the trade with the Tigers had hit a roadblock.
Former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, Crane’s most important hire, was uncomfortable with the money, prospects, etc., the Tigers were demanding. Crane wanted the deal done anyway and told Luhnow he’d worry about the financial side of things.
Without Verlander, the Astros do not win the 2017 World Series and probably lots more. As the Astros catcher at the time, Brian McCann, said: “JV walked in here and made this clubhouse better. And it was already a great clubhouse.”
Verlander brought swagger onto a roster with a core of younger players that had little playoff experience. Verlander brought high expectations, too. In George Springer, Jose Altuve and others, the Astros had an extraordinary amount of talent. Verlander amounted to the final piece.
Now, as the Houston Nine puts the finishing touch on another wonderful season of hardball, one thing stands out above everything else in keeping this run going far beyond the norm:
The Astros play their 143rd game this afternoon, and Manager Dusty Baker has handed the baseball to a homegrown starter 107 times.
(Only the Dodgers, the only team with a better record than the Astros, are close among contending teams with 104 homegrown starts in 141 games. By contrast, the Yankees have 64 homegrown starts, including 21 by Jordan Montgomery, who was traded to the Cardinals in July.)
Homegrown starters are important because acquiring quality starting pitching is expensive. (Astros starters lead the American League in ERA, innings and batting average).
Houston’s six homegrown starters are making—wait for it—$21.7 million, or about $15 million less than the Yankees are paying Gerrit Cole.
Wait, it gets better.
Lance McCullers Jr. is making $15.8 million while the other five—Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown—are at $5.9 million.
McCullers is the exception. He was the 41st pick of the 2012 draft, a no-doubt prospect Luhnow signed because he had extra signing bonus money by convincing No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa to sign for under slot value.
All the others are a tribute to scouts that devoted long hours to searching for talent and seeing something in Valdez, Javier, etc., other clubs did not see.
Valdez has pitched his way onto AL Cy Young ballots this season with 15 victories, 179 2/3 innings and a 2.50 ERA. He was signed after a pair of Astros scouts turned on their car lights late one day to watch him throw a bullpen session in his native Dominican Republic.
He was 21 at the time, which is two or three years too old for the best prospects. But his curveball blew them away and confirmed what area scout David Brito had told them: major league pitch.
Valdez threw for another group of Astros talent evaluators a few days later and signed for $10,000. Three years later, he made his major league debut. Since opening day 2020, he’s 31-14 with a 2.97 ERA, seventh-lowest in the majors. His $3 million salary will get a huge jump this off-season in his second year of arbitration eligibility.
Urquidy was considered a borderline major league prospect in the Astros system until the spring of 2019. He’d even been left unprotected in the Rule V draft of minor league players.
By the end of 2019, he would become the first Astros rookie to start a World Series game when he pitched five shutout innings in Game 4 of the Fall Classic in Washington.
He’d signed with the Astros out of his native Mexico for $100,000 in 2015 and began making his way up the organizational ladder, polishing a broad repertoire of pitches one at a time.
Astros pitching coach Josh Miller was so impressed with Urquidy during their time together in the minor leagues that he nicknamed him “El Duque.” That’s because Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, a Yankee postseason hero, baffled hitters with a variety of arm slots and pitches.
“He could spin the ball really, really well even back in ’15 when we got him in rookie ball,” Miller told The Athletic. “But he has grown into more velocity.”
Former Astros pitching coach Brent Strom offered this: “He generated his power in a straight line, which is something that I advocate for, and he had good command… He had a very quiet confidence about him.”
Likewise, Javier’s story is one of conscientious scouts looking into every nook and cranny for prospects. One of those scouts, Leocadio Guevara, had known Javier since he was a kid and pushed for the signing of the then-17-year-old in 2015. His bonus was $10,000.
With a big sweeping slider and a fastball with surprising pop, Javier moved through the system quickly and made his debut in 2020 at 23. He has a 3.30 ERA in 74 major league appearances, 40 of them starts. His ability to move back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen makes him especially valuable in the postseason.
Garcia’s path from Venezuela to the Astros had so many twists and turns that it’s almost beyond comprehension. Thanks to the work of former major leaguer shortstop Melvin Mora, Garcia agreed to a $20,000 signing bonus. He was 20 at the time.
Three years later, he was in the major leagues and so impressed the organization that he was on the active roster for the American League Championship Series.
Brown’s story has been told again and again in recent days as he began his major league career with two excellent starts. He was a fifth-round pick out of Wayne State who experienced a growth spurt and dramatic increase in velocity along with a polishing of his breaking stuff.
To have just one unearthed gem, a Valdez or a Brown, would be the kind of thing that boosts an organization’s reputation throughout the industry. That the Astros have signed and developed 75 percent of their rotation is amazing and a tribute to everything Crane and his staff have built.
Major league payrolls are cyclical, and with Javier, Valdez and Urquidy all arbitration eligible, their salaries will go up dramatically. But Garcia is a year from arbitration eligibility, and Brown is at least three years away. With Verlander unsigned, the Astros rotation could be different next season. But their history says they’ll figure it out. It’s how they’ve stayed this good for this long.