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Andy Furillo: Houston Astros are baseball’s team on the rise

Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony Defrancesco, right, holds up the team’s new jersey while standing next to team executive vice president Derek Franks during a news conference to unveil the team’s new uniform at Chukchansi Park on Feb. 6, 2015.
Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony Defrancesco, right, holds up the team’s new jersey while standing next to team executive vice president Derek Franks during a news conference to unveil the team’s new uniform at Chukchansi Park on Feb. 6, 2015. The Fresno Bee

The Houston Astros may not make the World Series this year, or even the American League Championship Series, but baseball fans need to familiarize themselves with this organization, even if the people in charge are getting rid of Tal’s Hill.

Named for former club president Tal Smith and a landmark of the Gulf plain, the 90-foot-wide hill rises in center field at Minute Maid Park to a distance of 436 feet from the plate. Next year, they’re reducing that to 409 feet, a wise move for a club that hit 230 home runs. As a bonus, it will create just enough space for an off-track betting parlor, or at least a spot to drop off your FanDuel or DraftKings selections – same difference.

Tony DeFrancesco has been part of the Houston organization for five years. Sacramento baseball fans remember him from his seven seasons as manager of the River Cats, during which they won four Pacific Coast League and two Triple-A championships. DeFrancesco moved in 2011 to Houston’s affiliate in Oklahoma City, then got called up in 2012 to manage the big club. After going 16-25 during his interim tenure, DeFrancesco managed back in Oklahoma City and, this year, in Fresno, where the Astros had moved their top minor-league club. The Grizzlies won the Triple-A title, bringing joy to Fulton Mall.

From Oklahoma City to the foot of Tal’s Hill to Chukchansi Park, home of the Grizzlies, DeFrancesco watched from within as general manager Jeff Luhnow built the organization into a powerhouse. Luhnow, the former scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals, was the subject of a computer hack by somebody who wanted insight into an organization in which five other clubs besides the Astros and Grizzlies also won division championships or made the playoffs this season.

“I think he had a vision,” DeFrancesco said of Luhnow in a telephone interview from Kansas City on Thursday, before the Astros beat the Royals 5-2 in the opener of their American League Division Series. “The whole goal for Jeff is not being good for one year, but to be good for five or 10 years, to keep it going, so it’s not one and done. The minor leagues are the bread and butter. You get prospects, you get to move some chips.”

Houston signed second baseman Jose Altuve out of Venezuela before he would have been old enough to vote in the United States. Altuve, now 25, led the American League in batting last year and had another 200-hit season this year. Although Altuve preceded Luhnow, shortstop Carlos Correa, 21, did not. Just the two of them will keep the Astros in contention long after the leveling of Tal’s Hill.

Altuve, Correa and every other guy in the Houston lineup can knock the ball out of the park. The team’s 230 home runs were second in the majors behind Toronto’s 232. Five Astros hit at least at least 22. First baseman Chris Carter’s 24 homers helped salve a .199 batting average, not to mention 151 strikeouts. Carter struck out 212 times in 2013. In our transition away from fossil fuels, the Astros should place a windmill near the plate every time Carter steps up.

Carter, who has 90 home runs in three years with Houston, played for DeFrancesco in Sacramento. The story was the same here as it is there – whiff and wallop.

You’ve just got to put up with the strikeouts. But he’s going to hit 30 to 40 home runs.

Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco on Houston’s Chris Carter, a former River Cat

“You’ve just got to put up with the strikeouts,” DeFrancesco said. “But he’s going to hit 30 to 40 home runs.”

Home runs have figured huge for Houston in the playoffs. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez each hit one in Tuesday’s wild-card win in New York. Rasmus and George Springer popped ones in Thursday’s Game 1 victory over Kansas City, the defending American League champ. Rasmus homered again in Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Royals.

The Astros this year gave up top prospect Domingo Santana to get Gomez, a veteran, in an exchange of outfielders. Rasmus came up with the Cardinals, so Luhnow knew all about him and signed him as a free agent, and the outfielder came through with 25 home runs. Springer, with 36 homers combined in the past two regular seasons, is a second-year outfielder out of UConn.

Astros ace Dallas Keuchel led the league with 20 wins, 232 innings and a 1.017 WHIP. If he doesn’t win the A.L. Cy Young Award, the voters should be banished to the wilds of Tal’s Hill until it is sent the way of Boot Hill. He is scheduled to start Game 3 against the Royals on Sunday, with a chance to . put the Astros back ahead.

Keuchel won only 21 games his first three years in the majors, but DeFrancesco knew as soon as his interim managerial season of 2012 that the Astros had a winner in the making, even though Keuchel then was only 3-8.

You look in a guy’s eyes, you know what their makeup is. Sometimes the numbers and the stats don’t show what kind of guy they are. He’s got focus. He’s got drive.

DeFrancesco on Astros ace Dallas Keuchel

“You look in a guy’s eyes, you know what their makeup is,” DeFrancesco said. “Sometimes the numbers and the stats don’t show what kind of guy they are. He’s got focus. He’s got drive.”

As a manager in the A’s organization, DeFrancesco was schooled in the importance of analytics. With Houston, he’s in a place where the numbers are boiled to perfection, down to the only aggregates that really count – the ones in the standings. And the Astros figure to be at or near the top of them for years to come.

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