The biggest difference between the Twins and Astros might be this one: intent.
The Astros deliberately sunk to the bottom of the standings in order to gather the tools necessary to build themselves back up. The Twins fell down there.
Regardless, when Houston and Minnesota meet at Target Field on Friday, it will mark the first time since 2006 that both teams had winning records. But thanks to their half-decade of suffering, it probably won’t be the last time.
“I’ll go on record as saying it — I believe this is a winning team,” General Manager Jeff Luhnow predicted on MLB Network in January, “and I think this is the beginning of many years of winning teams.”
He’s been proven correct on the first part, and there is good reason to believe him on the second. Like the Twins, the Astros’ farm system has ranked among Baseball America’s top 10 for two of the past three seasons, and that was before Houston had two of the top five picks in the MLB draft in June. The Astros project to have one of the largest pools of elite talent in the game by 2018 or so.
But they’re winning now, leading the AL West by five games over the Rangers, and it’s only partly because of the drafting benefits of three consecutive 100-loss seasons from 2011-13. There are numerous parallels between the Twins and Astros: Both teams went 70-92 last season, representing somewhat heartening improvement after disastrous three-year stretches; both teams changed managers; and both teams spent on free agents last winter to shore up the pitching staff and add experience to the clubhouse.
Another striking parallel: The Astros and Twins are the biggest surprises of the 2015 season in the American League.
Young talent grows up fast
Like the Twins, the Astros are beginning to sprinkle young talent onto the big-league roster — 20-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa is the front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year, and 21-year-old righthander Lance McCullers owns a 3.12 ERA after 15 big-league starts — but they have accelerated their major league timetable because of their position in the standings.
“They started winning, and suddenly, the bar was set a lot higher,” said Richard Justice, a former Washington Post writer, longtime columnist at the Houston Chronicle and now national columnist for mlb.com. “This season has presented a window of opportunity, and as bright as the future may be, you just don’t know how often you’re going to get one. If you’ve got a chance to win, you try to win.”
Luhnow did in the past two months, dealing young prospects to add lefthander Scott Kazmir and righthander Mike Fiers to the rotation, lefthander Oliver Perez to the bullpen and former Twin Carlos Gomez to the outfield. They were aggressive moves for a team that has preached patience since Luhnow arrived in December 2011, but necessary, the team felt, to win games — and their fans’ hearts.
“They’ve been playing in a pretty empty building for a few years, and their TV ratings were zero. Literally zero,” Justice said. “They realized it’s time to put butts back in the seats. It hasn’t come all the way back — people found they could live without [Astros baseball] — but there’s a buzz in the city again.”
No wonder. Correa, the only player drafted ahead of Byron Buxton in 2012, appears to be a future star. Lefthander Dallas Keuchel, a pitch-to-contact specialist who rarely hits 90 mph, was the AL’s starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, and his 2.28 ERA is the second lowest in the league. Fiers threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers last week, and Gomez has added his usual energy and intensity to the roster.
The Astros lead the AL in home runs (174) and stolen bases (97), plus feature a strong defense, a thrilling can’t-take-your-eyes-off-them formula that helps counter their league-high strikeout total at the plate. And their starting rotation is on a streak of nine consecutive starts of six innings or longer without allowing more than two runs, the longest such streak since the 1992 Pirates. Only once in three weeks has a Houston starter allowed more than three runs.
Smart trades, signings help, too
Despite all the draft picks heading their way, this isn’t a built-from-within team, however, not yet. Outfielder Jake Marisnick arrived in a trade with Miami, slugging DH Evan Gattis in a deal with Atlanta. Collin McHugh, a 14-game winner this year, was a waiver-wire find from Colorado two winters ago, and third baseman Luis Valbuena bounced around the majors before being traded by the Cubs in January. Infielder Jed Lowrie signed as a free agent last December, righthanded starter Scott Feldman the December before that.
And after watching his team’s bullpen post the highest ERA in the game (4.80) last season, Luhnow signed native Minnesotan Pat Neshek to be the setup man and Luke Gregerson to be the closer. The result: a 2.64 bullpen ERA that is second only to Kansas City.
“Every move they’ve made has worked out. It’s truly remarkable,” Justice said. “When you use your roster as a revolving door, you sometimes find guys who can play, but they’re on an unbelievable run. Their starting rotation has been unbelievable, their bullpen has gone from awful to great, and their lineup is adding some dynamic young players. After what they put themselves through to get here, it’s a terrific story.”