When Jeff Luhnow was hired by the Houston Astros in 2011, he had quite the task ahead of him: rebuild a ball club that had been borderline solid for some years before bottoming out in 2011, winning just 56 games and trading their best player Hunter Pence.
Former General Manager Ed Wade had the Pence trade alone to try and save his job. Despite a promising return of Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton, Domingo Santana and others, it was a lost cause.
Luhnow had a plan from day one. Tear it the **** down. He traded every possible piece he could and played the long game. The very long game.
Well here we are in 2017 and his Astros are unbeatable.
Inheriting pieces like Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel and 2011 first-rounder George Springer was certainly a start, and from there he would go on to complete one of the most talked about rebuilds of all time.
Obviously you’re not signing marquee free agents in the cellar, so Luhnow and his staff would need to draft and trade their way back to relevance.
There were a few swings and misses along the way: Chris Johnson turned out to be a far more competent hitter away from Minute Maid Park. Mark Melancon went from erratic seventh-inning pitcher to elite closer. Jonathan Villar was never seriously considered as a puzzle piece and dealt to the Brewers for chump change in 2015.
Most infamous of all is the outright release of J.D. Martinez, who would sign a Minor League deal with the Detroit Tigers and proceed to become one of baseball’s best hitters.
You can’t win them all. After all, the team passed on Kris Bryant in favor of Mark Appel at the top of the 2013 MLB Draft (in their defense, a choice many other teams would have made) and bungled the top pick (Brady Aiken) a year later.
One of Luhnow’s best transactions came with the Miami Marlins at the 2014 trade deadline.
Still in sell mode —albeit nearing the end of the three year process— he salvaged the remains of Jarred Cosart, sending him, utility man Enrique “Kike” Hernandez and 25-year old Triple-A outfielder Austin Wates to Miami for Colin Moran, Jake Marisnick, a 2015 first-round compensation pick and 18-year old Francis Martes.
Moran was Miami’s top selection —sixth overall in fact— just 13 months prior but to this day hasn’t cost the Marlins any sleep. Marisnick, acquired by the Fish as part of their Jose Reyes severance package with the Blue Jays, never developed the bat but is one of the premiere defensive outfielders in the game.
The pick would become enigmatic high school star Daz Cameron, whose salary aspirations saw him slip all the way to the compensation round. With pool money to spare and the situation seemingly telegraphed pre-draft, the Astros selected him 37th overall.
He’s struggled mightily thus far, but is still just 20 years young. ...And then there’s Martes.
When Houston acquired the teenager, he was considered a throw-in nobody had heard of but garnered attention because, well, the Astros must want him for some reason right?
At the time of the deal, Martes had a 4.97 ERA in rookie ball but was just 31 games and 20 starts into his pro career. Hitters were batting .222 against him and he had 31 strikeouts in in 29 innings.
Upon making the trip west to Texas, he blossomed quickly. In four appearances (three starts) with the Astros rookie affiliate, he finished the remainder of that season with a .82 ERA, adding 12 strikeouts and three walks in 11 innings of work.
In 2015, he absolutely dominated Low-A (1.04 ERA in 52 innings, 45:13 K:BB ratio) and High-A (2.31 ERA in 35 innings, 37:8), earning a promotion to Double-A. Seeing his first conflict in over a year, his stock was nevertheless cemented.
Entering the 2016 season, John Sickels’ ranked Martes as his 33rd best prospect in all of baseball. Baseball Prospectus (63) and MLB.com (41) also pitted him in their annual 100. Baseball America rated him 20th overall.
After fast tracking him through the lower levels, Martes spent the entirety of 2016 at Double-A Corpus Christi. He dazzled and at age 20 was now one of the most exciting prospects in all of baseball. The season numbers looked like: 3.30 ERA, 131 strikeouts while allowing just four home runs in 25 games (22 starts).
Walks spiked a bit again at the level (career 1.26 WHIP for Corpus) but he once again climbed the farm system rankings entering 2016.
Sickels’ named him 30th prior to 2017 with BA again the most favorable, now pitting him 15th. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com also moved him into his top 20.
Naturally, the next stop would become Triple-A. Martes didn’t take too kindly to the final Minor League stage, but due to some vacancies in the Major League bullpen, he will nevertheless be called up on Friday with his highly anticipated MLB debut coming soon after.
The burly righty had an uninspiring 5.29 ERA and 2.10 WHIP in 32.1 innings for Triple-A Fresno (all eight appearances were starts, a first in his career) but is still one of the team’s best prospects and takes priority due to this status.
Because of those unpleasant Triple-A numbers, this is certainly a temporary move with more development to be done. But he’s just 21 and considering the steal of a deal the 2014 trade with the Marlins has become, this is a big, big win in a season full of them for the Astros.