No surprise Luhnow's unique brilliance drives rivals nuts
Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow makes people nuts.
Nuts enough for officials of his former team, the Cardinals, to hack into the database of his current team, the Astros? That will be determined in an investigation by the FBI and Justice Department prosecutors, according to the New York Times.
But Luhnow is different, a baseball outsider who rankled co-workers with his distinctive ideas and sometimes questionable people skills — yet at the same time, has proven to be a brilliant executive with two clubs.
Virtually everyone in baseball was shocked by the news Tuesday that the Cardinals, one of the game’s model organizations, are under investigation. Luhnow frequently drives people to distraction, but criminal behavior? Uh, no.
We don’t know nearly enough details to form anything close to a full judgment — don’t know who might be accused, don’t know their possible motivations, don’t know if the Cardinals’ most prominent executives knew of the hacking or even authorized it.
Still, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if some with the Cardinals never got past their fixation with Luhnow, whom owner Bill DeWitt hired from the corporate world in 2003, then promoted aggressively. And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that baseball’s embracing of Wall Street-style analytics triggered Wall Street-style nefarious behavior.
In the wake of Tuesday’s news, Luhnow actually might emerge as a sympathetic figure — a rather amazing turn of events for an executive who until recently had been a lightning rod for controversy, almost a front-office version of Alex Rodriguez.
● The departure of Walt Jocketty as Cardinals general manager in 2007.
Jocketty, now GM of the Reds, left the Cardinals in part because DeWitt placed Luhnow in charge of the amateur draft and farm system. Some in the industry wonder, even all these years later, whether Jocketty would discuss a top trade candidate such as Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto with Luhnow.
● The criticism by agent Casey Close of Luhnow’s handling of last summer’s negotiations with high school left-hander Brady Aiken, the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft.
Close, who is famously discreet and hardly ever comments publicly on negotiations, said that he was “extremely disappointed” that baseball was allowing the Astros “to conduct business with complete disregard for the rules governing the draft.”
The Astros did not sign Aiken after a dispute over the condition of his left arm and were partly vindicated when Aiken required Tommy John surgery — though they did offer him $5 million.
● The Astros’ firing of manager Bo Porter last Sept. 1.
Tensions between Porter and Luhnow grew over Porter’s perceived lack of input and from his belief that Luhnow engaged in excessive second-guessing of his in-game management.
The managerial change occurred three days after the rift between them became public. Porter, passionate and emotional, proved a poor fit for the deeply analytical Luhnow.
The above examples merely demonstrate that Luhnow often elicits animosity in traditional baseball circles; happens to bright, unconventional types in every industry. The difference in this case is that at least one person with the Cardinals might have acted on their animosity to engage in criminal behavior — behavior that would seem to make little sense in any risk-reward equation.
Did certain Cardinals employees suspect that Luhnow took proprietary information with him to the Astros? If so, they should have filed a complaint with the commissioner’s office.
Did certain Cardinals employees want to embarrass Luhnow by proving they could hack into his computer network?
What is this, high school?
A year ago, many in baseball viewed Luhnow and the Astros as an embarrassment, and the hacking of the team’s network, Ground Control, was one in a litany of woes that included three straight 100-loss seasons, the botched negotiations with Aiken and ultimately the firing of Porter.
Much has changed since.
The Astros, under new manager A.J. Hinch, are in first place in the AL West with the second-best record in the American League. Luhnow has operated without rancor, promoting top prospects such as shortstop Carlos Correa, seemingly acting shrewdly in this year’s draft.
He drafted many of the players who helped the Cardinals make the playoffs five times in six years between 2009 and ’14, and win the 2011 World Series. Then, after embarking upon a strategy that some described as “tanking,” he built an Astros team that appears poised to be a perennial contender in the AL.
He makes people nuts, maybe even nuts enough to commit crimes. But I don’t need a computer to tell me who is getting the last laugh.