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Luhnow’s Moves Give Astros Fans Reason for Optimism

Struggling with the worst record in Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros have a plan that gives their fans reason for optimism. The once-proud ballclub – which entering Sunday’s series finale against Pittsburgh had lost 12 in a row and 25 of 27 –  is following a blueprint centered around player development, which is why many loyal Astros fans can smile, even in the midst of all the beatdowns.

What is the reason for positive thoughts in Houston, despite a 35-68 record? There are many reasons, actually. Namely a multitude of top prospects in the suddenly improved farm system, and two key figures in the front office.

New Ownership – New GM

Houston Astros NewsLast November, Major League Baseball approved the purchase of the Astros by Jim Crane, a Houston businessman and former college baseball player who bought the team from Drayton McLane. Before Crane hired Jeff Luhnow as his first general manager last off-season, he said that he envisioned a rebuilding process of three to five years.

Crane asked Luhnow to mimic how the Rays and Pirates were built into contenders by crafting a deep and talented farm system. Luhnow understands how to build a winner through producing homegrown talent and using promising prospects in trades to acquire difference-making major leaguers.

Before joining the Astros as general manager last December, he was vice president of scouting and player development for the St. Louis Cardinals, overseeing the team’s drafts and creating one of the best farm systems in the majors. Currently, the Cardinals have four players on Baseball America’s Mid-Season Top 50 Prospects List.

The Plan Begins

The Astros actually started their farm system overhaul last year. On July 31, they traded outfielder Michael Bourn to Atlanta for minor league pitchers Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, and Juan Abreu; and outfielder Jordan Schafer. Oberholter and Clemens project as middle of the rotation starters when they are major league ready while the 25-year-old Schafer is getting playing time in center field for the Astros (batting .225).

A year ago, just before the Bourn trade, Houston sent outfielder Hunter Pence to Philadelphia for prospects Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Josh Zeid and a player to be named later.

A 20-year-old left-handed hitting first baseman, Singleton is considered Houston’s top overall prospect and was No. 23 on Baseball America’s Mid-Season Top 50 Prospects List. He is batting .275 with 13 home runs, 56 RBI and a .868 OPS at Double-A Corpus Christi.

MLB.com ranks the 22-year-old Cosart as Houston’s second best prospect. The right-handed starting pitcher received an in-season promotion from Corpus Christi to Triple-A Oklahoma City and could join the Astros rotation as early as 2013.

The Trades

Houston Astros NewsNot content with the farm system depth he inherited, Luhnow has been the most active GM in baseball with trades this season. He recognized that the system needed depth, and that is what he has created by shipping out pitchers Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ; first baseman Carlos Lee; and third baseman Chris Johnson (who was dealt this weekend).

In early July, Lee was sent to Miami for third baseman Matt Dominguez and left-handed pitcher Rob Rasmussen.

A first round pick out of high school in 2007 by the Marlins, the 22-year-old Dominguez is a superb defensive third baseman whose bat is still developing, and he was blocked in Miami when the team moved Hanley Ramirez to third after signing Jose Reyes in the off-season.

Dominguez is batting .298 in 57 at-bats at Oklahoma City and will likely join the Astros at some point this summer.

Prospects and More Prospects

Happ was traded with David Carpenter and Brandon Lyon to Toronto for right-handed pitchers Asher Wojciechowski and Joseph Musgrove, left-handed pitcher David Rollins, catcher Carlos Perez, major league outfielder Ben Francisco and closer Francisco Cordero.

The 19-year-old Musgrove is three to four years away from the majors and is at Single-A Greeneville while the 23-year-old Wojciechowski joined Corpus Christi, could make his major league debut next season and projects as a durable starter or an impact late-inning reliever.

For the left-hander Rodriguez, Houston landed minor league pitchers Rudy Owens and Colton Cain, and outfielder Robbie Grossman. The 24-year-old Owens, a left-handed starter, was placed on the Astros 40-man roster and sent to Oklahoma City. He projects as a back of the rotation starter in the majors.

A switch-hitter who was a sixth round selection of the Pirates in 2008, the 22-year-old Grossman reached 100 walks and 100 runs for advanced Single-A Bradenton last season, played well in the Arizona Fall League and has spent this season at Double-A. He is considered a future starting outfielder at the major league level.

Also, earlier this month, Myers was sent to the White Sox for right-handed pitcher Matt Heidenreich, left-handed pitcher Blair Walters and a player to be named later. A fourth round pick of the White Sox out of high school in 2009, the 21-year-old Heidenreich stands 6-foot-5 and boasts a fast ball that reaches the mid-90s. He was sent to Corpus Christi and represents another Astros minor league pitcher who could help the parent team sometime in the next two years.

If all the aforementioned names are not exhaustive enough, Luhnow acquired minor league outfielders Marc Krauss and Bobby Borchering from Arizona for the 27-year-old Johnson. The 24-year-old Krauss was hitting .283 with 15 home runs and 61 RBI at Double-A Mobile in the Diamondbacks system while the 21-year-old Borchering received a recent promotion to Mobile after stroking 18 home runs at advanced Single-A Visalia.

Krauss was Arizona’s first round pick in 2009 while Borchering was a second rounder of the Diamondbacks in the same draft.

Of the players Luhnow acquired in the other trades this month, Dominguez, Musgrove and Wojciechowski were first round draft picks; and Rasmussen was a second rounder.

Not to be forgotten is the off-season deal that sent closer Mark Melancon to Boston for oft-injured shortstop Jed Lowrie and minor league pitcher Kyle Weiland. The 28-year-old Lowrie, who was a first round pick by Boston out of college in 2005, has 14 home runs for the Astros this season but is currently on the disabled list.

Along with the players Houston has acquired in traded over the last calendary year, they also have promising 24-year-old outfielder J.D. Martinez and 22-year-old second baseman (and Houston’s lone 2012 All-Star) Jose Altuve on the major league active roster as well as 22-year-old outfielder George Springer (listed by MLB.com as the organization’s third best prospect and No. 45 on Baseball America’s Mid-Season Top 50 Prospects List), highly regarded Double-A shortstop Jonathan Villar (who was acquired from Philadelphia in the Roy Oswalt trade) and 2010 first round pick Delino DeShields Jr. (an exciting 19-year-old second baseman).

In this summer’s draft, all Houston did was sign top overall pick Carlos Correa, a 17-year-old shortstop from Puerto Rico who has drawn comparisons to Alex Rodriguez and Troy Tulowitzki and is expected to rapidly climb the farm system. The Astros also inked supplemental first round pick Lance McCullers Jr., a highly regarded right-hander who fell in the draft because of signability concerns with his commitment to the University of Florida.

Right now, the Astros are the laughingstock of Major League Baseball and the doormat of the National League. Next year, they will move to the American League West, which is occupied by the talented Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, the young and hungry Oakland A’s and the prospect rich Seattle Mariners.

Likely, Houston will lose 100 games this season and 100 more in 2013, giving Luhnow more opportunities for top draft picks. During these lean times at the major league level, the multitude of prospects Luhnow has acquired through trades, the draft and international free agent signings will develop.

Chances are, Luhnow’s moves will make Crane’s vision a reality, and the Astros will field a contender within three to five years.

Jeff Louderback is a professional writer, author, editor and publicist whose work about the Red Sox, the Red Sox farm system and general Major League and Minor League columns and features appear in print and online media outlets.