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Luhnow confident in process despite critics

HOUSTON -- Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has heard the critics who have chastised the club for dealing away most of its established Major League players in the last year, while slashing payroll and stockpiling talent for what suddenly has become a very good Minor League system.

Monday's trade of shortstop Jed Lowrie, who was shipped along with relief pitcher Fernando Rodriguez to the Oakland A's in exchange for three young players, fell in line with similar deals the Astros have made in the past year. Veterans Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez were dealt for prospects as Luhnow has ignored the critics and proceeded full-speed ahead with a master plan to rebuild the Astros.

The plan, of course, has caused some to wonder just how competitive Houston could be in the rugged American League West this year with kids getting a chance at many positions and a payroll that will struggle to reach $25 million. Luhnow has heard the critics, and his faith in his process in unwavering.

"I think people are focusing on what the Major League payroll is, and I think the reality is we're making a huge investment in our people," Luhnow said. "We're going to spend close to $20 million acquiring prospects through the amateur draft and international process. We're investing in our teachers at the Minor League level, we're investing in our capabilities to develop young talent and we're staying consistent with our strategy, which is to develop the best young talent in baseball and be as consistently competitive as soon as possible.

"We're not going to do something to improve a few games in 2013 that comes at the expense of our ability to compete over the long haul."

And that's what the Lowrie trade -- and nearly every other deal Luhnow has made since taking over as GM of the Astros -- has been all about. It's a philosophy Luhnow sold to owner Jim Crane and team president and CEO George Postolos when he was hired, and everyone remains on board.

"We're very pleased with the progress we've made in improving the system," Postolos said. "We set a goal early on to have the best young talent in baseball. All the successful franchises we've seen in baseball that have been consistently successful, they've had great systems. Jeff's come out of an organization [St. Louis] that's been able to achieve that, and we think he's off to a great start here."

The Astros' Minor League system, which was negatively impacted by poor performances in the Draft from 2005-07, began to show signs of improvement under previous general manager Ed Wade, and in the last year has shot up the rankings.

Considered just three years ago as the worst system in the Minor Leagues, the Astros are now regarded as having one of the best, thanks to the trades made by Wade and Luhnow and success in recent Drafts. Houston nabbed three players last year it felt were first-round quality, including No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa.

In 2012, six of the Astros' eight Minor League clubs finished at .500 or better, and the organization posted the best overall winning percentage in the Minors. A year earlier, the Astros had the lowest winning percentage and didn't have any clubs finish with a winning record.

Crane said Houston will spend money at some point, but not before the young talent starts to blossom.

"As soon as we get a nucleus of young talent out there, we'll fill in the gaps with some money," he said. "We're hoping that comes sooner than later. We have a lot of good arms we picked up this year. It will be interesting to see the starting rotation. We have some good arms with a lot of velocity, and hopefully that will give us an edge and we can surprise some people."

Manager Bo Porter, hired in September after two seasons as third-base coach for the Nationals, took the job understanding the path management was taking. Porter knows he's going to have to be patient, and he understands there will be growing pains with so many young players.

"Some of these guys are going to be dealing with failure for the first time," he said. "One of our biggest challenges as a staff is to be able to give them the confidence that's needed to go out each and every day to fight through adversity that comes their way."

By holding the No. 1 pick in the Draft again this year and having more money to spend internationally than any other club, Luhnow likes the position the Astros are in. And he's certainly not ready to concede anything in 2013.

"I know a lot of the national reporters say we're going to finish last and lose a lot of games again," the GM said. "You know what? Oakland was supposed to be last [in the division] last year, Baltimore was supposed to be last, and they both ended up making the playoffs. It all starts when we play the Rangers here at the end of March, and I'm looking forward to putting it together and having a great, exciting 2013."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
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