HOUSTON -- Five years ago, when he was approved to purchase the Astros, Jim Crane had a vision of what he wanted the team to be. He dreamed of a roster brimming with talent, a packed ballpark and a chance to compete for a championship every season.
Crane's team is on the cusp of having all that become a possibility, but it was an uphill climb. A 111-loss season, fading fan support for a team that for a couple of years wasn't available to watch on TV in Houston and a thin Minor League system presented an enormous challenge for Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow.
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"Five hard years," Crane said with a laugh last week.
That's why Crane is so enthusiastic these days when talking about the Astros -- a team that will enter 2017 with huge expectations after a busy offseason in which it bolstered the lineup by trading for catcher Brian McCann, signing free-agent outfielders Carlos Beltrán and Josh Reddick and pitcher Charlie Morton.
With a talented young core now in place and a strong Minor League system, the Astros are poised to be legitimate contenders in the American League the next few years.
"Getting [Reddick and Beltran] off the board early and getting them signed before the Winter Meetings was big, too, because it kind of secured where we needed to be and gave us some flexibility to continue to look possibly at other deals or some more arms, if [Luhnow] can find something that works," Crane said.
As he promised all along, Crane has started to increase the payroll after the Minor League system was restocked and a nucleus was in place. Homegrown stars like José Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and Alex Bregman provided the backbone, and this offseason's veteran additions have filled in most of the gaps.
The Astros would still like to add another impact starting pitcher, but the team is poised to contend as it stands.
"We thought we had a pretty good ballclub last year, but we got beat up a little bit," Crane said. "We thought we could get into the playoffs with that club. Really, I think with these additions, if you just match them up with what our holes were last year, both defensively and [offensively] and the credentials we brought in, it's three big plusses with three above-average bats.
"It should make the other guys better, too, and take some pressure off them. You look at the lineup now -- I don't think there's a lot of weakness in the guys that we'll be starting, and [manager] A.J. [Hinch] will have a lot of options moving those guys around with a lot of flexibility."
Crane said the payroll should top $120 million next season, the team's highest since 2009. The spending began last summer when Houston signed Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel to a five-year, $47.5 million deal. Morton (two years, $14 million), Reddick (four years, $52 million), McCann (two years, $23 million left on his deal) and Beltran (one year, $16 million) followed.
"We always said we'd spend the money when we could spend it effectively, and now is the time," Crane said. "We've raised the payroll steadily the last three or four years and got it up over $120 million this year. We're spending the resources we think we need to be competitive and get in the playoffs and win a championship. That's the goal."