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Final season in NL one to build on for Astros

HOUSTON -- Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow didn't expect his team to suddenly go from worst to first in the National League Central this year, so judging the team's progress in its grand rebuilding plan requires looking beyond wins and losses.

While the Astros certainly wanted to be more competitive on the field in their final year in the NL, the team remains pleased with the strides it made in rebuilding the Minor League system while maintaining its commitment to youth at the Major League level.

"We're judging the season on how close we're sticking to and accomplishing our plan of getting this organization back to consistent competitiveness," Luhnow said. "On the metrics we're grading ourselves on, we've had quite a successful season."

The Astros' Minor League system went from worst to first in terms of winning percentage among domestic clubs, as several of their highest-ranked prospects moved a step closer to making an impact with the big league club.

Along the way, the Astros made a flurry of trades in July to stockpile more prospects. Gone were veteran pitchers Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and J.A. Happ, third baseman Chris Johnson and first baseman Carlos Lee. The trades made the Astros the youngest team in the Majors and paved the way for even more kids to get a shot to show what they can do.

"We really feel good about the players that are going to be part of his organization," Luhnow said. "At the big league level, we've accomplished a full year of evaluation. We've seen, as expected, some players take a step forward -- like [pitcher Lucas] Harrell, [second baseman Jose] Altuve, [third baseman Matt] Dominguez and [outfielder Justin] Maxwell -- all players that are forcing themselves to be part of our future plan."

The Astros also got promising contributions from shortstop Jed Lowrie, first baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Jason Castro, but the team's Opening Day starting outfield of J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic each struggled at the plate. Starting pitcher Bud Norris battled injuries and inconsistency and went more than four months without a win.

"There were some players that had mixed years we need to make decisions on this offseason, going into next spring," Luhnow said.

The Astros began the season with much promise, going 22-23 before things started to unravel. As the offense scuffled to get clutch hits -- a problem magnified with the team's lack of power -- the pitching staff wilted under a heavy bullpen workload and the team wound up winning only 14 of its next 68 games.

"We were competitive the first two months [of 2012], and then the wheels fell off," Luhnow said. "We got back on track the last month of the season, and next year we don't want the wheels to fall off. We want to be able to maintain that a lot longer."

The Astros dismissed manager Brad Mills, hitting coach Mike Barnett and first-base coach Bobby Meacham in August, with interim manager Tony DeFrancesco taking over from Triple-A Oklahoma. The club responded to win more games in September than it did in July and August combined, but the team again has nowhere to go but up.

"It doesn't look like it on the field with the results, but we've put in a lot of work this year," owner Jim Crane said. "We worked hard on the business side, we worked on the team and made a lot of changes, probably more changes than anybody's made in baseball, both in the back office and on the baseball side. That's going to pay off as we move forward."

Record: 55-107, last in NL Central.

Defining moment: The Astros were just three games under .500 when they went to Colorado for a four-game series against the Rockies in May. But Colorado roughed up Houston's pitching staff, sweeping the set and outscoring the Astros, 40-23. The pitching staff, especially the bullpen, never seemed to recover.

What went right: Rookie right-hander Harrell, claimed off waivers a year before, blossomed into the club's most consistent starting pitcher and reached double-digit wins. ... In his first full season in the Major Leagues, Altuve emerged as a solid player and represented the Astros in the All-Star Game at 22 years old. ... Lowrie, acquired in a trade from the Red Sox, gave the Astros the kind of power at shortstop they have rarely seen. He finished with the second-most homers by an Astros shortstop despite missing more than two months with injuries. ... After missing all of last season after undergoing knee surgery, catcher Castro played his first full season and made some nice strides offensively.

What went wrong: The Astros' bullpen, which was among the best in baseball the first six weeks of the season, began to show the wear and tear of a heavy workload and struggled for much of the remainder of the year. ... Norris, who was counted upon to be the ace, got off to a quick start before injuries and inconsistency led him to have a career-long losing streak. ... Shortstop Lowrie made a run at representing the NL in the All-Star Game, but he wound up missing 52 games with ankle and knee injuries. ... Outfielders Schafer and Bogusevic, starters at the beginning of the year, both had rough seasons at the plate. ... The other Opening Day outfielder, Martinez, started strong, but wasn't able to duplicate his success of a year earlier. ... Many young players were forced into roles they perhaps weren't quite ready for after the Astros traded away veterans Lee, Myers, Happ, Brandon Lyon and Johnson.

Biggest surprise: Harrell was ruled out of the Astros' starting rotation at one point during the spring, but wound up winning a job. He turned out to be Houston' steadiest starting pitcher and accounted for 10 of the Astros' first 39 wins of the season.

Houston Astros