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As GMs convene, Luhnow faces many hurdles

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- If you're looking for the man confronting the stiffest challenge among the 30 gathering at the Major League General Managers Meetings this week, Jeff Luhnow is a good place to start.

As GM of the Houston Astros, in the process of transitioning from the National League Central to the loaded American League West in 2013, Luhnow understands that expectations, like attendance and revenues, are way down.

He also believes that trends change, the downtrodden can rise up, and that Houston is doing it the right way -- building internally with talented, eager youth.

"We're going to hold ourselves accountable to a pretty high standard," Luhnow said. "We're also realistic. Our payroll's going to be lower than the other teams in our division. I think we got a jumpstart through the Draft and with all the trades we were able to accomplish."

The Astros have lost almost twice as many games (213) as they have won (111) over the past two seasons. Now, on a regular basis, here come the A's, Rangers, Angels and Mariners, who comprised by far the most competitive division in the Majors in 2012.

The third-place Angels would have won the AL Central by a game over Detroit. The last-place Mariners won more games than five teams from the AL East and Central.

Into this bold new realm, new Astros manager Bo Porter arrives, highly recommended from Washington as a member of manager Davey Johnson's staff.

"From our fans' perspective," Luhnow said, "there's some excitement about playing the Rangers more, along with the other three teams coming to Minute Maid Park. We know it's a difficult division, maybe the most difficult in baseball.

"But the NL Central is no pushover with the Reds, Cardinals, Milwaukee. [Astros owner and chairman] Jim Crane said it best: 'For us to win the World Series, we've got to beat everybody. You play up to your competition.'"

The Astros have a lot of ground to cover to approach the AL West's competitive level. For self-help instruction, they can read all about Oakland, the reigning division champions.

The A's won at least 20 more games than the smart guys with the computers projected last year, gunning down the Rangers in the wild, wild West. Only the Yankees (95-67) won more often in the AL than the 94-68 A's, who did it with fresh-faced kids on a mission led by a handful of wily veterans.

Luhnow and others in the game's lower stratum can draw on the example of A's general manager Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin in trusting the youth developed by the farm system and turning it loose.

"I think so," Luhnow said, nodding in agreement. "The A's have a great stable of young players that played well at the big league level, coupled with some free-agent signings. We do look at that as a model.

"We don't have to be on a five-year track. It could ignite for us. We have to have the right mix, and we feel like we're moving in the right direction."

No less an authority than Beane was liberally praising the Astros' direction with young talent on Wednesday.

The Astros have 31 players on their 40-man roster. Most of them are known in few households beyond their own. That leaves plenty of space for home improvements via free agency.

The highest-salaried player on the roster is shortstop Jed Lowrie, who made $1.15 million in 2012.

The team's best player is Jose Altuve. The dynamic 5-foot-5 All-Star second baseman had a .290/.340/.399 slash line in 2012 and stole 33 bases.

There just weren't enough Altuves. The Astros scored fewer runs than any team in the league in front of the fewest number of fans, averaging 19,849. Only the Rockies, dealing with altitude, had a higher team ERA.

Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris front the rotation, backed by Jordan Lyles and Dallas Keuchel. Wilton Lopez is the closer. The Astros need another starter, and everybody needs relievers.

Moving to the AL, a designated hitter comes into play. The Astros will seek a middle-of-the-order weapon in free agency.

By any measure, it's a tall order Luhnow has undertaken.

Conceding that it's highly unlikely the club will be a player in that high-stakes game early on, Luhnow will begin the process of sifting through the list of free agents in search of potential bargains.

"I suspect most of our activity will be after the Winter Meetings, and probably in January and February," he said.

With his background in St. Louis, Luhnow watched the Cardinals consistently produce vital late additions, citing Kyle Lohse as a prime example.

On March 14, 2008, Lohse agreed to a one-year, $4.25 million deal. It led to a four-year extension, and coming off a career year, he's in line for a big payday as a free agent this winter.

Luhnow believes the Astros' situation is "analogous to what happened in St. Louis" when the Cardinals, their system in decline, began to throw resources behind scouting and development and got the pipeline flowing.

"It took a while to get that pump going," Luhnow said. "That took from 2003 until where they are today in 2012."

In the immediate future, Houston figures to absorb a lot of drilling from the AL West before the pumping starts in earnest.

Houston Astros