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Astros developing players, moving toward contention

Success won't happen overnight, but Draft picks Castro, Lyles among bright spots @RichardJustice

HOUSTON -- Little by little, the Astros are doing exactly what they hoped to do this season. That is, they're developing players. They're developing a winning mindset, too.

How long will it take?

We'll have to get back to you on that one because young players don't come with guarantees.

Let's begin with some good news:

• Catcher Jason Castro, a 2008 first-round choice in the First-Year Player Draft, was named American League Player of the Week on Tuesday, and the Astros see him as one of the cornerstones on which they will build.

• Right-hander Jordan Lyles, 22, is getting there, too, having allowed one earned run in three straight starts.

• The Astros' Minor League system has a combined .572 winning percentage this season, best among the 30 Major League organizations, just ahead of the Rangers (.572), Giants (.567) and Twins (.550). Three of four full-season teams are in first place.

There's no substitute for winning at the Major League level, and the Astros aren't there yet. At 15-37, they're in last place in the AL West.

But when Astros owner Jim Crane hired Jeff Luhnow as his general manager 18 months ago, he promised him the resources and patience to reconstruct a franchise from the ground up.

This season was about identifying players around which the franchise could be built. And about adding to the core of talent.

Cue the general manager.

"We've got some guys who are not just holding spots for the next guys," Luhnow said. "They're here to prove they belong. They're saying, `We're part of the future.'"

He's especially pleased by the Minor League team success. He understands that developing players is always the first goal, but believes that winning is an added benefit.

"When I was the farm director in St. Louis," he said, "the focus was on developing players, and winning was very much secondary. I understand why that was. I tried to put an emphasis on winning while developing. We took a system that had one of the worst records in baseball and turned it into the best for a couple of years.

"What I noticed is that when players are coming through the system and they've been winning, it creates a mindset that winning is a natural way of being. With guys like [Allen] Craig, [Daniel] Descalso, [Jason] Motte and others, they'd won championships in the Minor Leagues, and when they got into the pressure cooker of the postseason, they didn't skip a beat. I want that same environment here. I don't think you need to trade off winning and development. I think they go hand in hand."

He's the beneficiary of some good work by his predecessor, Ed Wade. When former owner Drayton McLane hired him as general manager in 2007, Wade's first hire was scouting director Bobby Heck (now with the Rays).

Wade made the First-Year Player Draft a focus for the organization, and in that very first one, in 2008, the first two choices were Castro and Lyles.

Five years later, those picks look terrific. Castro is healthy for the first time and earning raves for everything from his preparation for studying opposing hitters and helping his pitchers find a comfort zone to emerging as a solid offensive player.

His name is dotted across the AL leader boards among catchers, just behind Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana in on-base percentage and on-base-plus-slugging.

"It's been an evolution," Castro said, "a learning experience, learning how the game works at this level, how the pitchers look at attacking me, how that changes over a game given certain situations."

Upon learning he'd been named AL Player of the Week, he said, "It's really nice. I'm definitely savoring it. It's a game of failure, so when you have success, it's really gratifying. It's a game of adjustments. One week, you're feeling good, the next you're going to have to be scratching and clawing for everything you get. You definitely take it when the successes go your way."

Lyles would understand everything Castro has gone through. He made his Major League debut at 20, and two years later, is able to reflect on a learning curve that has included a trip or two back to the Minor Leagues.

"It just comes down to making quality pitches down in the zone," he said. "I know I say that a lot. But it's the key. I have to throw the ball at the bottom of the strike zone."

The Astros will have the first overall pick in next week's First-Year Player Draft for the second straight season and could very well have it in 2014 as well. But they're accumulating talent, and that talent has a chance to transform the Major League team.

With outfielder George Springer and an assortment of young pitchers seemingly on the cusp of making the Major Leagues, the Astros are changing rapidly.

"We're turning a corner," Lyles said. "Catching our stride."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Houston Astros, Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles