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Astros' awards reflect Luhnow's ingenuity

GM reeled in stars with first two Draft picks for Houston
MLB.com @RichardJustice

He was brought in to rebuild and replenish. That's exactly what Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has done, and there are reminders of his good work here, there and everywhere.

First, there are the standings, where his Astros have baseball's best record (38-16) and largest division lead -- 11 1/2 games in the American League West -- entering Friday.

He was brought in to rebuild and replenish. That's exactly what Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has done, and there are reminders of his good work here, there and everywhere.

First, there are the standings, where his Astros have baseball's best record (38-16) and largest division lead -- 11 1/2 games in the American League West -- entering Friday.

And Friday brought another kind of reminder of Luhnow's smart work when his two first Draft choices with the Astros -- shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. -- were named the AL Player of the Month and Pitcher of the Month for May.

If one day can provide validation of 5 1/2 years of really smart work in essentially rebuilding a franchise, this was it.

Video: Correa named AL Player of the Month for May

This wasn't just about player evaluations either, although that certainly was part of it. Luhnow was forced to use some creative math to get two elite prospects, and that's one of the reasons the Astros are where they are today.

If both Correa and McCullers end up in the 88th All-Star Game presented by MasterCard on July 11 in Miami -- and it seems likely -- Luhnow should accompany them for a victory lap.

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Correa and other #ASGWorthy players

So should Astros owner Jim Crane. He'd just purchased the club in 2011 when he set out to find a new general manager.

He wanted someone who could draft smartly and rebuild the Astros from the ground up. In Luhnow, he got someone who'd done great work as Cardinals scouting director.

Five years later, it's important to remember that Correa wasn't the consensus "best player" in that 2012 Draft. But as Luhnow negotiated with multiple players, he came up with a plan he believed would bring him two All-Star-caliber players for one slot price.

Tweet from @astros: #EARNEDCongrats to @TeamCJCorrea and @LMcCullers43 for taking home the Player and Pitcher of the Month Awards for May! pic.twitter.com/XuTu9Z0LoG

McCullers was the wild card. He was seen as a first-round talent but seemed committed to attending the University of Florida if he didn't get a financial offer he was comfortable with.

Finances aside, the Astros got the talent evaluation right on both players. Correa made his Major League debut two years ago at age 20 and was the AL Rookie of the Year.

After hitting .233 in April this season, Correa began crafting an All-Star resume in May by hitting .386 with seven home runs, 26 RBIs and a 1.130 OPS in 26 games.

For the season, Correa began Friday 10th in the AL in batting average (.316), seventh in OPS (.914) and ninth in RBIs (34).

Likewise, McCullers, the 41st pick of the 2012 Draft, has teamed up with lefty Dallas Keuchel to give the Astros a one-two combo as good as almost any in baseball. The Astros are 18-3 in their 21 starts.

Video: BAL@HOU: McCullers Jr. fans eight over six innings

McCullers allowed four earned runs in six starts in May, going 5-1 with a microscopic 0.99 ERA. He enters his start on Saturday ranked fifth in the AL in ERA (2.48), fifth in strikeouts (73), and sixth in WHIP (1.06) and opponents' batting average (.210).

Luhnow's home run wasn't just in his evaluation of the two players. It was his ability to negotiate a deal for Correa that was under the recommended signing slot for the No. 1 pick and use the leftover money to take McCullers with the 41st pick.

That he did. Correa signed for $4.8 million of the $7.2 million slot, leaving $2.4 million for McCullers. McCullers, slotted to receive $1.26 million, got $2.5 million.

Luhnow still had enough left over to take third baseman Rio Ruiz, who was one of the players used to acquire Evan Gattis from Atlanta in January 2015.

Correa played just 282 games in the Minors before making his Major League debut on June 8, 2015. Likewise, McCullers was fast tracked to the Majors after 52 Minor League starts. He just celebrated the second anniversary of his Major League debut, and still only 23, has a dazzling 3.04 ERA after 47 starts.

Both of them say they hope there's bigger prizes ahead, as the Astros are nicely positioned for their first division championship in 16 years. If that happens, they'll look back and see Friday as another symbolic brick in the wall.

It was a pretty good day for Luhnow as well.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Houston Astros, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr.