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Astros expect progress in 2014 under long-term plan

GM Luhnow's vision includes emphasis on analytics, depth in Minor League system

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The plan was laid out in painstaking detail. Jeff Luhnow followed up a phone interview with then-team president George Postolos by sending him a 25-page document spelling out his blueprint for rebuilding the franchise if he were to be hired as the Astros' general manager.

That was only a few months after the Astros wrapped up their worst season in team history by losing 106 games in 2011, their penultimate season in the National League. At the time, the Major League club was aging, the Minor League system needed more talent and depth, and a dramatic overhaul was needed.

Luhnow, the Mexican-born businessman with a background in business, an Ivy League degree and a successful track record with the Cardinals, believed he could get the franchise turned around in time. Owner Jim Crane and Postolos read through his blueprint and were sold, hiring Luhnow in December 2011 to be the team's general manager.

The rebuilding plan, which included a commitment to data analysis that's among the most ambitious in the game, started with improving the Minor League system, which was given a boost of talent through a series of trades of veterans and some savvy work in the First-Year Player Draft.

While the Minor League system became one of the best in the game, the Major League product suffered and slumped to 111 losses last year. Still, Luhnow says that while no one expected the Astros to lose as often as they did last year, the rebuilding plan is on course.

"We want to really turn the dial toward success at the Major League level, and that's reflected in some of the moves we made this offseason," Luhnow said. "It will be reflected in the performance day in and day out of the team. As we've talked about, there were times last year when we could compete, but there were times we couldn't. It's really maintaining that consistency where every series, every game, you've got a chance to win."

The Astros, who ended last season with a payroll of about $13 million after dealing away nearly all their veteran contracts in a span of three years, spent $22.35 million in salary for 2014 by signing pitchers Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain and Jerome Williams. They also acquired center fielder Dexter Fowler ($7.85 million) and first baseman/outfielder Jesus Guzman ($1.3 million), and Houston should have a payroll in the $45 million range.

Those additions figure to make the club more competitive this year, though likely not a contender. Crane, though, isn't writing the team off as also-rans, but he admits the future is setting up quite well.

"We're here to win, and so we hope we see significant improvement this year. And I think next year, anything can happen," Crane said. "We will continue to go out and add a few players, as necessary, as we did this year, and we'll continue to see some of this talent coming up, particularly the pitching. We're very deep. We expect to contend quickly."

That hinges on a farm system that last month was labeled the best in baseball by ESPN. Former general manager Ed Wade brought aboard many of those prospects -- he acquired pitchers Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Mike Foltynewicz, Josh Zeid, first baseman Jonathan Singleton and outfielders George Springer, Delino DeShields Jr. and Domingo Santana, among others -- before Luhnow moved the rebuilding project into overdrive.

The Astros nabbed Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with the top pick in the 2012 Draft, spending some money in the process to sign pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. and third baseman Rio Ruiz away from college scholarships. They took Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the top pick a year later, adding to their impressive pitching depth in the Minors.

"We've got the system ranked No. 1 by ESPN and we're drafting first again, so that can only get as good or better," Crane said. "So I have to say he's done a good job bringing in the right people, beefing up the coaching staff and analytics. I really like where we're positioned at this point."

It's no surprise the Astros have patterned themselves, in part, after the Cards, who have been perennial contenders without a huge payroll. In fact, there are influences from St. Louis' organization all over Houston's franchise, led by Luhnow, scouting director Mike Elias and director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, who spearheads analytics.

Like the Cardinals, the Astros want to be able to contend year in and year out on a reasonable payroll, relying on their farm system to bring waves of talent. Luhnow says that begins with making sure they have the right scouts and coaches in place, as well as the right philosophy.

"That team wins the division every year and wins the [NL] Championship Series or goes to the World Series -- so they're constantly picking late in the Draft and they constantly have smaller [bonus] pools, and yet they're continuing to produce players like Michael Wacha and other players that are going to help them win in the future," Luhnow said.

"That's the model that we're setting up, whether we picked first in the Draft or 29th. We want to have the right scouts, the right leadership, the right process, utilizing all the available information. Even though you're at somewhat of a disadvantage in terms of the dollars you can spend, you can still get a huge return on your investment."

The team's struggles on the field at the Major League level have been frustrating to the fan base, but Luhnow and Crane have preached patience since Day 1. The team has its own internal projections of how many games it could win this year, but Luhnow would only say he expects them to be substantially improved.

"I'm not going to put a win total on it," he said. "I'll let the experts do that. This team is going to be a lot more fun to watch for the fans, and we're going to be a lot more competitive this year. I really think that people are going to start to see the results of all the work that's gone in the last couple of years.

"It's all going to come together into a fun product to watch, with power pitching, guys that throw strikes, guys that hit home runs, play good defense and win ballgames."

Crane says it's important to show the fans that have shown show much patience and have bought into the rebuilding plan the past few years that things are changing at Minute Maid Park.

"We could be legitimate pretty quick here," Crane said.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
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