MLBPipeline.com breaks down how each postseason team used the Draft, the international market and free-agent signings to build its team.
When Jeff Luhnow took over as Astros general manager in December 2011, the team was coming off a 106-loss season, the worst in franchise history. Houston actually got worse from there, suffering 107 defeats in 2012 and 111 in 2013.
But after the most dismal three-year period the Astros ever have endured, they're now enjoying one of their best. They've posted three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2001-06 and this year captured their first division title since 2001 with 101 victories -- their second-highest total ever.
:: How each postseason team was built ::
Asked whether it was harder to return his club to contention or to keep it there after doing so, Luhnow said the tasks were equally challenging.
"Starting where we were, with a big league club that had lost 100 games and a Minor League system consistently rated in the bottom five in baseball, we knew it was going to take years," Luhnow said. "It's not easy, and there's no given road that leads to success. It's equally difficult to stay competitive. The more success you have, the more likely your players are to get compensated or become free agents.
"You have to have a pipeline to keep talent coming. We do have a pipeline, and it's not top-heavy or bottom-heavy, but it's spread out. That's going to be critical for us. We're going to try to keep our stars long term, but we'll need our system to continue to produce."
Player, how acquired, year, 2017 Baseball-Reference WAR (31.8):
Jose Altuve, Int'l sign, 2006, 8.4
Dallas Keuchel, Draft, 2009 (7th round), 3.9
George Springer, Draft, 2011 (1st), 5.1
Carlos Correa, Draft, 2012 (1st), 6.3
Lance McCullers Jr., Draft, 2012 (supplemental 1st), 0.9
Derek Fisher, Draft, 2014 (supplemental 1st), 0.4
Alex Bregman, Draft, 2015 (1st), 4.1
Yuli Gurriel, Int'l sign, 2016, 2.7
The Astros lead all postseason teams in production received from homegrown players, as measured by Baseball-Reference WAR. They've scored with premium Draft picks such as first-rounders Springer (No. 11 overall in 2011), Correa (No. 1 in 2012) and Bregman (No. 2 in 2015) and supplemental first-rounder McCullers Jr. (No. 41 in 2012), as well as a $47.5 million investment in international signee Gurriel (2016).
Houston also has built its club around two players who have far exceeded expectations since turning pro. Altuve signed for $15,000 out of Venezuela in 2006, but he attracted more attention for his size (5-foot-6) than his ability until he won the Minor League batting title in 2011. Dallas Keuchel received $150,000 in 2009 as a seventh-rounder who had a plus changeup but an otherwise fringy repertoire.
Luhnow liked Altuve's prowess at the plate, but he didn't project him becoming a three-time American League batting champ, not to mention also turning into a power hitter, two-time AL stolen base leader and a Gold Glover -- and possibly the AL MVP in 2017. He was the starting second baseman during Luhnow's first year in Houston in part because the club had few alternatives.
"He made the All-Star team that first year, but he didn't have a good first half in 2013 after we extended his contract," Luhnow said. "There was no guarantee he was going to become what he turned out to be. We did believe in him: the person, the work ethic, the hitting skills. He's continued to perform better year after year."
Keuchel's strike-throwing ability landed him a spot in Houston's rotation by mid-2012, but he struggled in his first two years there, going 9-18 with a 5.20 ERA. After the 2013 season, Luhnow, then-manager Bo Porter and pitching coach Brent Strom decided Keuchel would benefit from being guaranteed a starting job despite his struggles. He has justified that faith by going 55-34 with a 3.15 ERA since, earning two All-Star berths and the 2015 AL Cy Young Award.
"We had to give Dallas some certainty because he had earned it," Luhnow said. "We trusted him and put the ball in his hand. He paid us back by becoming one of the best starting pitchers in baseball."
Player, year, acquired from, bWAR (17.8):
* Marwin Gonzalez, 2011, Cubs (via Red Sox), 4.4
Joe Musgrove, 2012, Blue Jays, 0.1
Chris Devenski, 2012, White Sox, 1.8
Brad Peacock, 2013, Athletics, 3.0
+ Will Harris, 2014, Diamondbacks, 0.9
Evan Gattis, 2015, Braves, 1.3
Ken Giles, 2015, Phillies, 1.9
Brian McCann, 2016, Yankees, 1.3
+ Collin McHugh, 2013, Rockies, 1.2
Francisco Liriano, 2017, Blue Jays, 0.2
+ Cameron Maybin, 2017, Angels, -0.1
Justin Verlander, 2017, Tigers, 1.8
* Acquired via Rule 5 draft.
+ Acquired via waivers.
When the Astros bolted back into contention in 2015, Luhnow traded prospects that July to acquire Scott Kazmir from the Athletics and Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers from the Brewers. None made much of an impact in Houston, while Josh Hader, Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana have emerged from the latter deal to become building blocks in Milwaukee.
That didn't deter Luhnow from trading more youth for experience as he shaped the 2017 Astros. Last November, he sent power arms Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman to the Yankees for McCann, filling a need for a catcher who could provide offense and veteran leadership. After Luhnow drew criticism for not making a significant move at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, he pulled off a blockbuster a month later by getting Verlander, a six-time All Star, from the Tigers for prospects Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez and Jake Rogers.
Verlander won all five of his starts for the Astros and has been dominant in October, taking home American League Championship Most Valuable Player honors. Houston will retain him through 2019 at the cost of $20 million per season and managed to hold onto Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley, the prizes of its farm system.
Video: Astros' trade for Verlander part of postseason build
"In retrospect, with the production we got from the players for who we gave up in 2015, we would take those deals back in a heartbeat," Luhnow said. "When you have experiences like that, they can't help but affect you. But we try to be disciplined with how we approach these deals.
"The Verlander deal took a long time to pull together, and it wasn't clear it would come together. To get two years of control, along with him pitching as well as he has pitched in his career, we went through a pretty disciplined approach to get that result."
Several smaller moves that didn't generate nearly as many headlines have worked out well for the Astros. Super utility man Gonzalez was a Rule 5 pick from the Cubs via the Red Sox in 2011 on Luhnow's second day on the job. Bullpen revelation Devenski was an unknown when plucked from the White Sox in the Brett Myers trade in 2012, and rotation surprise Peacock had posted a 6.01 ERA in Triple-A when he was part of a package received from the Athletics for Jed Lowrie in 2013.
Player, year, bWAR (6.7):
Luke Gregerson, 2014, 0.0
Charlie Morton, 2016, 1.8
Josh Reddick, 2016, 4.4
Carlos Beltran, 2016, 0.7
Juan Centeno, 2016, -0.2
Video: Reddick among smart Astros free agents deals
The Astros have mostly avoided big-money commitments to free agents, with the lone exception a still moderately priced four-year, $52 million deal for Reddick last November. He provided some left-handed balance for the lineup and responded with the best season of his career. Morton also enjoyed a career year after signing for two years and $14 million last November.
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.