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Astros in search of cornerstone player in Draft

General manager Luhnow laying foundation for bright future through development

HOUSTON -- We are witnessing the transformation of a franchise, the rebirth of the Houston Astros. Looking back on the past three years, it has happened breathtakingly fast. Best of all, the really fun part is yet to come.

This is another important day in the process. The Astros aren't just hoping to add another good player in today's First-Year Player Draft. They're hoping to add a cornerstone player, the kind of player that can help propel a team into October.

For the third straight year, Houston will have the No. 1 overall pick. The Astros are the first franchise to have three straight No. 1 picks, and it would be impossible to overstate the importance of decisions like the one they're about to make.

Whether it's high school left-hander Brady Aiken or N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon or even if it's a surprise pick, the Astros believe they're going to add a player around whom playoff clubs can be built.

Two years ago, they surprised the world by taking 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa. That decision has looked better by the day. He's 19 now and flying through the Minor Leagues, excelling at every level.

Correa is about to be promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi, which would put him on the threshold of the big leagues. He's tall and relaxed and makes absolutely everything look easy. He has been so smooth that scouts have compared him to a half-dozen other star-caliber players.

Anyway, if things work out the way the Astros hope, Correa will be in their lineup on Opening Day next season. In the last few weeks, they've summoned the system's two biggest stars -- right fielder George Springer and first baseman Jon Singleton.

Springer, 24, endured a terrible few weeks since his promotion, but he has settled in and is doing a really good imitation of a guy on his way to being a big star, someone who plays the game with joy and charisma. He's the type of player who will bring fans back to the ballpark, the kind who'll prompt channel surfers to stop and say, "Hold it, let's see what Springer does."

Singleton, 22, arrived on Tuesday and homered in his first game. So much attention has been focused on his new contract -- potentially eight years and $35 million -- that the larger point has been missed.

This guy is also a game-changer, a big guy, a power hitter, a guy opposing pitchers will be careful with. Because of that, Singleton has a chance to be one of those players who makes the hitters around him better.

Suddenly, people around town are talking about the Astros. They're checking the scores and highlights. In short, they're caring in a way that they haven't in a couple of years as the losses piled up.

This franchise is an amazing story in that few teams have ever drawn up such a radical blueprint and then stuck to that blueprint. Back when a Houston businessman named Jim Crane bought the club in 2011, he said he would hire a general manager with an impressive player development background.

Jeff Luhnow got the job because few personnel men have had a string of more productive Drafts than the ones Luhnow had with the Cardinals. He has hired an entirely new baseball staff, using every new metric his staff could come up with.

Luhnow hasn't just brought in baseball guys. He has hired rocket scientists and lawyers, people with all kinds of advanced degrees. Some have criticized Luhnow's approach, calling it impersonal, saying the Astros have reduced their players to a series of numerical calculations.

This criticism misses the point. Baseball people have always been heavily influenced by numbers. Now, though, the numbers are so much more sophisticated, so much more precise.

Luhnow is also aware that winning clubhouses need leadership and the right attitude and all of that. Do you think he was aware of the impact Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina and others had on those clubhouse in St. Louis? Of course, he was.

Baseball people doubted Crane would have the wherewithal to stay the course as the club played poorly and attendance declined. He did, though, allowing Luhnow nearly complete freedom to rebuild a franchise.

Springer and Singleton represent the end of the beginning of that rebuilding process. Last year's No. 1 pick, Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, is expected to be in the big leagues on Opening Day in 2015 despite a tough start to his first full professional season.

There are other big-time prospects dotted throughout the organization, and because Luhnow has had the freedom to shuffle and reshuffle his big league roster, he has found an assortment of players who could be around for the long haul -- center fielder Dexter Fowler, left-hander Dallas Keuchel, right-hander Collin McHugh, reliever Josh Fields.

The vibe around the Astros has changed so dramatically as to almost defy description. With an energetic manager, Bo Porter, leading the way, they seem to have turned some sort of corner in recent weeks.

Houston had a winning May (15-14) and has won 13 of their last 20. In this 13-7 stretch, everything has clicked. The Astros are scoring 4.5 runs per game, with Springer, Jose Altuve and Fowler leading the way. Their bullpen's 1.59 ERA in this stretch is the American League's best. Their rotation has been solid, too, running up a 3.38 ERA, behind only the A's, Blue Jays and Yankees in the AL.

Baseball seasons eventually expose every weakness, but after losing 100 games three straight years, the Astros finally can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Best of all, there's more talent on the way.

And this Draft could bring another infusion, another reason for hope. Organizations push their young players like never before. Michael Wacha and Alex Wood spent barely a year in the Minors. Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Kolten Wong and Springer all were fast-tracked out of the 2011 Draft. Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Chris Sale were part of a dazzling 2010 Draft class.

That's the hope the Astros have for this latest No. 1 pick. It's the hope of a new day, a new beginning. They were prepared to be patient. Turns out, they haven't needed all that much.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Houston Astros, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, George Springer, Jose Altuve, Jon Singleton, Dexter Fowler