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Springer's debut represents new era for Astros

Five-tool talent is the first of many top prospects working their way to Houston

HOUSTON -- George Springer represents so much to the Houston Astros that it might be difficult to get our minds around all of it. So let's begin with the most basic stuff as he prepares to make his Major League debut.

The 24-year-old Springer is a tremendous player, the kind of five-tool talent around whom an entire franchise can be built.

Don't take my word for it. Bobby Cox happened upon one of Springer's Minor League games a couple of summers ago and came away raving about him.

Before we punch the kid a ticket into Cooperstown, let's at least let Springer play a couple of games. There's no way of knowing how things will work out, but he has everything a team looks for in a dynamic player -- power, speed, makeup and instincts.

Ranked No. 3 among Astros prospects, Springer has a chance to be one of those rare players who impacts games with his bat, legs and glove. Since Houston made him the 11th overall pick of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft out of Connecticut, Springer has flown through the club's Minor League system.

Springer got to Double-A in his first full professional season and to Triple-A in his second. He has never looked overmatched. Granted, the Astros are hurrying Springer along because he means so much to the franchise, both symbolically and substantively.

In recent years, teams have thrown away all those old timetables and decided to push their best prospects and to challenge them. Maybe young players won't thrive immediately when they're force-fed through a system, but if the talent is legitimate, if the physical skills and mental makeup and all the rest are what they're projected to be, the player frequently will hold his own and eventually reach a comfort level.

In other words, the good ones will figure it out. In just 95 games at Double-A, Springer had 23 doubles, 21 homers and 27 stolen bases. He batted .280 and had a .905 OPS. In 75 games at Triple-A, Springer has been even better: 11 doubles, 21 home runs, 26 stolen bases, .319 batting average and a 1.061 OPS.

The Astros were convinced Springer was the real deal by the end of last season, when they offered him a contract believed to be worth $23 million over seven years. He turned it down, and so began the chess match over when to bring him to the big leagues and begin the countdown to arbitration and free agency.

Let's set all that aside, because Springer and the Astros will get that stuff worked out. Nothing should detract from how good this guy is and how excited Houston fans should be to get to watch him play.

Springer has a chance to be mentioned in the same breath as Mike Trout and Manny Machado. He's going to bring you out of your seat, and he may just do it frequently. Springer is reason enough to go to Minute Maid Park and to buy tickets and jerseys. The Astros almost certainly are going to market the heck out of this kid.

There are other gifted kids behind Springer, and that's another great part of this story. But Springer just might be the face of the Houston Astros for a long time. That's no small statement for this franchise of Nolan Ryan and Jose Cruz, of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, and of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman.

Springer represents a new beginning, a turning of the page. With his debut, Astros fans can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Go ahead and watch Springer play. Be dazzled by his skill set. But best of all, understand that there's more on the way, that this dramatic reconstruction of a franchise has reached another phase.

The Astros have been bad for awhile, but they're not going to be bad much longer. Springer was drafted by the previous administration, by former general manager Ed Wade, who did a wonderful job moving the farm system from the bottom of the heap to the middle.

And then in December 2011, new owner Jim Crane handed the keys to a new general manager, Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow did brilliant work with the Cardinals, sending approximately 50 players to the big leagues. At times the past two seasons, Luhnow has had more players in the big leagues than any other scouting director.

Crane's mandate was to strip the franchise down and to build it back, to build it right and to make sure that when the Astros were good again, they'd be poised to be really good for a long, long time.

Plenty of baseball people scoffed at Crane's plan, predicting he'd hate the losing and the attendance decline so much that he'd eventually go for a short-term fix with veteran free agents. Almost three years later, he has not done that, even though the results have been ugly with three straight 100-loss seasons.

While that was happening, Luhnow was doing things right, building a great farm system, preparing to open a pipeline of talent that is about to vault Houston back into contention.

It's never as simple as it sounds. Kids don't come with guarantees. Regardless how many of them make it, Luhnow will still have to spend money to surround them with veterans to create the right environment.

Everything begins with the farm system, though, and that's what Springer represents. It's now one of the best, if not the best, in the game. Over the next 12 months, Luhnow is hopeful the Astros will be reshaped with those kids: Springer, shortstop Carlos Correa, right-handers Mark Appel and Lance McCullers, Jr., infielder Delino DeShields Jr..

There are others, too, at all levels. Some are just about ready to be challenged at the big league level, while others may need awhile longer. The bottom line in all of this is that we are about to see a franchise transformed.

Give Crane credit for staying the course. If it all works out the way the Astros hope, there are tremendously exciting days ahead. Springer, with his speed and power and charisma, represents a new beginning, and a new start. Enjoy the ride, Astros fans.

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