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Astros bursting at seams with confidence

After drafting first three straight years, club believes contention is around the corner

HOUSTON -- When the Astros were asked to compare Brady Aiken to someone we've all seen, they didn't hesitate.

Sometimes, teams run from questions like this one. Sometimes, these are the questions that keep them awake at night.

In for a dime, in for a dollar.

The Astros are a very confident organization. They believe they're on the verge of doing great things.

They don't run from these kinds of questions. So here you go...

The Astros look at Brady Aiken and see a younger version of Clayton Kershaw. Their words, not ours.

"That comes around a lot," Astros scout Brad Budzinski said.

No sooner did Budzinski go down that road than he was asked to keep going.

By his boss.

"How about a former Astro?" general manager Jeff Luhnow asked.

Hey, Brad, you're not going to answer that one, are you?

"I liken him to Andy Pettitte," Budzinski answered.

You don't say.

"Not to throw too much on the young man," Budzinski added.

No, we wouldn't want to do that now, would we?

This is the fun part of being around this franchise, of watching it being rebuilt from top to bottom. The Astros, with all their rocket scientists and lawyers and assorted advanced degrees, believe they're on the cusp of being spectacularly successful. If you don't believe them, just ask.

Luhnow blew into town two and a half years ago after overseeing a series of spectacularly successful Drafts with the Cardinals. In Houston, he was allowed to do things the way he thought they should be done.

Luhnow talks about winning "multiple championships." And so, here's Brady Aiken.

"We had a chance to take the best player, and we did," Luhnow said. "This is the most advanced high school pitcher I've ever seen in my entire career. He has command like I've never seen before. His stuff took a tick up as he came into this year, and that's when he just exploded."

When Luhnow was hired, he was given what amounted to a dream assignment. Team owner Jim Crane promised to give him the freedom to do a complete teardown of the baseball department and to start over.

By most evaluations, the Astros had a middle-of-the-pack farm system when Luhnow arrived. By those same estimates, it's among the best in the game now.

And Luhnow is not afraid to say so.

"We infused talent these last three years that is very difficult to obtain," he said. "It's not just the first round. We've done a terrific job drafting beyond the first round."

The Astros paid the price of losing 324 games the last three seasons. Home attendance declined dramatically. Yet Crane has never once blinked. He supported Luhnow every step of the way.

With the arrival of first baseman Jon Singleton and right fielder George Springer the last few weeks, the pipeline has begun to flow.

The Astros believe the talent is going to come fast now. Right-hander Michael Foltynewicz is next up, and 19-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa isn't far behind.

And on Thursday night, Houston tabbed Aiken while becoming the first team in history to pick first in the First-Year Player Draft three straight years.

Decisions like the one the Astros made on Aiken can be franchise-changing moments. They went for a 17-year-old kid, a kid who probably is at least three years away even if everything goes right.

Again, the Astros are very confident that they made the right decision. In Aiken, they see the perfect pitching machine. He's a 6-foot-4 left-hander with a fluid delivery and nearly perfect mechanics. He was not overworked in high school.

Aiken's fastball has been clocked at between 89 and 96 mph, but the Astros obviously feel it'll settle into that higher number as he grows and matures. They see a kid with a big, easy curveball, a curveball that might indeed remind people of Pettitte's.

Aiken also has a working changeup, a pitch that says plenty about his aptitude and understanding of what he has to be to succeed at the highest level.

But the Astros saw more with Aiken. They saw a work ethic, a confidence and a poise that had their Southern California scout, Budzinski, "pounding the table" for him, according to Luhnow.

There are no guarantees. Young pitchers have a high attrition rate. Yet because Aiken's delivery is so smooth, because he throws the ball so effortlessly, the Astros believe Thursday was another special day in the history of the franchise.

Someone asked Luhnow about the pressure that comes with picking first, now that general managers who blow a No. 1 pick achieve the wrong kind of notoriety.

Again, Luhnow didn't run from the question. In fact, he seemed to enjoy it.

"It's an opportunity for the Astros. That's how we think about it," Luhnow said. "We don't think about it as pressure. There's no certainties in life. Some players fail when you think they're going to succeed. We put ourselves in a position where we think this is the best player with the best chance of having the biggest impact and help us ultimately to achieve our goal, which is winning multiple championships."

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