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Astros take bold step for long-term gain

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- It will be years before we know the real impact of the new Draft world, a month before the international signing cap is in place, which in turn will be weeks after Cuban slugger Jorge Soler has signed for what may be double the budget limits of any club in the First-Year Player Draft.

And it will be years before we know if, indeed, Carlos Correa is the fulcrum in the reconstruction of the Houston Astros. Someday we may learn that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow decided not to devote weeks of his life dealing with Scott Boras on Mark Appel, but what we watched Monday night was a decision that Houston fans should embrace.

A couple of weeks ago, with Appel, a Stanford ace with a Houston background who was the most certain big league starting pitcher available and the logical selection as the first pick, Luhnow, scouting director Bobby Heck and the baseball people worked out the 17-year old Correa in Kissimmee, Fla.

"Blown away" was the way one of their evaluators described the workout. "Best player out of Puerto Rico since Carlos Beltran," said another evaluator.

They watched a 6-foot-3, 190-pound shortstop with staggering skills. Soft hands. Incredibly lithe feet, which allows him to maintain uncanny balance in his powerful swing and always catch grounders in position to throw. Because he looks the way Alex Rodriguez looked when he was a teenager, some made that comparison, but the more accurate comp was to Troy Tulowitzki.

"The carry and accuracy of his throws is mind-blowing," says one Puerto Rican baseball man. "He's not going to have to move off shortstop. He's all baseball."

The more time Luhnow spent with Correa, he was also blown away by his makeup. Correa is quiet, respectful. He grew up around Ponce, where he knew the Alomars and Javy Vazquez. His is the area where Giancarlo Stanton's mother's family was raised.

"He has great respect for the game and the people in it," says Alex Cora, who has worked with Correa. How much respect? When he walked up to the podium, he hugged Commissioner Bud Selig.

Correa is a very good student. If he went to the University of Miami he would have begun classes before his 18th birthday, this September. He rises daily at 4:30 a.m., is in the parking lot of a McDonald's at 6 for his ride to the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy.

Puerto Rican natives like Carlos Delgado and Cora proudly tweeted about what Correa's selection means to their island. Baseball there has supposedly been in decline, but with the help of MLB's support of the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy, there were three players selected in the first and sandwich rounds on Day 1: Correa, pitcher Jose Berrios by the Twins with the No. 32 pick and infielder Jesmuel Valentin -- son of former big league shortstop Jose Valentin -- by the Dodgers with the 51st selection.

"People in Puerto Rico are very proud," said Pudge Rodriguez. "And everyone is very proud of Carlos Correa."

So the clock began ticking on the ownership cycle of Jim Crane. Putting the 'Stros on the long-term horizon in a division with the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners -- who selected catcher Mike Zunino to be the future comptroller of the future staff of Taijuan (Sky) Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and, of course, Felix Hernandez -- is going to be a far-reaching process. First to the big leagues isn't what's important; they're probably going to lose 90 games two years from now.

Last in the big leagues is what counts, and in the end, if Correa is what they think he is, he will be in the middle of the Houston infield 10 years from now, when who knows how that powerful American League West will look.

The Washington Nationals are building on ceiling, which is why they added Lucas Giolito to the base of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, not to mention Ryan Zimmerman. The Toronto Blue Jays are building ceilings throughout their system to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, and in a year when they seem close to making a run at the Wild Card, selecting Duke's Marcus Stroman and his blow-away slider may give them in September what Francisco Rodriguez gave the 2002 Angels.

In mid-July, Appel will likely end up signing with the Pirates to go with Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, et al., giving Pittsburgh, like Seattle and Arizona, a pitching core that can compete sometime in the next season or two. There is no school of thought that suggests Appel will not be very successful.

But Crane and Luhnow are in it for the long term, and the long-term solution is having a franchise player in the middle of the field. In 1974, a writer named Jon Landau went to the Harvard Square Theatre to see Bonnie Raitt. A guy named Bruce Springsteen opened for her. Landau wrote, "I have seen the future of rock and roll ..."

Luhnow, Heck and company kept watching Appel, until the 17-year old kid showed up in Kissimmee and they knew they'd seen the future of the Houston Astros, and the land of hopes and dreams.