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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Luhnow has Astros on right track

Justice: Luhnow has Astros on right track

Luhnow has Astros on right track
He laid out a vision for the future and a blueprint for getting there. He wrote of a season in which dramatic progress was made in dozens of unseen areas and asked fans to show some faith in the work being done. He promised that faith would be rewarded.

"The future is bright," he wrote.

It was an extraordinary e-mail that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow sent to the team's season-ticket holders this week. It was a state-of-the-organization address and a pep rally rolled into one.

"We are building a front office team with analytical capabilities that not only are among the best in baseball but would rival the best in sports and other industries," Luhnow wrote.

It was his opportunity to speak directly to the people who care most about the Astros and to not have the message filtered by a newspaper's editors or a columnist's attitude. There were no punch lines.

"Our focus in 2012 was on creating and fostering a winning mindset throughout the Minor Leagues that will eventually flow up into our big league team," he said.

He said nothing that was really new. From the moment Jim Crane bought the Astros last fall, he has said this is the path he would take.

There would be no more shortcuts. There would be no more big-ticket veterans to patch up the roster in an effort for respectability and nothing more. There would be a great emphasis on player development.

Crane warned that the first couple of seasons might get ugly, but promised that once the Astros had a great baseball staff in place and once they restocked the farm system, they would be good enough to compete for a championship.

To thousands of Astros fans, this was music to their ears. For too long, the club had made its roster a revolving-door for older players. Meanwhile, the Minor League system was allowed to decay.

So with the Astros at 39-79, with talk-show idiots and columnists using them as a punching bag, Luhnow sat down and restated the organization's long-term goals: to hire smart people, to build methodically, to not let one bad season distort the larger picture.

"We are experiencing one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent history with respect to our Minor League winning percentage," Luhnow wrote.

The thing is, Crane had no choice. No franchise can win without a productive Minor League system. That's true of wealthy teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, and it's certainly true of teams like the Astros.

If the season ended today, four of the top five payroll teams would miss the playoffs. More than ever before, payroll size doesn't dictate the standings.

But player development isn't negotiable. It gives every team a chance to compete. Luhnow took over a farm system that had improved under his predecessor, Ed Wade. But there was work to be done.

Luhnow's first nine months on the job have been devoted to putting together a staff that combines both cutting-edge analytics and traditional scouting. He poured himself into the First-Year Player Draft and is confident the organization gained an infusion of talent.

"We want the Houston Astros to be a winning franchise that can compete for division titles year in and year out and ultimately bring multiple championships to the city of Houston," Luhnow wrote. "We have made significant progress towards this objective in 2012 and that progress will accelerate in 2013."

The thing that makes the road uncertain is that young players don't come with guarantees. As we've seen with the Royals, Pirates and Mariners, there's no way to know how quickly a player will arrive in the big leagues and even fewer guarantees of how long he'll stay.

If an organization gets it right on three of 50 draft picks, it has had a good year. But there's no other way to do it. Player development provides a flow of affordable talent, giving every team a chance to compete.

Luhnow simply wanted Astros fans to know that he was disappointed by a 39-79 record, but that there was something else going on. Next season, he'll begin giving some of his best kids a chance to play in the big leagues.

Outfielder George Springer? Probably.

First baseman Jonathan Singleton? Sure, why not?

In a perfect world, the 2013 Astros would be like the 2012 A's, in that their young players would make dramatic progress and do things no one ever expected so quickly.

Regardless, the Astros are on the right track. They're also on the only track that makes sense. Luhnow has brought so many new faces into the organization in such a short amount of time that he has hardly had time to take a step back and realize the franchise was moving in the right direction.

This week's e-mail allowed him to do just that. He's doing the work that must be done. Here's to a step in the right direction.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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