KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Being labeled as having the best farm system in baseball can be a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, it's an exciting acknowledgment of strong scouting and player development work. The new Astros' Top 20 Prospect list is about as deep as, if not deeper than, any organization's list.
On the flip side, it can be faint praise. Having a great system sounds great on paper, but if it doesn't funnel players through the pipeline to turn things around at the highest level, it's a bit hollow.
"The goal is to accumulate enough talent that the talent comes through and helps the Major League team," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "It can do it in one of two ways. It can come up and help you win games at the Major League level, or it can help you acquire players that help you win games at the Major League level. To have a great system is a step along the way, but it's certainly not the end goal.
"We feel like in the last three years, we've gone from one of the worst systems in baseball to one of the best. One of the things we're going to try to do going forward is regardless of whether we pick first or last, we have a process and a discipline in place that's going to allow us hopefully [to] never return to the days of a bottom-five system."
The Astros' system gets high marks not only for elite-level talent -- they placed seven prospects on the overall Top 100 Prospects list -- but also for having a wide assortment of pitchers and position players, as well as having prospects spread throughout all levels of the system. The Top 20 is split evenly, with 10 pitchers and 10 hitters. Six of the Top 20 have ETAs for this season. Another five are projected to arrive in 2015, eight in '16 and one in '17.
Of course, that doesn't count any non-ranked prospects who make contributions. The fact there is a growing list of players like that -- thanks to the Draft and trades more than anything -- is the biggest testament to just how far this system has come. Now it's time to turn it into Major League performance.
"The model we look at is what the Cardinals have done. The Red Sox continue to have a good system, despite those two teams being in the World Series," Luhnow said. "We're setting ourselves up for that. We all recognize that, sitting on this amount of talent. How we translate that talent into Major League wins is a critical next step in our organization. And it's going to take place over the course of the next five years, starting this year."
Three questions with George Springer
Springer was the Astros' first-round pick (No. 11 overall) in the 2011 Draft.
MLBPipeline.com: Everyone is talking about the Astros' farm system, and you're at the point where you're close to contributing. What was your mindset coming to camp?
Springer: I'm just going out and having fun. There's only so much as a player I can control, and that's how hard I play, my effort. I have the same mentality as if I'm playing a game: just go out, have a lot of fun and try to help them win.
MLBPipeline.com: What has it been like to have a guy like Dexter Fowler here, who knows what you're going through?
Springer: He's obviously been a tremendous help to me. I feel we jell well. It doesn't just stem from him. All the guys in this clubhouse who have time with the Astros or whoever haven been great. It's always good as a kid to have that resource to increase my knowledge and gain experience just from them.
MLBPipeline.com: You've always struck out a good amount at the plate. Is that something that bothers you?
Springer: No. Obviously, I'm not getting in the box and trying to strike out. I'm trying to help us win in whichever way I can. But I'm going to go out and improve on the positives and the negatives. You go out there and compete and get better every day.
Camp standout: Preston Tucker
At a certain point, a guy who keeps going out and performs needs to be noticed. It might be time to allow Tucker to finally jump on the radar.
Expectations for senior signees taken in the seventh round of the Draft tend to be a bit low. But Tucker has hit pretty much everywhere he's been. The left-handed hitting-outfielder hit .329/.412/.576 as a four-year starter at the University of Florida. He hasn't let up as a pro, with a .303/.373/.506 line in his one-plus years in the Astros organization. While playing for Lancaster in the California League certainly helped Tucker in 2013, he did reach Double-A and finished with a combined 25 homers and 103 RBIs.
Now Tucker is in his first big league camp, and he's continuing to open the eyes of the front office and the big league staff with his outstanding swing and advanced approach. Luhnow hopes Tucker can become a similar player to a college senior he took in the eighth round of the 2006 Draft, when he oversaw that process with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"He has the chance to be a real offensive producer," Luhnow said. "I'm hoping he becomes the Allen Craig of our system -- a guy who was drafted in the bottom half of the top 10 rounds, a senior sign, didn't get a ton of money out of college, but just produced his way through the Minors and eventually became a productive Major League player. That's what we're hoping for."
Breakout candidate: Delino DeShields
DeShields isn't one of those under the radar types. He is, after all, No. 66 on MLB.com's Top 100 and No. 7 on the Astros' Top 20. But DeShields did spend two years in the South Atlantic League and stayed at one level for all of 2013, leading some to wonder if the 2010 first-round pick was progressing as expected.
"He stole over 100 bases two years ago, he stole 50 last year," Luhnow said. "Some people thought he had a bad year. He spent the whole year at Lancaster, and I think it was good for him to be there all year."
A trip to the Arizona Fall League and a position switch could help DeShields point in the right direction. The 21-year-old is now a center fielder, where his top-of-the-scale speed will play extremely well. He's ready for the big move up to Double-A, and 2014 could be the year where everything comes together and DeShields gets close to being the catalyst the Astros crave.
"He has the tools at any moment to break out and become a really exciting player," Luhnow said. "And we need a player like that in our system, a guy who can really fly and who is that kind of dynamic player. He's a guy who could break through very quickly.
"I truly believe he's going to be an elite defensive outfielder and a top-of-the-order guy with speed for most of his career -- not one of those guys who is speedy until age 25, then declines. I think he has legs that will keep him going for a while."