By Wendy Thurm
OAKLAND, Calif. -- On a recent Friday afternoon, the Houston Astros relaxed in the visitors' clubhouse at O.co Coliseum. They had beaten the A's the night before in the first game of a four-game series, and were looking to further slow Oakland's drive for the American League West division title.
Jose Altuve was checking Facebook and texting at his locker. Marc Krauss was playing video games on his tablet. And Brandon Barnes was reading the latest issue of Baseball America. Intently. Barnes turned to Robbie Grossman and pointed to an article claiming that San Francisco Giants prospect Gary Brown is faster than Astros outfield prospect George Springer. Barnes and Grossman shook their heads in disbelief. They played with Springer in the minors and they know he's supremely talented -- and fast.
Springer isn't the only Astros prospect whose name is bandied about in the clubhouse. The players on the Astros' major-league roster are acutely aware of the young talent general manager Jeff Luhnow has amassed since he took charge of the Astros' baseball operations in December, 2011.
"Management's done a good job of restocking the system. A lot of us have been in the minor leagues, even this year. You see the talent we have down there. You realize it's going to be a good team, in a year or two," said Krauss. "A lot of young guys are coming up," added Brad Peacock, acquired from the A's in spring training in the trade that sent Jed Lowrie to Oakland. "It's exciting. You've got to have good pitching to win. [Asher] Wojciechowski and [Mike] Foltynewicz are coming up. They're really good. I'm excited to see them."
These players say they understand Luhnow's plan to rebuild the organization from the ground up, and they are all in. Reliever Kevin Chapman, who came over from the Royals in one of Luhnow's first trades, said, "He's trying to make the minor-league system as jam-packed as possible with talent. It's fun what's happening now. It's a process. But we have guys here who can help and guys in the minor leagues who can help." Brandon Barnes agreed: "Immediately, when Jeff came in, you saw him bring in different talent. His drafts have been unbelievable. We get to see, when looking at the minor leagues, how many teams [in the Astros system] made the playoffs. Those guys are going to come up here and help us."
These changes may be bittersweet for some players, including Barnes. He toiled in the Astros' minor leagues for eight seasons before debuting with the team in August 2012. He's been the regular center fielder since late May, when the team released Rick Ankiel. "Without Jeff coming over and turning things around, I might not have gotten a shot at the major leagues," Barnes told me. "I am very grateful for that." At the same time, he knows George Springer is coming for his job. "I texted Springer the other day. I congratulated him on the season he's had. I'm looking forward to playing with him in the near future. I want to make sure the young guys don't take it for granted."
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The Astros preparing to take on the A's on that Friday night in Oakland bore little resemblance to the team that took the field Opening Day.
Altuve was there on Opening Day. The second baseman is playing in only his second full season, but is one of the cornerstones of the Astros now. So, too, is catcher Jason Castro, a first time All-Star this season, and the fifth-most valuable catcher in the majors as measured by Fangraphs (after Joe Mauer, Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Russell Martin). Castro debuted in 2010, but thanks to a knee injury, he has fewer than 300 major-league games under his belt.
Seven other players who took the field for the Astros on Opening Day are gone: starting pitcher Bud Norris, traded to the Orioles; center fielder Justin Maxwell, traded to the Royals; relievers Jose Veras and Wesley Wright, traded to the Tigers and Rays, respectively; and shortstop Ronny Cedeno, designated hitter Carlos Pena, and Ankiel -- all released by the Astros during the season.
The Astros are re-building, and not in a "trade a few expensive veterans but keep some recognizable names and try to compete" way. Houston is undertaking a top-to-bottom blood-letting to rejuvenate an organization that was failing at every level: A minor-league system viewed as one of the worst in baseball, and a major-league team that won only 56 games in 2011.
Former general manager Ed Wade started the process during the 2011 season by trading outfielders Hunter Pence (to the Phillies) and Michael Bourn (to the Braves) for a bevy of young prospects. Luhnow replaced Wade that December and kicked the effort into high gear. Less than two years later, the seeds are beginning to bear fruit.
A consensus has emerged among prospects experts at Baseball America, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and ESPN.com: The Astros' minor league system is now one of the best in the game. The Pence trade yielded Top 100 prospects Jonathan Singleton (first baseman) and Jarred Cosart (right-hander), along with Domingo Santana (outfielder) and Josh Zeid (right-hander). The Bourn trade sent starters Brett Oberholtzer and Paul Clemens to Houston, along with Jordan Schaefer (outfielder) and Juan Abreu (reliever). Cosart, Olberholtzer and Clemens are now the foundation of the Astros' rotation. They've combined for 18 starts since the All-Star break and posted a collective 2.62 ERA.
But the Astros' highest-quality young jewels came not by way of a trade, but through the amateur draft. First-round selections Delino DeShields, Jr. (outfielder), Foltynewicz (right-handed starter), Springer (outfielder), Carlos Correa (shortstop), Mark Appel (right-handed starter), and Lance McCullers, Jr. (right-handed starter) appear alongside Singleton and Cosart on most Top 100 prospects lists. One team with eight of the Top 100 young players in baseball.
The talent is there but the hard work is far from done. There's a long road from first-round draft choice to productive, every day major-leaguer. For Jeff Luhnow and his team, the challenge lies in nurturing and developing these young players and molding them into a winning team.
For the young Astros who've had the chance to play in the majors this season, it started the day they walked into their minor-league clubhouse. Robbie Grossman joined the Astros in July 2012, in the trade that sent starter Wandy Rodriguez to the Pirates. There was a detailed plan in place for the outfielder from the moment he arrived. "The work with the Astros was more individualized as compared to the Pirates. The Astros had a set plan for everything," Grossman said. "They told you what you needed to work on in order to move up the ladder. As a player, you really appreciate that."
Marc Krauss played 100 games for the Astros' Triple-A team in Oklahoma City before making his big-league debut in June. When he arrived in Houston, Krauss said, he felt physically and mentally prepared. "We'd have meetings a couple of times a week," said Krauss. "Sit down as a whole team and discuss mistakes we'd made, the good things we'd done during the games. We also covered things that happened in the major-league games." The coaches, he said, "were trying to improve everyone's physical and mental capabilities. When you get to this level, a lot of the game is played between the ears."
Bo Porter couldn't agree more. The Astros' rookie manager started talking about what it means to be an Astro on the first day of spring training. Most of the young players who debuted this season were in Kissimmee, Florida with Porter and his coaching staff in February and March, and heard Porter's battle cry: "Come to the ballpark each and every day. Block everything out. Play to the whistle. It's not about the payroll or how much experience you have. Let the games decide themselves each day."
In the clubhouse, the players wear the message on their chests. Before getting into their uniforms for pre-game stretching and batting practice, most Astros sported one of two t-shirts. "I'm all in," blasts the front of one t-shirt, adorned with the Astros' logo, with "For The Vision, The Where, The Grind" on the back. The other reads "Progress" on the front with "What's Important Now" written vertically on the back, the W-I-N in bright, bold letters.
But mantras will only take you so far. Players need to execute on the field. On that Friday in Oakland, the young guys in the visitors' clubhouse were focused on the fundamentals: having good at-bats, taking extra bases, moving runners over and playing solid defense. They know what they have to do, even if they haven't been particularly successful in doing it so far. The Astros' .302 team on-base percentage is tied for 28th in the majors. They sport a -0.1 in FanGraphs' Ultimate Base Running statistic, which accounts for the value each player adds with his base running. And they've accumulated -27 Defensive Runs Saved, a statistic created by Baseball Info Solutions to measure a player's total defensive value.
Jason Castro has had success, in the batter's box and behind the dish, as the quarterback of the young pitching staff. He prepares by watching hours of video, pouring over scouting reports, and analyzing statistics. "Luhnow brought a new emphasis on information," Castro said. The catcher, who attended Stanford University as an undergrad, is comfortable working with advanced metrics, but admitted that not all players are on the same page. "The coaches distill the information down to the essentials and give it to the players in bites they can use."
At 26, Castro is one of two clubhouse leaders, along with Altuve, who's only 23. Despite his relative lack of experience, Castro is comfortable with his role. "We have an unusual situation, with so many young guys," he said. In fact, the Astros have the youngest roster in the majors this season. With Rick Ankiel and Carlos Pena long gone, pitcher Erik Bedard and third-string catcher Cody Clark are the only Astros over 30 on the active roster. Altuve sees the team's youth as its strength. "Everyone is young. We all want to go out and play harder than the next guy. That attitude is going to help us for years to come."
It also helps that the Astros play five playoff-contending teams in September. Houston will close out the last two weeks of the season against the Indians, Rangers and Yankees, with playoff berths on the line. "You look at the number of young players we have," Bo Porter noted. "You look at the vision of the organization of building a team that can consistently play for a championship. It's good for our guys to be on the same field and witness the intensity of a playoff atmosphere."
A's manager Bob Melvin thinks the high level of competition is paying dividends for the Astros. "They've played us very tough. It's been a battle every game," Melvin said. "They play spirited every day no matter their record."
The young Astros relish the opportunity to play against some of the best in the game. "It's definitely fun to play these kinds of teams," Krauss said. "This is where you want to be. This is the level of competition you want to be in." Altuve is convinced they're close. "We're going to make the World Series in just a few years," he boasted.
Are the fans convinced? Not yet, it seems. The Astros are averaging 19,597 tickets sold per game, which leaves Minute Maid Field more than half empty. Only the Rays, Marlins, and Indians average fewer fans at their home games. The television ratings are even worse. The Houston Press reported in July that before the All-Star break, Astros games averaged a .43 rating, meaning that only 10,000 households were tuning in the team. Last Saturday, for the Astros game against the Angels, that rating dropped to .04, or fewer than 1,000 households. To be fair, the TV ratings' nose dive is partly attributable to CSN Houston's year-long battle with several cable and satellite operators that have been unwilling to pay the carriage fee CSN Houston charges. Of course, if the Astros were contending, fans might be clamoring more for CSN Houston.
Despite the drop off in fan interest, the players remain upbeat. And many say that the fans that do show up to Minute Maid Park are enthusiastic. "All we do is show up everyday and play ball," Robbie Grossman said. "We've had great fans come out for the games. It's an exciting time. The future is good."
He's not the only true believer.
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Wendy Thurm is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Bay Area Sports Guy. She has also written for ESPN.com, SBNation, The Score, and the Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.