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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Astros camp report: Final season in NL will be another stinker

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First baseman Carlos Lee is probably the one recognizable player on the Astros. (Getty Images)  
First baseman Carlos Lee is probably the one recognizable player on the Astros. (Getty Images)  

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Let's talk about the Houston Astros.

No, seriously! Stay right here! Don't click away!

Hello? Hellooooooo? Aw, c'mon.

Houston Astros
Scott Miller
Improving farm system. Not that there's another Roy Oswalt on the horizon. Likes, dislikes >>
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"I know one or two of the players over there, and a lot of them I know because they were playing on other teams and signed as a free agent," says dear, departed Astro Lance Berkman, now playing in St. Louis after 11 mostly glorious seasons in Houston. "There are very few guys that were there when I was there. Some of the staff is the same.

"They're switching leagues, they've had a huge roster turnover. Clearly, it's an organization that's lost one identity and is searching for a new one."

The names to know, for now, are Jose Altuve (second baseman, led the minors in batting average in 2011), J.D. Martinez (outfielder), Jimmy Paredes (third baseman) and, hey, here's one remotely familiar: Jed Lowrie, the former Red Sox shortstop.

Aw, who are we kidding? The real names to know around here are new owner Jim Crane, new general manager Jeff Luhnow and Brad Mills, now in his third season as manager.

Fantasy Writer
Sleeper ... J.D. Martinez, OF: J.D. Martinez has developed into a steal for the Astros. He hasn't even played a full season in the majors, but has already surpassed expectations as a 20th round draft pick in 2009. Martinez sped through the minors thanks to a .342 average, .414 on-base percentage and .958 OPS. He has more of a line-drive swing and is a better doubles hitter, but he could get some cheap homers at Minute Maid Park. The good news for Martinez is that manager Brad Mills is likely to hit him third in front of Carlos Lee. Martinez hit .295 with five homers, 12 doubles and 31 RBI in 44 games batting third in 2011.
Late-round flier ... Bud Norris, SP: Bud Norris hasn't had a winning season since his rookie campaign in 2009 and might be headed for a third straight losing campaign in 2012, but we still feel the best is yet to come from the soon-to-be 27-year-old hurler. Fantasy owners might not realize, but Norris is averaging 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, which is his strongest Fantasy asset. However, Norris also lowered his ERA to 3.77 and his WHIP to 1.33 in 2011. It's also worth pointing out that opponents have hit .256 or worse against Norris the last two seasons. He remains only a late-round flier because the wins could be hard to come by, but Norris definitely has appeal as a back-of-the-rotation Fantasy arm. -- Michael Hurcomb
Depth Chart | Astros outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

The Astros are coming off their worst season ever at 56-106. They spent the winter like over-caffeinated Starbucks baristas attempting to trade their few recognizable players: converted first baseman Carlos Lee and pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers.

Not only are there zero hot prospects, but the Astros' minor-league affiliates last summer compiled the worst winning percentage of any major-league system at .409. And guess what? That was no aberration. The Astros have ranked 30th among the major-league clubs in minor-league winning percentage in three of the past four years.

"We have our work cut out for us," says Luhnow, the rookie GM who is far more chipper than he probably has a right to be. "The objective is to get good as quickly as possible, and to stay good.

"We're not going to trade off short-term success for long-term pain."

That's why Crane bucked the system and hired Luhnow, 45, who had been in baseball for a grand total of eight years. Before the Cardinals plucked him out of the business world in 2003, Luhnow worked for a global management consulting firm and started a couple of businesses. He's a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with dual Bachelor of Science degrees in economics and engineering, and he earned an MBA from Northwestern University.

He had been running the Cardinals' scouting and player development operation since 2006 when Crane hired him.

"You look at the drafts Jeff ran for St. Louis, and he had something like 23, 24 players make the big leagues during that time," Crane says. "We had four.

"Something's wrong with that math."

The Astros, in fact, have been very bad at math for the past few seasons.

Drafts suffered under Drayton McLane in no small part because, as a loyal lieutenant of Commissioner Bud Selig, McLane refused to pay more than the suggested slot bonuses. Then there was the Cecil Cooper debacle, one of the worst managers to run a team in memory.

The farm system withered and the major-league club dithered.

"One of the things that I appreciated about the Astros organization, and I can't speak much to it before 1980, but starting with the '80 team that was really good, there was a strong connection between that and the '86 team," Berkman says. "A lot of the guys on the '86 team had a strong connection to Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti, Darryl Kile, those kind of guys.

"And all those guys had a strong connection with us. So it's this Astros lineage of homegrown talent that was passed down as you went along.

"I felt like, along about 2007, that was severed. They don't have that anymore. Hey, I played there 11 years and I know personally two of the guys who are over there. And that saddens me because I felt that was a neat thing about the Astros organization, that it was a tradition handed off from older guys to not free-agent acquisitions, but to younger guys who came up through the system and have been born and raised Astros, so to speak.

"You don't feel that connection."

Emphasis on rebuilding as Crane was moving in last summer, Ed Wade, fired as GM in November, traded Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne for a haul of players who currently rank as five of Houston's top 10 prospects by Baseball America.

Furthermore, that publication this week ranked Houston's farm system 18th in the majors. which is an absolutely rave review after the Astros were ranked 30th, 30th and 29th in the past three years (and in the bottom third every year since 2002).

Know this, and the organization's 2012 advertising slogan begins to make perfect sense: "Root. Root. Root." As in, for the home team. Better than, say, "Tonight's game starts at 7:05, all of our players will be wearing pants!"

Crane has lowered beer prices, which alone should extend his honeymoon period by five years. The Astros have changed their policy and will allow fans to bring food and water into games if they desire.

Another marketing strategy: The Astros are telling prospective season-ticket buyers that they'll be able to see every club in baseball over the next two seasons, what with the impending move to the American League in 2013.

Somehow, the Astros have gotten season ticket sales to last year's level, according to Crane. That's something. The farm system appears better. And better days should be on the horizon with a new regional television network kicking in next year that, Crane says, "in the long run will make us a big-market team."

Houston is a larger market than Dallas, the owner says, and ranks as the fourth-largest city in the majors behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Furthermore, Houston is positioned to pass Chicago within the next couple of years.

"We'll be one of the top five or six revenue teams in the business in four or five years," Crane says.

The Astros won't win this year. But maybe the difference between dormant franchise and sleeping giant is more razor-thin than it appears, after all.

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