KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The future of the Astros organization pours out of the back door of the Minor League clubhouse in bright orange jerseys and onto the back fields at Osceola County Stadium for one of the first workouts of the spring.
At a glance, it's just another group of baseball players in caps, sunglasses and cleats trying to make a good impression. Some are new to the organization and are less than a year removed from high school or college, while others have been here before. They're all chasing a dream.
There's 18-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, who carries himself with the poise of a polished pro. There's pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who has a Major League pedigree and big league fastball. And there's 18-year-old third baseman Rio Ruiz, who turned down a chance to play at USC to sign with the Astros.
There are prospects and excitement at every turn, the kind of talent that has helped vault Houston's Minor League system from one of the worst in baseball four years ago to one of the best. Some, like pitcher Jarred Cosart, outfielder George Springer and first baseman Jonathan Singleton, could be pushing for playing time this year, but there's no doubt the Astros' future is bright.
"That's quite a testament to the work put in over the past few years," said first-year director of player development Quinton McCracken.
The turnaround began five years ago under former general manager Ed Wade, who drafted Springer, as well as the team's 2012 Minor League Player of the Year Delino DeShields and Minor League Pitcher of the Year Mike Foltynewicz. Wade also engineered trades to bring aboard Cosart, Singleton, shortstop Jonathan Villar and others.
Current general manager Jeff Luhnow, with the backing of owner Jim Crane, took the rebuilding to another level with a handful of trades last year that help created even more depth in the system. Luhnow made five trades last July alone, acquiring 17 young players in exchange for veterans. His most recent trade came a month ago, when the Astros sent shortstop Jed Lowrie to the A's in exchange for slugger Chris Carter, pitcher Brad Peacock and catcher Max Stassi.
Luhnow admitted the rebuilding process at the Minor League level is ahead of where he envisioned it would be when he took over in December 2011.
"Part of that was the quality of the trades and the players we got back in trades, the quality of the Draft and, quite frankly, several players taking a positive step in the right direction last year that were already in the system," he said.
The goal now for Luhnow and the Astros is to stay ahead of the curve. Most of Houston's top prospects will begin this season in the Minor Leagues, and the club doesn't plan to become big players in free agency until that talent begins to blossom.
Tigers president Dave Dombrowski, whose team lost an America League-record 119 games in 2003 and made the World Series three years later, said patience is the key.
"No matter how talented they are, just before you win at the big league level, it takes time, and there's nothing you can do to change that," Dombrowski said. "It just takes time. I just hope that they're prepared for it. I think they are, but when one year turns into two and two turns into three, you start to get tested."
While fans will have to be patient, they don't have to look too far into the horizon to see hope and excitement. While Springer, Cosart, Singleton and Villar are among those knocking at the door to reach Houston, another wave is coming.
"The most reliable estimate for all those guys to reach the big leagues is 2014," Luhnow said. "Just because they're good prospects doesn't mean they're going to have an immediate impact on the big league level. It's a substantial step, and it takes very good players a year or two to get used to the big league level. Next year will be a good opportunity."
The Minor League improvements were evident at a team level last year, too. In 2012, six of the Astros' eight Minor League clubs finished at .500 or better, and the organization posted the best overall winning percentage in the Minors. A year earlier, Houston had the lowest winning percentage and didn't have any clubs finish with a winning record.
Triple-A Oklahoma City could have its most talented roster in years in 2013.
"There's a lot of depth, and we're going to see that when we make the Minor League rosters this year," Luhnow said. "There's going to be some players who are going to have to stay back, because there are better players ahead of them. It's a good issue to have. We might even have to release some players we otherwise would not have wanted to. It's an advantageous position to be in, and hopefully it will be more difficult next year."
The last player drafted by the Astros to reach an All-Star Game was outfielder Hunter Pence, a second-round pick in 2004 who was dealt the Phillies in '11 for four players, including Cosart and Singleton. Jose Altuve, signed out of Venezuela as a non-drafted free agent in 2006, made the National League All-Star team last year.
The Astros will have the No. 1 overall pick in this year's Draft and will have more money than any other team to spend internationally. Last year, Houston manipulated its Draft spending pool to acquire three players the club believes were first-round quality in Correa, McCullers and Ruiz. The club is already paring down its list of possible candidates for the top pick this year.
The increased talent level allows the Astros the luxury of pushing players at the proper pace without rushing them. Those who are ready for the next level will get a chance. Those who aren't will have to repeat a level.
That's Houston's new way of life on the farm.
"We don't want to push them faster than they're ready, but also at the same time, we want to challenge players," Luhnow said. "It's always better to have them feeling a little bit uncomfortable, feeling they need to work hard and focus to be successful. When you're playing with older players and players at a level that might a little above your comfort level, that's when players improve the most."