HOUSTON -- It wasn't all that long ago that the Astros thought they may be able to piece together a decent season, possibly even come close to .500, and then build from there.
Soon after Jim Crane officially bought the Astros in November 2011, a loose plan was formed: try to tread water and possibly break even in 2012 while getting rid of at least one of the seemingly immovable contracts belonging to Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Brandon Lyon. The payroll would go down, briefly, but with money coming in from the new Comcast television network, it wouldn't be long before the Astros could be competitive again, payroll-wise.
It seems like 10 years have passed since then.
During a losing free-fall in the middle of the '12 campaign, general manager Jeff Luhnow emptied the roster, trading almost everyone with more than a year's worth of Major League experience. The Astros finished up a 107-loss season in full-blown rebuilding mode
The long-term plan -- scout properly, draft well, build a winning team with homegrown talent and produce enough of it to sustain success year after year at the big-league level -- has always been a reasonable one. If executed properly, chances are, it'll work. The key part of this, of course, is the term "long" in the phrase "long-term plan." Long, as in, the amount of time expected to pass before the Astros reasonably could expect to be competitive. The message: be patient. This is going to take a while.
Dumping the big salaried players in '12 wasn't a hard sell on the fan base. The Astros mentioned on more than one occasion the payroll wasn't going up anytime soon. But still, the Jed Lowrie trade just before Spring Training caused some raised eyebrows. Lowrie, arbitration-eligible and making $2.4 million, was dealt for three prospects with decent upside. But it left Houston without a reliable shortstop on a defensively vulnerable team that already had holes at nearly every position.
The presumption was that the Astros would take their lumps, even if it meant humiliation in 2013, and wait for the kids to come up from the farm system. Some guessed the team would be competitive in three years. Others said five. One bold national writer estimated it could be a decade before the Astros reasonably could expect to see the postseason.
With 60-some games left this season, though, the Astros' actions could be an indication that the timetable has sped up. Players expected to maybe show up on the Major League roster next year are here now. More could be on the way. A nucleus that most thought would be formed some other time, in another season, maybe two, could be in place this season, giving the Astros something to actually work with when Spring Training convenes next year.
Right-hander Jarred Cosart blew through the Rays' lineup for eight innings in his debut before the All-Star break and will make his first home start Tuesday. Jonathan Villar, a highly-touted shortstop who figured to be in next year's plans, is also here now. George Springer is quickly becoming baseball's version of Doogie Howser, finding very few challenges at the Minor League level to the point where there's no argument as to why he couldn't jump into the big leagues at an accelerated pace.
If the last 10 days are any indication, the Astros shouldn't have any issue summoning Springer sooner than September. In fact, of all of the Astros' top prospects, only Jonathan Singleton, hitting .207 over 33 games since advancing to Triple-A Oklahoma City, appears to have put on the brakes developmentally, for the time being.
Cosart, Villar, maybe Springer. Long-term solutions staring at us now. What changed?
Nothing, according to Luhnow. He pushed aside any notion that these players are showing up earlier than expected. There were never expectations, time-wise, he insisted, making the recent arrivals just part of the natural process.
"Both of those players had good Spring Trainings," he said, referring to Cosart and Villar, "And when we sent them down, it could have been a month, it could have been two months, it could have been the whole season. It really was up to them to determine the timeline, and what we told them when we sent them down was, 'We're going to know when you're ready, and you'll get a chance to come up here and play.' Now is the time. It's pretty much exactly what we planned."
Still, it's somewhat suspicious that this all happened during a particularly crushing stretch. Since piecing together a four-game winning streak that peaked June 16, the Astros are 7-21 and have only three wins in July. Carlos Pena, signed more for his clubhouse leadership than his reliability on the field, was designated for assignment, as was Ronny Cedeno, another veteran voice in a locker room full of newbies.
Calling up an unproven, raw Villar can't be looked at individually as a total panic move, but it's reasonable to wonder if the Astros' new timetable is a result of the losing. The only thing owners detest more than losing is empty seats. The Astros have a lion's share of both.
Again, Luhnow pointed only to the club's steadfast focus on the future as the reason for the recent moves.
"Two weeks ago versus today, we're still in the same situation," he said. "We're a team that's really building for the future. We're trying to time the arrival of prospects with them being ready and giving the players that are here adequate opportunity to prove whether they belong here."
Citing the emergence of Brandon Barnes and several others who were with the club last season, Luhnow feels he has enough stability to at least wade through the remainder of the season while figuring out what he might have in the next wave of players forcing their way into the big leagues.
"It's a matter of figuring out the optimal time to layer these guys in, given what you have and given what they've proven in the Minor Leagues," he said.
Asked when Springer may reach his optimal time, Luhnow simply chuckled and declined to offer any hints.
A few weeks ago, September would have been a reasonable guess. But now...
How's next Thursday looking?