Despite having their Minor League system ranked near the bottom in overall talent from top to bottom, the Astros are enthusiastic that better days are ahead, thanks to a pair of strong First-Year Player Drafts in 2008 and '09 under general manager Ed Wade and assistant general manager in charge of scouting Bobby Heck.
Catcher Jason Castro (2008) and shortstop Jiovanni Mier ('09), the club's most recent first-round picks, lead the reasons for optimism. Castro could start for the Major League club this year, and Mier impressed in his first season in the system. Pitchers Ross Seaton and Jordan Lyles, both taken early in the '08 Draft, and Taiwanese signee Chia-Jen Lo led a bevy of young arms on the rise.
"We look at the system from top to bottom and you see bright spots at every level," Astros assistant general manager Ricky Bennett said. "Throughout the system, you really start to see signs that we're making progress and we're just going to have to keep doing what we've been doing the last couple of years, signing Draft picks and getting them in the system and focusing on individual instruction and getting kids better. We're making progress, but we're not where we need to be."
Still, most of the Astros' top Minor League talent -- Mier, Lyles, Seaton and outfielders Jay Austin, Jon Gaston, Colin DeLome and T.J. Steele -- are a few years away. And holding onto Draft picks and developing those picks has become the club's underlying philosophy since they dealt several prospects in trades in recent years, including Jason Hirsh, Ben Zobrist, Taylor Buchholz, Troy Patton and Matt Albers.
"We're going to continue to be aggressive and try to acquire players through trades and the waiver wire and free agency," Bennett said. "But in terms of acquiring players that have an impact on the Major League team, you've got to do that through the Draft.
"If we continue to Draft the right way and develop the right way, we'll start to see impact players coming through our system. If you look across the league, most important position players were drafted and developed."
Castro: The Astros' first-round pick in 2008, Castro had a hectic first full season in professional baseball in which he hit .309 at Class A Lancaster and .293 after a promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi, played in the XM Futures Game, where he hit a three-run homer, and represented the U.S. in the International Baseball Federation World Cup. He then played in the Arizona Fall League before Houston shut him down.
As an organization, the Astros are split on whether Castro will open the season as the Major League team's starting catcher, but the consensus is that he will start at some point in 2010. He has all the defensive tools and could hit for a high average, but he probably won't be confused with a power hitter.
"I don't think any of us know the true answer to when he'll be ready," Bennett said. "He's going to get the opportunity. Obviously, he had a good year this past year from a developmental standpoint and we were happy with his progress.
"He has a good attitude and will continue to get better as he gains experience. He will be in big league camp in 2010 and his play will dictate where he starts the season. If he shows he's ready to handle the Major League job, it's something we'll consider."
Mier: Selected in the first round in 2009 out of high school in Bonita, Calif., Mier had an impressive rookie showing at shortstop, where he displayed a strong arm and a good feel for the position. At the plate, he hit .276 with seven homers and 32 RBIs at rookie-league Greenville and will likely begin the year at Class A Lexington.
"He's a natural leader," Bennett said. "Guys gravitate to him, and he enjoys playing the game and understands the game. The leadership is the one thing that stood out for us, other than the physical tools. He's going to be a good player.
"He'll come into our Minor League camp this spring and we'll let his ability and maturity dictate where he goes. Only time will tell when he's going to be ready at the Major League level."
Chris Johnson, 3B: He got his feet we at the Major League level last season, appearing in 11 games and getting two hits in 22 at-bats. A fourth-round pick in 2006, Johnson had his season at Triple-A Round Rock get off to a slow start last season because of a broken hand, but he finished well and hit .281 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs for the Express.
He'll come to Major League camp for the second year in a row, but the Astros have re-signed Geoff Blum to play third base and were going into the Winter Meetings hoping to find possible offensive help at the position. Johnson could begin the year at Round Rock again.
"He really made progress the past two months of the season in July and August and didn't fare as well in September when he got an opportunity to play at the Major League level," Bennett said. "That doesn't take away from his progress prior to that. He had a good Spring Training last [season] and will be back in big league camp and we'll have to see how he handles it."
Jordan Lyles, RHP: A supplemental first-round pick in 2008, Lyles finished second in the South Atlantic League with 167 strikeouts in 145 innings last season. He's an aggressive power pitcher with a lively fastball and developing changeup that he relies on. Lyles, Seaton, Robert Bono and Kyle Greenwalt are four young arms the Astros are excited about.
"He's got a chance to be special," Bennett said of Lyles. "He continues to learn. He had a good instructional league and he really took hold of what we were trying to get accomplished with him. He, too, will be challenged this coming spring. Where he ends up, we're not quite sure, but he's going to get the ball and continue to compete and that's the one thing we like about him the most -- he's not afraid to complete."
Lo: Expect Lo to compete for a spot in the big league bullpen in 2010. He hits 96 mph with his fastball and has deceptive breaking stuff and could wind up as a closer down the road. He'll come to Major League camp with a chance to win a roster spot.
"He's very mature for his age  and has a ton of experience in international competition," Bennett said. "I don't think he's going to be overwhelmed when he's in Spring Training. From an ability standpoint, he has an average to above-average fastball and a very good breaking ball that he's starting to command and gain more confidence in."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.