ST. LOUIS -- The talent in the Astros' Minor League system had certainly improved by the time Jeff Luhnow took over as general manager late last year, and keeping the progress going on the farm became one of the focal points of the new regime.
Luhnow knew that the Astros, who had languished with one of the game's poorest-performing Minor League systems for several years, had enough talent to win at some levels, but more needed to be done. A bang-up performance in this year's First-Year Player Draft and a flurry of trades added even more talent, and the on-field results soon followed.
The Astros had the best combined record in professional baseball among domestic affiliates by going 417-347 this season, and they ranked fourth overall in combined record (439-394) when considering their Dominican and Venezuelan clubs. In all, six of the Astros' eight Minor League clubs finished .500 or better, and three advanced to the playoffs.
That's a huge improvement over last year, when the Astros ranked last in combined record at 337-488 and none of their affiliates finished above .500. Houston was 29th in combined record in 2010, last in '09 and '08 and 26th in '07.
"That was one of our goals going into Spring Training -- to improve the win-loss record in the Minor Leagues, to create that winning culture," Luhnow said. "It's an easy thing to say, and it's a lot more difficult to actually implement. I had some success here in St. Louis doing that same sort of turnaround with a lot of teams, so there are some tactics that you can use when you're managing your Minor League system, as far as promotions and how you fill in gaps and that sort of thing."
One of the clubs that made the playoffs was Class A Short Season Tri-City, which is where many of the players the Astros drafted this year began their pro careers. Houston took three players in the Draft it believed were first-round talents: No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa (shortstop), 41st overall pick Lance McCullers Jr. (pitcher) and fifth-rounder Rio Ruiz (infielder).
Correa, 17, hit .371 in 11 games at Rookie League Greeneville upon being promoted from the Gulf Coast League Astros after 39 games. McCullers, 18, had 29 strikeouts in 26 innings at two levels while allowing just 20 hits.
What's more, in five trades, the Astros acquired 17 players, many of whom helped Double-A Corpus Christi reach the Texas League playoffs.
"I think the Draft had a huge impact on the lower levels and the trades had a huge impact on the middle levels, and I think, quite frankly, some of our top-round picks from prior years who had been OK all of a sudden became what the scouts had seen in them, specifically the two guys that were just named Player and Pitcher of the Year," Luhnow said, referring to second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. and right-hander Mike Foltynewicz, respectively.
Meanwhile, players already in the system, such as Corpus Christi's Jonathan Singleton -- Houston's top prospect, according to MLB.com -- and 2011 first-round pick George Springer (Lexington) had a breakout seasons.
"We had a group of players we knew had the potential all taking that next step forward, at the same time all of these other things were happening," Luhnow said.
Houston's system features five players ranked in MLB.com's Top 100 prospects list -- Singleton (No. 25), Correa (35), Springer (51), right-hander Jarred Cosart (80) and DeShields (81). Using a scoring system that awards 100 points to the team with the No. 1 prospect, 99 to the team with No. 2 and so on, the Astros were ranked 22nd to begin the season. That ranking has jumped to No. 12.
Houston's bang-up success on the farm culminated in Class A Advanced Lancaster winning its first championship in the club's 17-year history by going 8-2 in the playoffs en route to the California League crown. Tri-City, which won a club-record 51 games, finished one win shy of the New York-Penn League title.
Lancaster's championship is the first full-season Minor League title for an Astros affiliate since Triple-A Round Rock won the Pacific Coast League in 2006. Tri-City won the New York-Penn League title in '10, which was Houston's most recent Minor League title entering this season.
Luhnow joined the Astros after helping the Cardinals win five Minor League championships during his time in St. Louis. Those titles were won with players like Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte, all of whom helped the Cardinals win the World Series last year.
The Astros hope that's a sign of things to come.
"It's important when you have guys that play together and win together and progress through the Minor Leagues together," Luhnow said. "Ultimately, these are the same guys that are going to get to the big leagues and play in Houston. You talk to a lot of players who have had success in the big leagues, and they remember those formative years and what it felt like to win."