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Gazzolo Column: Nats have given Astros blueprint for success

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:56 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

The Astros are on the clock — again.

A nice West Coast weekend sweep of the highly priced but not so mighty Angels won’t change that now.

It does give hope for the future, but today, when the 30 major league teams make their annual draft picks, the Astros will select first — again.

That’s because last year they finished with baseball’s worst record — again.

But we may not be saying that next year. There is a light at the end of this tunnel.

It’s the falling star of the Florida/Miami Marlins.

One man’s 100-plus loss season could be another’s second pick overall.

Unlike other sports, where getting the top pick is celebrated, in baseball it only means you have to take the biggest of chances.

There are few franchise players found in the draft, fewer can’t-miss choices. Some of them don’t even sign, electing to go back to college, or start college, or play football in college.

There have been even a few who sat out a year because they didn’t like the deal offered.

This makes it much tougher to build a winner from the ground up in baseball than any other sport. But there are a few teams that have done so.

If the new Astros management wants to see what it takes to build a winner fairly quickly they need only to look at the Washington Nationals.

Two great No. 1 draft picks, solid choices for a couple of years after that by the Nationals’ front office, and a nicely placed free agent here and there has Washington fans thinking about a championship.

It has also left teams like the Astros a perfect blueprint of how to turn things around.

There are no guarantees to the success of young players, and injuries can always set a franchise back a few years, but the Nationals do give Astros fans hope.

Houston is a big market, so eventually there should be some money to spend. But paying for high-priced players now just to be a little better is not worth it.

If the Astros are going to get to where the new owners say they want to go, it is going to take time, patience and more than a few of the right moves.

More importantly, it is time for the new ownership to show their hand. They say they have a plan and are working on it. Good.

But talk is cheap. It is time for the group to show its cards and start putting the pieces together.

When you look at Houston’s minor leagues there are more than a few of those pieces already in place. There is talent, but it is young.

Now it’s time to try and find a star or two who brings it all together.

Mark Appel might be that star. He is a big, strong pitcher who is the likely first pick, if you can sign him.

Appel, a right-handed pitcher out of Stanford, did not sign after being picked in the first round last year by Pittsburgh. He didn’t like his signing bonus. Now he is the top name, but that doesn’t mean he should be the top pick.

They could go with Jonathan Gray, Oklahoma’s ace hurler, but he too has baggage. Gray tested positive for Adderall, a banned substance, during a MLB predraft physical. While he will not be suspended when he signs, he will be under a closer look by MLB and subject to more random tests.

Or they could take the high school pitcher out of Texas, Kohl Stewart, who has already signed to play quarterback in the fall at Texas A&M. While Johnny Manziel holds down that starting spot, it does give Stewart a bargaining chip.

The Astros could even go off the board to make sure they get their guy signed. They can’t come up empty.

The franchise needs to make the right move for them. That means they need somebody whom they can sign and not mortgage the future.

The right pick is not always the obvious best pick.

If they can sign Appel, great. If not, move on quickly.

This is the first draft for group so it is important they put their stamp on it.

Fans are willing to give teams a chance if only they show they are working to get better.

The Nationals did it the right way. They told the world, and more importantly their fans, just what their plan was. Just as importantly they made the moves and right picks to show them just how it would work.

They also got lucky. In back-to-back drafts Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper both fell into their laps. It is always better to be lucky than good.

But the team was also ready to make those picks work, which they have done. If not for all the subtle moves surrounding those picks the Nationals would still be a mess.

Before the Nats it was the Tampa Bay Rays who showed the world how to build a winner from within.

This is not the way the Yankees or Red Sox were made, not the Dodgers or Angels, but it does seem to be the best way for the Astros to go. It give them a three- or four-year window in which to become winners. And if done right, progress will be seen in the standings each season.

That gives the fans hope and gets them excited and reasons to believe during the winter months.

It is a long journey back up the standings for the Astros, but the first steps are always the toughest.

And this ownership group is just taking its baby steps. We will see how long it is before they are read to run with the rest of baseball.

Houston, you are on the clock.

Let’s hope this is the last time for a long time you are picking first.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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