Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 4/4/12
HOUSTON Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow seemed duty bound to mention the long haul that is spring training, the extended stay in Kissimmee, Fla., that commenced on Valentine's Day and concluded last weekend when the club departed for an exhibition in Corpus Christi. Six weeks away from home is a stern test to the constitution, even with the Sunshine State serving as the backdrop. Complicating matters for Luhnow was the arduous task of constructing his first 25-man roster from spring training invitees featuring optimistic youngsters and grizzled veterans whose primary role was to challenge the neophytes. In hindsight there was little chance for Livan Hernandez or Jack Cust or Zach Duke to make the final cut on opening day, not with the Astros in the throes of rebuilding and anxious to put the promise of their prospects into practice. Luhnow exercised due diligence before making these obvious decisions in an attempt for complete assuredness that fully initiating the Astros' youth movement was the prudent decision. On the heels of a season where the Astros finally conceded that they had indeed hit rock bottom, they will be even less experienced this summer compared to the stretch run of 2011 when minor leaguers flooded the Minute Maid Park home clubhouse and replaced franchise stalwarts. Ten Astros will on Friday open the season on a major league roster for the first time, represented by an even split of pitchers and position players. That is an extraordinary number, one emblematic of where the franchise stands and the direction in which Luhnow plans to steer it. "One of the most fun things I've gotten to do in my nine years as a baseball executive is tell five position players two days ago and five pitchers (Monday) that they were making their first opening-day roster in their career," Luhnow said. "That was really a fun experience after a lot of the other conversations that you have to have during the spring: letting a guy go or telling a guy that he's going to be reassigned or optioned out. It was really fun to get a chance to do that. "It's special, and we really wanted to make it special. That was something they'll remember for the rest of their lives, and certainly I will." Both Rule 5 picks, right-hander Rhiner Cruz and infielder Marwin Gonzalez, stuck, a noteworthy development if only because both were selected almost immediately after Luhnow was named general manager. Right-hander Kyle Weiland, acquired from the Red Sox along with shortstop Jed Lowrie this offseason, will pitch behind Wandy Rodriguez in the rotation. Right-hander Lucas Harrell, claimed off waivers from the White Sox last July, emerged and facilitated the release of Hernandez. While the claims of an open competition were sincere, the Astros certainly made every effort to leave the door ajar for their younger arms. That Weiland and Harrell, with a combined 66.2 big-league innings, survived while Duke and Hernandez (4,162.2 combined innings) did not partially reflects the Astros' belief in their potential. Those decisions were equally emblematic of the thought process of Luhnow and Astros manager Brad Mills. It's why Jose Altuve is entrenched at second base and J.D. Martinez in left field. It's why of the aforementioned position players on the opening-day active roster, the four legitimate prospects (Altuve, Gonzalez, Martinez and catcher Jason Castro) have a combined 624 big-league at-bats. First baseman Carlos Lee, one of the few veterans asked to set the tone of leadership and professionalism in the clubhouse, opens his 14th year with 7,433 at-bats. "Brad and I spent a lot of time before we went down there talking about what we were going to stress," Luhnow said. "And part of it was we have a lot of young players. We had 20-something-odd rookie appearances last year and we knew we were going to have quite a few young players on the team this year. How do you capture that energy and move it forward into something that's exciting for the organization and the fans and the city? "One of the ways we did that was opening up the competition. There were quite a few spots that were open, and it was up to the players to determine who was going to win those spots." In essence, Luhnow and Mills opted not to hand over jobs to Martinez and center fielder Jordan Schafer, who Luhnow described as a "Jacoby Ellsbury type of player." The Astros brass waited to see if Castro was fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him the 2011 season before trading dependable backstop Humberto Quintero to the Royals. Cruz has electric stuff but documented control problems, so the Astros invested extensive time tutoring him, with pitching coach Doug Brocail and Hernandez double teaming Cruz on the back fields in Kissimmee. Eventually veterans like Lee and Rodriguez and Brett Myers, who was relocated to the back of the bullpen so inexperienced arms like Harrell and Weiland could get their chance in the rotation, will find their way to other teams, allowing the Astros to both pare additional payroll and advance intriguing prospects in their farm system. The Astros plunged into the basement of the National League Central in 2011, and while they may remain there for a while, at least there is some direction. While he lodged in Florida, Luhnow witnessed glimmers of hope. His time in Kissimmee wasn't wasted, so now the process of convincing the Astros faithful to root, root, root for the home team begins in earnest. "Most of the publications, newspapers, analysts, etc., are picking us to be dead last in the Central and 29th or 30th in all of baseball. Even the Vegas line has it that way," Luhnow said. "But I think we're going to surprise some people because we have an expectation, an attitude in the clubhouse and among the coaching staff and in the front office that we can do this. "I believe that you're going to see that out on the field. You're going to see a hundred percent effort, and the results are going to drive them." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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