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11/23/10 12:03 PM EST

Astros are on the right path for future

Decision to go young will pay dividends, but also take time

Even by the Astros' slow-starting standards of recent years, Houston's 26-45 record on the morning of June 23 stood out as ugly. It was also the best thing that could have happened to the club.

That painful beginning to the 2010 season allowed general manager Ed Wade to do what the 'Stros ought to have done years earlier: blow things up and start playing the kids. Two of the greatest players in franchise history -- Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman -- were dealt in separate July trades. It hurt, but it was the right way to go.

Recent Houston clubs had steadfastly refused to acknowledge the need to stop playing for the now, instead trying to squeeze just one more year out of an aging core ... and one more, and one more, and one more.

Finally, the time came. And while there are quibbles to be had with some of the specific steps that Houston has taken over the past five months, the concept is sound. It's where the Astros need to be. And it's fortunate for Wade that he has that freedom, rather than trying once more to win now with a roster best suited to winning last year.

It also helped that the Astros showed some real signs of life after the trades. From the day Oswalt was dealt until the end of the season, Houston went 34-27, and for a brief moment in September it looked like the Astros might even have a chance to finish in second in the NL Central. They ended up in fourth, but 76-86 was a fine finish considering the circumstances.

"Not only did we play better, but the makeup of our club changed so dramatically," Wade said. "We opened the season with veteran guys like Berkman, [Carlos] Lee, [Hunter] Pence, [Pedro] Feliz all in the lineup. And you end up with Lee in a different position, and Hunter -- and the other guys gone. It changes the dynamic of the club significantly, and probably moves us more toward where we want to get, which is to have our nucleus be younger guys who came through the system."

It's worth noting that, unless you are convinced that J.A. Happ is a frontline starter, the Astros didn't get as much for Oswalt as ideally they might have. Likewise, dealing the promising Felipe Paulino for a veteran middle infielder like Clint Barmes doesn't look like a move by a team building for the long term.

In the big picture, though, the Astros are on the right track. And now that they've shed some big contracts, the club could also be more appealing to a prospective new owner. Long-time owner Drayton McLane recently announced that he will be selling the team, and a lighter, leaner payroll would seem to have some attraction to potential buyers.

As, of course, would a winning team. And here's the thing: Astros fans would be wise not to get too far ahead of themselves. There's a reason clubs are hesitant to rebuild. It's a long, slow, painful process. You don't just decide one year to go young, and win 95 games the next year.

Even considering the late surge in 2010, things could be difficult for the Astros in '11. A lot must go right for them to have enough offense to contend. Happ is a useful pitcher, but he's no Oswalt. This is not a team that will be favored to hang with the Reds and Cardinals in the division next season.

But that doesn't mean it's the wrong course. That's what must not get lost in 2011, '12, and even '13. The top levels of the farm system have some interesting players, but the real excitement in the organization is in the lower classifications. Those players won't arrive right away, and some of them will wash out.

When that happens -- and it will -- the Astros must stay the course. They must stick with their newfound commitments to spending in the international market and on Draft picks. They must resist the temptation to sign players like Miguel Tejada and Feliz, unless they're going to be willing to flip them for more young talent at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

The future is brighter than it's been in a long time in Houston, and it's going to arrive eventually. But it's going to take some patience.

"I don't think it ever becomes a short-term process," Wade said. "People talk about rebuilding, and it's a bad word to use. We're not using it. But the reality is that I think good clubs are always rebuilding from the standpoint of having enough depth in their system where they're able to add one or two players a year and have some surplus talent to go out and fill needs that you can't fill from within.

"It's the model of the clubs who are successful right now. It's the model in my experience going back to when I was an intern in 1977. ... It's the way to do it. Trading Oswalt and trading Berkman, two [iconic] players, wasn't easy. But time and circumstances dictated that those were the right things to do."

They can't stop now.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.