The playoffs seem further away than ever to Houston Astros fans these days. The team is struggling at a level fans aren't used to. The good news is the organization has been approaching the rebuilding phase aggressively.
Getting back to the playoffs will be a long, arduous and painful process for fans to watch. There will be growing pains and plenty of games where it will seem impossible for the team to get back to playoff contention.
The recent success that teams like the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays are enjoying should give fans of the Astros reason for optimism. Those three teams are coming off of difficult rebuilding processes. Now, it's paying huge dividends in the form of wins at the big league level.
The Astros can find a way back to the playoffs, but it will take a similar successful rebuilding effort. Here are five things that must happen for the Astros to make the playoffs in the future.
The Astros are well on their way to having the worst record in Major League Baseball this year. That isn't such a bad thing for the organization at this point, as they would then have the No. 1 pick in the 2013 MLB Draft.
The Astros seem to have hit big on their recent No. 1 pick Carlos Correa, who has already received a promotion since joining the organization. Correa is on a tear for the Astros' single-A affiliate in Greeneville. In 27 at-bats, he has 11 hits, two doubles, a triple and a home run. That's good for a line of .407/.484/1.151.
He is still far from a promotion to the big leagues, but fans should still be excited over his lofty production so far.
Adding more top-notch prospects like Correa gives the Astros the type of talent to compete for the playoffs in the future. By having the first pick in the country next year, the Astros could again have the opportunity to add a superstar-caliber prospect to their organization.
The Astros' biggest issue for the past few years has been their inability to develop power hitters at the big league level. Their offense has lacked the ability to drive in runs at even an average rate. The current roster does not have a slugger to speak of, but there is help on the way in the minors.
The organization's current top minor league slugger closest to playing for the Astros is Jonathan Singleton. It would be a surprise if he were to win the Opening Day first-base job next year, but he could come up at some point later in the season.
George Springer is another slugging prospect for fans to keep an eye on. The center fielder is currently struggling at double-A, after putting up a line of .316/.398/.955 with 22 home runs, 82 runs batted in and 28 stolen bases for the Astros' single-A affiliate in Lancaster.
Domingo Santana is one of the prospects that came over in the Hunter Pence trade. The right fielder is hitting .290 with 18 home runs and 86 runs batted in. He is currently at Lancaster, and will probably spend next year at double-A Corpus Christi.
Considering the Astros also added sluggers Carlos Correa and Rio Ruiz in this past year's draft, it appears the organization could be on their way towards developing some serious sluggers.
Astros fans should not expect the team to spend substantial money in free agency this offseason. They likely won't be looking to sign a long-term contract with any free agent. With the team lacking the ability to compete at this point, it wouldn't make sense to add even two or three star free agents because there are far too many holes to fill.
It will make much more sense for the organization to spend money in free agency when the club's current top prospects reach the big leagues. Until then, the Astros should be shrewd in their approach to free agency.
The Astros should be interested in free agents willing to settle for a one-year deal. There is no reason to commit to a free agent beyond next season. There are always plenty of down-on-their-luck free agents just looking for an opportunity to play in the big leagues full-time. The Astros have room in their outfield and bullpen to add a veteran free agent.
If the Astros can add a value free agent who ends up playing well for the club, it's possible they could add more prospects to their system by trading the player to a 2013 playoff contender before the trade deadline.
The American League West could prove to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball for the near future. There are stars on every team. The Astros will have to match that star power if they are to compete for a playoff spot down the line.
The Rangers are one of the best hitting teams in baseball, and the Astros have struggled against their future division rival in recent years in interleague play. The Astros will need to improve their lineup significantly if they want to score with the Rangers.
The Angels don't always play at the high level they are capable of, however, they still boast one of the most talented teams in the American League. Traveling halfway across the country to play the Angels will be a difficult task for the Astros. Adjusting to the travel alone could take time.
The A's payroll is close to the Astros', but their current team has far more talent. The A's always seem to develop prospects just as fast as they trade them away. They will be a thorn in the Astros' side because of their young, talented pitching alone.
If the Astros struggle traveling to California for divisional road games, it could get even uglier when they have to go to Seattle. The Mariners are a notoriously streaky club. If the Astros face them at the right time, they could find some wins here.
The Astros will likely finish with the worst record in baseball this year, and next season could yield similar results. If the Astros are to take steps towards becoming a contender, winning at Minute Maid Park would be a great start.
The Astros should use the advantage of knowing their own ballpark over American League teams who will be new to visiting Houston routinely. Creating a home-field advantage in Houston could be difficult with attendance down and a lack of talent on the roster. However, the team should still find a way to be much more competitive at home because of their comfort with the ballpark.
If the Astros continue to rebuild their organization with the same aggressive approach that has already begun to show promise, they will find themselves in the playoffs sooner rather than later.