A quick look at the major-league baseball standings shows that one year into new ownership, the Houston Astros remain a work in progress.
A closer look reveals that a rebuilding process is already under way, starting at the ground level and Monday, the Quad-Cities River Bandits became part of the foundation the Astros plan to build on.
The Midwest League club announced the signing of a two-year player development contract with the Astros, who will make Davenport’s Modern Woodmen Park the first full-season stop on Houston’s organizational ladder.
The deal not only renews a previous relationship — the River Bandits were a Houston affiliate from 1993-98 — but it also marks a return to the Midwest League for the Astros, whose low Class A affiliate for the past 10 seasons has been Lexington, Ky., in the South Atlantic League.
“Our organization has a history here and we’re excited to be back, both in the Midwest League and in the Quad-Cities,’’ Fred Nelson, Astros director of player development, said. “Our people were treated very well in this community when we were here before, and we’re looking forward to becoming a part of it again.’’
Nelson was also anxious to tour the renovated riverfront stadium, where both the home and visiting clubhouses are undergoing an off-season makeover.
“Our people have heard a lot of good things about this place and before leaving our instructional league camp in Florida, they gave me a laundry list of things to check out,’’ Nelson said.
The River Bandits checked out a few things as well before selecting Houston as its new major-league affiliate. Team officials chose the Astros over the Angels and the Athletics, two clubs which have enjoyed more recent success at the big-league level but have not invested as greatly in development as Houston has.
Nelson had worked in scouting at the major-league level before the Astros’ new management team of owner Jim Crane, team president George Postolos and general manager Jeff Luhnow coaxed him into returning to the player development role he held in the organization.
In the past year, the Astros’ minor-league staff and players engineered a turnaround of 205 wins among its minor-league affiliates. The organization went from ranking last in win percentage among baseball’s 30 organizations in 2011 to ranking first this season with a .546 winning percentage.
Three Houston clubs reached postseason play, including the short-season Tri-City team which will feed the 2013 Quad-Cities roster with talent after finishing 51-25 and winning its division in the New York-Penn League.
“We’ve had not only an influx of talent, but a change of mindset,’’ Nelson said. “Jeff Luhnow has a proven track record of successful drafts, successful teams and there is an idea that winning and development go hand in hand.’’
Quad-Cities general manager Stefanie Brown said the final decision to go with the Astros was reached Saturday night during a weekend trip to meet with Houston front-office personnel.
“There is an excitement and an energy in the transformation that is taking place there that was apparent and while we had three great organizations to choose from, everything about Houston felt right,’’ Brown said.
“There is a comfort level with their staff and we like the fact that they are building their organization through development. That should bring some very high draft picks to the Quad-Cities.’’
Houston’s lack of success on the field at the major-league level — the team has lost more than 100 games in each of the last two seasons — has resulted in the Astros earning the No. 1 overall pick in the baseball draft both this year and in 2013.
“The Quad-Cities hasn’t had a No. 1 overall pick on its roster since Joe Mauer (in 2002), and to have a chance to have not one, but two players of that caliber potentially playing here is exciting,’’ River Bandits owner Dave Heller said. “We couldn’t be happier signing with Houston.’’
Carlos Correa, an 18-year-old shortstop from Puerto Rico, was this year’s top pick. He finished the season batting .371 in 11 late-season games at short-season Greeneville (Tenn.) in the Appalachian League.
It is possible he could find himself on a Quad-Cities roster that may also include New York-Penn League batting champion Tyler Heineman, a catcher who hit .358 this season at Tri-City.
Brown and Heller cited a familiarity with Luhnow as a factor in their decision to sign with Houston.
Luhnow previously worked as the vice president of scouting and player development for St. Louis, a role which brought him to the Quad-Cities annually until a year ago throughout the first seven of the eight seasons the River Bandits were affiliated with the Cardinals.
“All of the fans in the Quad-Cities have benefited from his drafts and scouting with St. Louis. They’ve seen Kolten Wong, Shelby Miller and Oscar Taveras and now they can look forward to the same quality of players as they begin their careers with the Astros,’’ Heller said.
The Quad-Cities River Bandits will renew acquaintances with the organization which brought Richard Hidalgo, Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge to the banks of the Mississippi River as their careers began.
Quad-Cities general manager Stefanie Brown announced this afternoon that the Houston Astros have signed a player development contract with the River Bandits.
Fred Nelson, the director of player development for Houston, said the Astros are excited to be returning to the Midwest League.
"I know how important it so for our players to be in a community where people want them to be and for them to participate in the community," Nelson said. "We are thrilled to death to be here."
Houston, which had the top winning percentage of any major-league organization at the minor-league level in 2012, was previously affiliated with the River Bandits from 1993-98.
The Astros replace St. Louis as the parent club of the River Bandits. The Cardinals chose to end their relationship with Quad-Cities after eight seasons earlier this month, affiliating with Peoria.
Houston's low Class A club had been located in Lexington, Ky., for the past decade.