The Astros' Nucleus of the Future is starting to separate itself from the pack.

As new ownership and perhaps management prepares to take charge in the next few weeks, a handful of players is itself taking charge as a group to build around.

Brett Wallace has stepped in nicely for Lance Berkman, Bud Norris is picking up the Roy Oswalt slack, and Hunter Pence is taking over the role of major run producer for the Astros.

Pence is on pace for 21 HR and 129 RBI, Wallace is hitting .331 with a .406 OBP, and Michael Bourn is en route to another 60 stolen bases. All the while, 26-year-old Bud Norris is emerging as a possible staff ace, leading the team in Ks (10.8 per game), ERA (3.42) and WHIP (1.240).

While many projected Wallace as a successful major league hitter, few — if any — have suggested that Norris would be a top-of-the-rotation strikeout king. But six consecutive strong outings, a much better K/BB ratio (nearly 4/1) and obvious improving mound presence is turning many doubters into at least semi-believers.

Meanwhile, Pence matured in the last four years under the shadow of Berkman and even Craig Biggio and Miguel Tejada. Now the 28-year-old right fielder has served notice he would like to stake a long-time claim to the three-hole in the Astros' lineup. Whether or not he develops in a Jeff Bagwell or Lance Berkman may remain a question into next season or beyond, but 100+ RBI and a .300 average will make a strong argument. The big question about Pence: Low OBP, though, at .347, he's pushing his career high.