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New year, new outlook for Houston's Giles

Astros closer bulks up in effort to pitch effectively deep into October
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When the final out of the World Series was recorded last year, it was starter-turned-reliever Charlie Morton -- and not closer Ken Giles -- who was getting the final out and being mobbed by his Astros teammates in the middle of the diamond.

Giles, who saved 34 of 38 games in the regular season and struck out 83 in 62 2/3 innings, faltered in the playoffs, particularly in the World Series, and didn't pitch in the Fall Classic after giving up three runs and two hits without recording an out in Game 4. In seven playoff appearances last year, Giles gave up 10 runs and 12 hits in 7 2/3 innings.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When the final out of the World Series was recorded last year, it was starter-turned-reliever Charlie Morton -- and not closer Ken Giles -- who was getting the final out and being mobbed by his Astros teammates in the middle of the diamond.

Giles, who saved 34 of 38 games in the regular season and struck out 83 in 62 2/3 innings, faltered in the playoffs, particularly in the World Series, and didn't pitch in the Fall Classic after giving up three runs and two hits without recording an out in Game 4. In seven playoff appearances last year, Giles gave up 10 runs and 12 hits in 7 2/3 innings.

Astros Spring Training information

The right-hander known as "100 Miles Giles" for his electric fastball, which offsets a sharp slider, hit the weight room this offseason and got stronger to be able to endure another long season. Just think, the Astros went from Valentine's Day until one day past Halloween last year.

"It was a long season for me," Giles said. "It's still no excuse. You have to perform when the time is right, and I'm ready to go out there and prove myself."

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Giles, 27, posted a 2.30 ERA and struck out 11.92 batters per nine innings last year and walked 3.02 per nine in the regular season. His 34 saves were the most by an Astro since Jose Valverde had 44 in 2008.

In the playoffs, Giles allowed at least one run in six of his seven outings. He saved Game 4 of the American League Division Series against Boston despite allowing a homer in two innings and saved Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees despite allowing a homer, but he endured a blown save in Game 4 of the ALCS.

In the World Series, he was touched for two runs and two hits in 1 2/3 innings in Game 2, which the Astros rallied to win, before taking the loss in Game 4. With Giles in mothballs, manager A.J. Hinch turned to Chris Devenski in the ninth inning of Game 5 (he blew a three-run lead), and Morton threw the final four innings of Game 7 of the World Series.

Hinch said he could sense Giles was fatigued in the playoffs because hitters were responding to his pitches differently.

Video: Outlook: Giles should be one of AL's top relievers

"There was a little bit of a grind for him, but again, it wasn't all failure," he said. "Confidence breeds confidence and being able to bounce back in that role in the back of a bullpen after some tough outings is one of his biggest traits."

Giles insists he isn't dwelling on his performance in the postseason.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "We win as a team. We lose as a team. All that matters is we came up top. Guys stepped up. We kept the hot hand in there. I don't blame them. Whatever is working out there, you have to keep rolling and don't break the rhythm. It doesn't matter to me."

Giles is hoping more muscle means more stamina to allow him to pitch effectively deep into October. He says he's built to last this year.

"You know what? I'm not perfect," he said. "I'm a perfectionist and I want to be perfect all the time and I want to step up when I'm needed to be stepped up. I did a lot of that. I just didn't finish it. I want to finish it this year."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Ken Giles

When Verlander speaks, Astros hurlers listen

Astros vet assists McCullers, talks pitching with Keuchel, Cole
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In his first Spring Training with the Astros, pitcher Justin Verlander has been spreading tons of knowledge. He was spotted Saturday getting hands-on with pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. during his bullpen session, and on Sunday, he was at his locker talking pitching with Dallas Keuchel and Gerrit Cole.

Even some of the younger pitchers in camp were training their eyes toward the corner of the clubhouse Sunday where Verlander was dropping insight.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In his first Spring Training with the Astros, pitcher Justin Verlander has been spreading tons of knowledge. He was spotted Saturday getting hands-on with pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. during his bullpen session, and on Sunday, he was at his locker talking pitching with Dallas Keuchel and Gerrit Cole.

Even some of the younger pitchers in camp were training their eyes toward the corner of the clubhouse Sunday where Verlander was dropping insight.

Astros Spring Training information

"I like to work with younger guys, older guys, whoever," Verlander said. "Especially in Spring Training time, it's a time to have new ideas, try new things, tweak things. Any information that I have that can help the guys, I'm kind of trying to see opportunities I can maybe help and impart some wisdom of a guy who's been around for a while. And thankfully this organization and a lot of the guys in the clubhouse are very open, even though they've had good success already, of trying new things and hearing different opinions. I think that's how you ultimately get better."

On Saturday, Verlander appeared to be showing McCullers ways to grip the ball while McCullers was throwing in the bullpen. The pair were also viewing photos and videos of the bullpen on a device while standing on the mound.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"Him and I are working on some similar stuff in Spring Training when it comes to spinning the ball or offspeed spin, just a few different things," Verlander said. "Honestly, [Saturday] we were back and forth. He would throw a pitch and we'd talk about how it felt and see some different results and go back and forth between pitches."

Verlander says he gets great satisfaction in helping his teammates, as long as it works. The goal, he says, is for everyone to get better.

"You're never pleased with where you're at. You're always looking forward and trying to improve in any way possible," he said. "If you have that atmosphere, guys tend to gravitate to guys that have been around for a while. It's kind of like, 'respect your elders.' I've been around a little longer, a little wiser. You just have more information processed that you've had over time in the big leagues. Hopefully, something I've seen or heard or felt, can help them."

Video: Verlander on new Spring Training, Cole in rotation

First full-squad workout Monday

The Astros went through an abbreviated workout Sunday, with most players leaving the facility by 9:30 a.m. CT. Sunday marked the final workout before the first full-squad workout Monday. Most of the position players who had reported early to camp weren't spotted at the facility Sunday, with the exception of outfielder Josh Reddick.

The Astros will open Grapefruit League play on Friday against the Nationals.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Justin Verlander

Hinch: Cole only needs 'tweaks,' not overhaul

Manager adamant that offseason acquisition is among game's best pitchers
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole has impressive credentials, which is why the Astros traded for right-hander in January. A former first-round pick, Cole won 19 games in 2015 and can throw in the upper 90s with his fastball.

Cole is a finished product whose best days are probably still ahead of him. At 27, he's not a project by any means. Sure, pitching coach Brent Strom will work his magic, but the Astros brought Cole into the fold to be a force with fellow 2017 Opening Day starters Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel from the get-go.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole has impressive credentials, which is why the Astros traded for right-hander in January. A former first-round pick, Cole won 19 games in 2015 and can throw in the upper 90s with his fastball.

Cole is a finished product whose best days are probably still ahead of him. At 27, he's not a project by any means. Sure, pitching coach Brent Strom will work his magic, but the Astros brought Cole into the fold to be a force with fellow 2017 Opening Day starters Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel from the get-go.

Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Schedule | Gear

"Gerrit Cole is pretty damn good," manager A.J. Hinch said. "He's been an effective big league pitcher. Did he give up a few home runs last year? Yeah. Did he have a slightly down season compared to his standards? Yes. That doesn't mean he can't be a top elite pitcher in the American League just given his stuff, his makeup and his ability to pitch."

Video: Cole discusses joining a championship team

Cole, the Pirates' first-round Draft pick in 2011 out of UCLA, has gone 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA over 54 starts from 206-17 after winning 19 games in '15. He finished 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA in 33 starts last year for the Pirates, allowing 55 walks and 31 homers while striking out 196 batters in 203 innings.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

In January, the Astros bolstered their rotation when they sent pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, infielder Colin Moran and Minor League outfielder Jason Martin to the Pirates for Cole.

Video: A.J. Hinch on Gerritt Cole's repertoire

Cole will immediately benefit from his environment, which includes a clubhouse full of guys who have won a World Series and want another title. It includes one of the best pitchers of his generation in Verlander, whose locker at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is only a few feet away. It includes veteran catcher Brian McCann, whose work with the pitching staff last year prompted pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. to anoint him as team's most valuable player.

"I'm just excited to be at a place where we have a lot of good players and we have a team mentality and it seems everybody is trying to win and seeing themselves out for the greater good for the team," Cole said. "That's all you can ask for a player."

Video: McTaggart on where Cole fits in Astros rotation

Any adjustments the Astros make figure to start with pitch usage. Last year, Cole threw 12.2 percent curveballs and 17.2 percent sliders, but he mostly fed off his 96-mph fastball. Hinch said some adjustments can be made.

"He's got upper 90s in his back pocket when needs it. He's got a good slider, he's got a good changeup," Hinch said. "He knows how to pitch. He can elevate, he can crossfire. Getting a good game plan in front of him is going to be really key for him. Is there going to be a tweak in usage? Maybe, if we need it. Make no mistake, there's not an overhaul going on. He's pretty good from the time he steps on campus, and we'll try to tweak him like we do with every player."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Gerrit Cole

Svelte Martes impressing with velocity, focus

Ferrell recounts thrill of getting call to MLB camp; Reddick talks Hawaiian missile scare
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Francis Martes has stood out in the early days of Astros camp for how hard he's throwing the ball, but that isn't the only thing manager A.J. Hinch noticed about him. The right-hander shed a few pounds in the offseason, and he's focusing on slowing down his delivery.

"It's coming with maturity and also the lessons he learned in the big leagues last year and being around so many guys," Hinch said. "If he can control the tempo and not be so high-strung during the game, pitch execution can get a little bit better.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Francis Martes has stood out in the early days of Astros camp for how hard he's throwing the ball, but that isn't the only thing manager A.J. Hinch noticed about him. The right-hander shed a few pounds in the offseason, and he's focusing on slowing down his delivery.

"It's coming with maturity and also the lessons he learned in the big leagues last year and being around so many guys," Hinch said. "If he can control the tempo and not be so high-strung during the game, pitch execution can get a little bit better.

Spring Training: Info | Tickets | Schedule | Gear

"He's throwing as hard as anybody in camp right now, which is mostly a good sign. It's still really early. He came very prepared, he came slimmed down a little bit, his delivery is a little bit better. All things we expected, but it's nice to see in person."

Martes, 22, appeared in 32 games for the Astros last year, making four starts, going 5-2 with a 5.80 ERA. He struck out 69 batters and walked 31 batters in 54 1/3 innings, but struggled with his control. He sprayed the ball when he rushed through his delivery.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Martes said he weighs 243 pounds this year (down from 249 a year ago), but is carrying more muscle and less fat.

"My goal is starting in the big leagues, but the decision is up to [general manager] Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch," Martes said. "I'm ready for both. I'm ready for bullpen and starting. I'm not worried. My goal is the big leagues, but if the decision is to go to Triple-A, I'll go throw hard and wait for the big leagues. I'm ready for it."

Ferrell on getting call to camp
Astros pitching prospect Riley Ferrell was in a duck blind in Lubbock, Texas, in the offseason when he got the call that he was coming Astros camp as a non-roster invitee. It was a dream come true for Ferrell, a long-time Astros fan, and suddenly he didn't care about the ducks.

"I got a text message about 3:30 [p.m.], and the birds are starting to come in and I'm excited for that, and I was like, 'Forget the birds,'" he said.

Ferrell grew up in College Station, Texas, about 90 miles from Houston, and was a big Astros fan. His favorite Astros player growing up was Roger Clemens, but he admired Andy Pettitte, Craig Biggio and Billy Wagner, as well.

Video: Ferrell discusses being an Astros fan growing up

What's more, his college pitching coach at TCU was Kirk Saarloos, who pitched for the Astros from 2002-03.

"I went to my first Astros game at the Astrodome," Ferrell said. "I sat in the nosebleeds and had the binoculars with my dad. I was hooked. The old retro jerseys, the navy and gold. I went to my first game at Minute Maid, and I was in a box. My aunt had a little bit of a deal and we went and sat in the box and I was probably not even 10. Nothing really stuck out to me until Billy Wagner came out throwing fuel and the flames on the screen and everything. It was freaking sick. I got chills right now thinking of it."

Ferrell, the Astros' third-round pick out of TCU in 2015, is coming off a solid season spent mostly at Double-A Corpus Christi, where he had a 3.81 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 14 walks in 52 innings in relief. He underwent surgery in mid-2016 to repair an aneurysm in his throwing shoulder area, but he is healthy.

Reddick on missile scare
Astros outfielder Josh Reddick was in Hawaii with his girlfriend during last month's missile scare. Reddick said he and his girlfriend were preparing to see dolphins when they got an alert on their cell phone that a ballistic missile was heading to the islands and to seek shelter.

It wasn't until 38 minutes later when an all-clear was sent that Reddick could breath easily.

"I went back to my room and it was actually frustrating, because me and my girlfriend were going to visit with the dolphins that morning," he said. "We got there on time. We got to play with the dolphins that morning. It was plenty of time. She wasn't even worried about dying; she was worried about seeing the dolphins. I said, 'Those dolphins can wait, we can see them tomorrow if we're still here.' Still had a great time."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Riley Ferrell, Francis Martes

Out of options, Stassi aiming for roster spot

Astros catcher hoping to claim final available position player slot
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Unless there are injuries this spring, it appears there will be only one spot available for a position player to make the Astros' roster when the regular season starts. The decision for manager A.J. Hinch will come down to carrying a third catcher or an extra infielder/outfielder, such as Tyler White or Tony Kemp.

Veteran Brian McCann returns as the starter, with Evan Gattis again slotted as his backup, but a third catcher would give freedom for McCann and Gattis to be the designated hitter more and help preserve their health. The strides made by Max Stassi at the plate have made him a viable candidate to crack the Opening Day roster as a third catcher.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Unless there are injuries this spring, it appears there will be only one spot available for a position player to make the Astros' roster when the regular season starts. The decision for manager A.J. Hinch will come down to carrying a third catcher or an extra infielder/outfielder, such as Tyler White or Tony Kemp.

Veteran Brian McCann returns as the starter, with Evan Gattis again slotted as his backup, but a third catcher would give freedom for McCann and Gattis to be the designated hitter more and help preserve their health. The strides made by Max Stassi at the plate have made him a viable candidate to crack the Opening Day roster as a third catcher.

"It's a tough season, and you're always conscious of injuries, so having one more guy in there at the beginning of the season is a consideration because of how it could ease the workload of the two primary guys, but also enhance how I use the roster in general," Hinch said.

• Astros Spring Training: Info | Schedule | Tickets

The Astros have six catchers in camp: McCann and Gattis, who will make the club; Stassi and Tim Federowicz, who are battling to make the club; and prospects Jamie Ritchie and Garrett Stubbs, who are soaking up as much information as they can from the vets.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"[Stassi's] out of options, which is going to create some stress for us to try to make a decision on him," Hinch said. "He and Federowicz are the two guys who are ahead of the other two guys, but that will be a healthy competition."

Stassi, 26, has appeared in 44 career games over the last five seasons with the Astros and got a career-high 24 big league at-bats last year, going 4-for-24 with two homers and four RBIs. He also drew six walks in 31 plate appearances and struck out only four times. In 73 games at Triple-A Fresno in 2017, Stassi hit .266 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs.

Video: HOU@ARI: Stassi belts a solo home run to right field

"I feel I had a decent year in Triple-A and when I got called up, I was swinging it pretty good," Stassi said. "I'm going to approach it like any other spring. I was very well prepared going into this year and very excited for this opportunity. It's everything you could wish for, and it's good to be in the discussion, but I know my performance is what's going to dictate it."

Stassi credits hitting coaches Dave Hudgens and Jeff Albert with helping him rework his swing this offseason. He said the work he's done with Albert over the past couple of years has helped save his career.

"I honestly don't know where I'd be without that guy," he said. "He's going to take no credit for it, but I give him all the credit. He's been a big, huge part of my career and I'm excited to work with him this spring and hopefully take it from there."

Hinch, a former big league catcher, likes what Stassi can bring to the plate as well, though his offense will dictate his future.

"I know catcher framing has been more and more popular over the last couple of years, and the adjustments he's made with his swing have produced a little bit more power and his plate discipline and swing decisions have been a little bit better in the last year or two," Hinch said.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Max Stassi

Astros weighing left-handed relief options

Veterans, rookies both in mix; several big-name position players already in camp
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There will be an open competition in camp for the Astros to find a left-handed relief pitcher, though there's no guarantees they would carry one. Veteran Tony Sipp is in the final year of his three-year deal and has to pitch well to make the team, while the club picked up Buddy Boshers for depth this offseason.

Beyond that, there's Reymin Guduan, who allowed 14 earned runs in 16 innings last year with the Astros, and Rule 5 pickup Anthony Gose, who's a longshot. Astros manager A.J. Hinch says he wants a bullpen that gives him options, regardless of which side the pitcher throws from.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There will be an open competition in camp for the Astros to find a left-handed relief pitcher, though there's no guarantees they would carry one. Veteran Tony Sipp is in the final year of his three-year deal and has to pitch well to make the team, while the club picked up Buddy Boshers for depth this offseason.

Beyond that, there's Reymin Guduan, who allowed 14 earned runs in 16 innings last year with the Astros, and Rule 5 pickup Anthony Gose, who's a longshot. Astros manager A.J. Hinch says he wants a bullpen that gives him options, regardless of which side the pitcher throws from.

"I think, going into this camp, the hope is Tony Sipp returns to form and that he has the stuff that made him a high-leverage reliever a couple of seasons ago (2015)," Hinch said. "He has the capabilities to do that. We want to take the best team we can."

• Astros Spring Training: Info | Schedule | Tickets

Sipp is trying to reconnect with his split-fingered fastball, which is the key to his success. He had a 5.79 ERA in 46 games last year and was left off the playoff roster.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Boshers, who tops out at 90 mph, went 1-0 with a 4.89 ERA in 38 relief appearances across four Major League stints for the Twins last season. He held left-handed batters to a .224 (13-for-58) average and a .258 on-base percentage.

"We faced him a couple of times, and obviously we're trying to create as much left-handed competition as we can," Hinch said. "We're just trying to find some options, and Boshers is going to be one of them. He's got good stuff. He's had some better performance in the Minor Leagues than the big leagues so far, which is not uncommon. If we can untap a few of his strengths and match them up accordingly, he's going to be in the mix for that last bullpen spot at the beginning of camp, and we'll see how it factors in later."

Video: MIN@LAD: Boshers fans Grandal to strike out the side

Some position players already in camp
Astros position players don't have to report until Monday, which is the first day they will work out with the entire team, but several big names began trickling into the clubhouse at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Friday, including Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman.

"I miss spending time with them," Correa said. "The offseason was great, but now it's time to get back to baseball."

The early arriving position players, which also includes A.J. Reed, Tyler White, Jake Marisnick and Tony Kemp, can go through their workouts separate from the pitchers and catchers, who completed their third day of camp on Friday. Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez had been working out at the facility earlier in the spring, but aren't in camp now.

"Even though we see each other a lot during the winter, there's something about showing up at Spring Training," Hinch said. "The buzz starts and it starts to feel like the team is starting to show up. The pitchers have been here a couple of days, but position players make it feel a little more complete."

Bregman, coming off his first full season in the Majors, missed significant at-bats last spring when he left for the World Baseball Classic, and he said being in camp all spring will be beneficial.

Video: Outlook: Bregman could be a five-tool player

"Huge, huge. Super excited," Bregman said. "This is going to be like my first Spring Training. It's going to be good. I'm excited to get plenty of at-bats before the season starts this year. It's going to be fun."

Correa, Springer and Bregman spoke confidently about the team's expectations this year coming off the 2017 World Series championship.

"We don't want to be just a team people are going to remember for one year," Correa said. "We want to be able to build a dynasty and be able to win, two three years in a row if we can do that. We have the team to do it. It's just on us to put in the work and do what we need to do to win again."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros

Sharon Robinson inspires with father's legacy

Legend's daughter visits Houston to discuss Breaking Barriers program
MLB.com @alysonfooter

HOUSTON -- It would be impossible to accurately count the number of young people Sharon Robinson has personally encountered during her two-plus decades as an educational programming consultant for Major League Baseball.

What is not up for debate is the impact she's had on hundreds of young lives through those personal appearances, and through MLB's Breaking Barriers essay-writing program.

HOUSTON -- It would be impossible to accurately count the number of young people Sharon Robinson has personally encountered during her two-plus decades as an educational programming consultant for Major League Baseball.

What is not up for debate is the impact she's had on hundreds of young lives through those personal appearances, and through MLB's Breaking Barriers essay-writing program.

Robinson, the daughter of the late Jackie Robinson, has spent most of her adult life honoring the legacy of her father, a Hall of Famer who identified as much as a Civil Rights activist as he did as a world-class athlete.

Through both in-person appearances and myriad children's books that she has authored, Sharon Robinson has told her father's story comprehensively but also in terms that young people can understand.

She was back at it on Friday in Houston, where she met with students from Harris Academy at a gathering at the Astros Youth Academy.

Video: Robinson supports Breaking Barriers Education Program

Sharon talked about her father in both glowing and realistic terms, explaining that Jackie had both a great life and a tough life. He was blessed with unimaginable athletic skills, but also, later, he battled serious health issues. And he had to find a way to balance it all.

That's Sharon's basic message to kids -- in a lifetime of highs and lows, of the good and the bad, the goal should always be to persevere.

"You go up a hill, go down a hill," Robinson said to the Harris Academy students. "That's what life is like. There are times when life is great, and times when it's tough. When the hard times hit you -- like when you don't do well on a math test -- you pull yourself up and say, 'I can do better.' You pick yourself up, and you do better."

Robinson's Texas tour -- she was in Dallas on Wednesday -- was in support of the "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life" character education program and essay contest. Sharon made special trips this week to the two Texas cities in recognition of Black History Month, touring the Youth Academy facilities while speaking to students about the teachings of her father.

She also helped the kids craft their own essays about overcoming obstacles, which will be submitted to the Breaking Barriers essay contest.

While there wasn't time built in for Robinson to meet individually with each student, she managed to do so anyway. The children who were selected from Harris Academy to attend this special meeting were among the higher achievers at the school, and Robinson came away impressed with their writing abilities and thoughtfulness when answering her questions.

"They are starting to think about things like self-confidence," she said. "I saw that in some of the essays. They showed examples of how this child was working through an obstacle, and that makes me feel really good, because while they're talking about someone else's life, and how they can apply it to their own life."

Breaking Barriers is a bilingual character-education program that teaches children about the legacy of Jackie Robinson, including his personal journey in breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947.

The essay contest will reward 10 student-winners with prizes, including laptop computers, books written by Sharon and special trips to the 2018 MLB All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., and the 2018 World Series for the two Grand Prize Winners in grades 4-6 and 7-9, respectively.

For more information about Breaking Barriers, including how to enter, go to scholastic.com/breakingbarriers.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Astros, Nats reach spring naming rights deal

FITTEAM Global will be 12-year partner at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Executives from the Astros, Nationals and FITTEAM Global will announce FITTEAM as the naming rights partner of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday in a ceremony at home plate.

At that time, the new facility logo will be unveiled and executives will discuss the partnership, which is for 12 years, according to the Washington Post. FITTEAM Global is a dietary supplement maker based in Palm Beach Gardens that operates with a multilevel marketing-style compensation structure.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Executives from the Astros, Nationals and FITTEAM Global will announce FITTEAM as the naming rights partner of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday in a ceremony at home plate.

At that time, the new facility logo will be unveiled and executives will discuss the partnership, which is for 12 years, according to the Washington Post. FITTEAM Global is a dietary supplement maker based in Palm Beach Gardens that operates with a multilevel marketing-style compensation structure.

The $144 million complex, shared by both teams, opened in 2017 after contractors scurried to put the finishing touches on the ballpark last spring. The ballpark, which is built on a former landfill just west of Interstate I-95, is funded primarily by county tourist tax revenue and the state of Florida, which was driven to keep both teams from moving to Arizona.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Washington Nationals, Houston Astros

Watson celebrated with youth outreach center

Longtime baseball figure honored with educational center at Astros' Youth Academy
MLB.com @alysonfooter

HOUSTON -- Bob Watson's life and career were celebrated in grand style on Friday, with the announcement that soon, a facility dedicated to educating young people will bear his name.

Toward the end of 2018, the Bob Watson Educational Center will open at the Astros Youth Academy in Houston, adding another sparkling element to a spacious facility that has welcomed thousands of kids over the past eight years.

HOUSTON -- Bob Watson's life and career were celebrated in grand style on Friday, with the announcement that soon, a facility dedicated to educating young people will bear his name.

Toward the end of 2018, the Bob Watson Educational Center will open at the Astros Youth Academy in Houston, adding another sparkling element to a spacious facility that has welcomed thousands of kids over the past eight years.

"I am thoroughly honored and pleased to have my name associated with an educational center," Watson said. "Education, you can't take it from me, and education is our future, especially for the young people that were here today."

The educational center will provide even more guidance for young people who have benefitted from the academy since it opened its doors in 2010. Dedicated to providing baseball and softball instruction while teaching and educating urban youth and enhancing the quality of life in the community, the academy will soon have a neighboring building that will focus on providing the necessary tools to help young people obtain a quality and thorough education.

"I tell everybody: education is the key," Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said. "Education, education, education. That's what's happening at this academy. More than 10,000 youth are coming through on an annual basis year-round -- free instruction, free play, building character, building individuals. More than 22 people last year received scholarships. It does make a huge, huge difference."

The Bob Watson Educational Center will offer extensive tutoring, specialized classes, life-skills training and help to prepare for SATs and ACTs.

"The sky's the limit," said Twila Carter, executive director of the Astros Foundation and Community Relations.

Putting Watson's name on the building is a fitting tribute for a longtime baseball figure who made history during his distinguished career. Most notably, he became the Astros' first African-American general manager in 1994. Two years later, with the Yankees, Watson became the first African-American GM to win a World Series title.

Watson was also heavily involved with operating the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which assists members of the baseball family who have come upon hard times and are in need of financial help. Watson spent his final years in baseball working for the Commissioner's Office, acting as the "czar" of discipline.

Friday's announcement drew a large crowd that included Watson's wife, Carol, his children and several of his former teammates and colleagues: Jose Cruz, J.R. Richard, Art Howe, Jim Wynn and Scipio Spinks. Also in attendance were Astros owner Jim Crane and team president Reid Ryan, MLB educational consultant Sharon Robinson and students from Harris Academy.

"When you look in here, you can see a place where kids can go, be safe, have a good time and learn some things about life and baseball," Crane said. Speaking to Watson directly, Crane added: "You set a lot of things up to open up doors and help other minorities succeed in the baseball world, which we're continuing to work on. We appreciate your leadership. We're honored to build this in your name."

Watson, who has been battling stage 4 kidney disease for several years, reflected on his own childhood, remembering a field he used to play on while growing up in an impoverished area of Los Angeles.

"There was a park a block away," he said. "I spent a ton of time at the park. We didn't have a facility like this, but it was a place to go. It was a safe place.

"This facility, to have the Bob Watson Educational Center, it's fantastic. These young people here, they'll have the opportunity to further their education in a safe environment. I'm just proud to be involved in it."

And he hopes kids will find the same inspiration he did as a youth playing pickup games and imagining something bigger and better.

"They have an opportunity to be what they want to be," Watson said. "They can reach for their dreams, reach for the stars. All they have to do is want it."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Houston Astros

Gose brings confidence, 100-mph heat to camp

Outfielder-turned-pitcher hopes to make Astros as reliever
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- One thing that Anthony Gose doesn't lack is confidence.

Gose, the former Major League outfielder, is hoping his electric left arm can keep his career alive in an unlikely second act as a relief pitcher. The Astros took him in the Rule 5 Draft from the Rangers in December, hoping Gose can harness his 100-mph fastball to win a job in the defending World Series champs' bullpen.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- One thing that Anthony Gose doesn't lack is confidence.

Gose, the former Major League outfielder, is hoping his electric left arm can keep his career alive in an unlikely second act as a relief pitcher. The Astros took him in the Rule 5 Draft from the Rangers in December, hoping Gose can harness his 100-mph fastball to win a job in the defending World Series champs' bullpen.

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Gose admitted to reporters Thursday morning he doesn't like talking to the media, before holding a wide-ranging five-minute interview. When asked how high his confidence is to make the team, he deadpanned: "I throw 100. It's high."

Tweet from @brianmctaggart: Meet Anthony Gose, who has ditched a Major League career as an outfielder to try to pitch. He throws 100 mph pic.twitter.com/OcRk4g378X

It won't be that easy. Yes, the Astros are in need of a dependable lefty in the bullpen after two sub-par years from Tony Sipp, so there is an opening. But Gose made the transition to pitching just a year ago while in camp with the Tigers. Being a Rule 5 Draft pick, Gose would have to stick on the Astros' 25-man roster the entire season or be offered back to Texas, which signed him in November.

"It's tough odds," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.

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Gose, who drew attention while throwing his first bullpen on Thursday, made 11 relief appearances with Class A Lakeland last year, recording 14 strikeouts against six walks and a .189 opponent batting average. He has appeared in 372 career big leagues games as an outfielder with the Blue Jays (2012-14) and Tigers (2015-16) and is a .240 career hitter.

"Opportunities are running slim to none in the outfield," Gose said. "I'm not producing offensively. I'm not going to get too many opportunities out there. I was blessed with a pretty good arm and just put it to work."

Hinch said the Astros don't plan to use Gose as an outfielder this spring and want him to strictly focus on pitching. Gose will be on a more regimented throwing plan than the other pitchers in camp because he had an elbow injury last year.

"I've never thrown a baseball in the offseason until this year," he said. "I never felt a reason to. You've got six weeks in Spring Training. Never had arm problems. I'd just pick it up and throw it has hard as I can. … I wasn't prepared. I used to laugh at guys that do arm exercises and now I'm doing them myself. I hadn't done it in a while. I probably got some inefficiencies in my windup, but when you throw 100 it makes up for it."

As for his breaking ball, Gose said: "Curveball from hell."

Tweet from @brianmctaggart: Here is our first look at Anthony Gose on the mound pic.twitter.com/Y96xweQPAL

Gose, who pitched and played outfield in high school, said he will miss running balls down in the outfield, making highlight-reel catches and going up to the plate, but pitching is his ticket to prolonging his career.

"I just want to play," he said. "If it was in the outfield or on the mound. With the Rangers, I got an opportunity to do a little bit of both. Here they want me to be on the mound. I'll take it in stride and roll with it."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Anthony Gose

McHugh wins arb case; to compete for rotation

Righty will make $5 million this season; Rondon doesn't see WS hangover; title run honored at HOF
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- For the second year in a row, right-hander Collin McHugh won his arbitration case against the Astros. McHugh, who had his hearing in Phoenix on Tuesday, found out Thursday afternoon the arbitration panel had ruled in his favor. He will make $5 million this year; the Astros were offering $4.55 million.

"It's not always a comfortable process," McHugh said Thursday prior to finding out the results of his hearing. "That's kind of built into the idea of it, but it's an important privilege that players have negotiated, and I feel honored to be able to go through it as a second-year [arbitration] player."

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- For the second year in a row, right-hander Collin McHugh won his arbitration case against the Astros. McHugh, who had his hearing in Phoenix on Tuesday, found out Thursday afternoon the arbitration panel had ruled in his favor. He will make $5 million this year; the Astros were offering $4.55 million.

"It's not always a comfortable process," McHugh said Thursday prior to finding out the results of his hearing. "That's kind of built into the idea of it, but it's an important privilege that players have negotiated, and I feel honored to be able to go through it as a second-year [arbitration] player."

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McHugh, 30, went 5-2 with a 3.55 ERA in 12 starts for the Astros last year after missing the first 3 1/2 months of the season with an elbow injury. He won 19 games in 2015 and has a career 48-28 record with a 3.70 ERA in his four seasons with Houston.

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Even after the Astros traded for Justin Verlander in August and Gerrit Cole in January, McHugh said Thursday he's planning to be stretched out as a starter this spring and compete for a rotation spot. Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton are rotation locks, so the Astros may look to trade McHugh.

"I've talked to the coaching staff a little bit and they're going to stretch me out as a starter," he said. "I've always been a starter in my career. I don't see any reason to prepare any differently. We'll make decisions when we have to. I don't see any reason to prepare any differently. We'll move forward if that's not a possibility, but I'm preparing to start for this baseball team."

Rondon doesn't see World Series hangover for Astros

Relief pitcher Hector Rondon knows all about trying to defend a World Series championship. Rondon was on the Cubs when they won the World Series in 2016 and had a front-row seat when Chicago stumbled out of the gate last year.

The Cubs were under .500 at the All-Star break last year (43-45) before going 49-25 in the second half to win the National League Central crown. They were bounced from the playoffs in the National League Championship Series by the Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in the World Series.

"First month over there, we tried to be too fine sometimes, and the first month for us last year was a little bit rough," Rondon said. "In the second half, we started full effort and everything started working better. For us in here, it's going to be different."

Rondon said he could already sense the Astros have a better mindset coming off their championship.

"I feel like right now we don't feel that hangover here," he said. "I know the Cubs, we felt it a little. We felt too comfortable. Here, these guys are ready, and I'm ready to compete. This year is a new year and we'll try to win it again, and I think that's the goal for us."

Rondon will happily watch his new teammates get their World Series rings in April. He keeps his 2016 Cubs ring at home, breaking it out occasionally.

"I used it a couple of times, but I don't like to use it a lot," he said.

Astros' title run to be commemorated in Cooperstown

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will honor the 2017 World Series champion Astros as part of the permanent Autumn Glory exhibit, beginning Friday in Cooperstown, N.Y. It features artifacts, photographs and ephemera detailing the Astros' first World Series title.

Among the items in the exhibit are Alex Bregman's glove, the orange road jersey worn by Francisco Liriano in Game 7 of the World Series, the cap worn by Game 7-winning pitcher Morton, Verlander's Game 6 jersey, a ball used in Game 7, the helmet worn by Derek Fisher when he scored the winning run in Game 5 and the on-deck circle bat weight used by the Astros throughout the World Series.

Visitors to the museum can celebrate the 2017 World Series by attending a special guided tour -- included with museum admission -- at 11 a.m. ET on Feb. 23. The Hall of Fame will play host to Astros Weekend from Aug. 4-5, with the 2017 World Series trophy on display at the museum both days.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon

Verlander: 'American League goes through us'

Ace confident upon arrival to camp
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Justin Verlander doesn't care for your opinion. He also doesn't care who the Yankees picked up -- 2017 National League Most Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton, by the way -- or that the Indians will be a deep and dangerous club.

"I think the American League goes through us," Verlander said Wednesday after working out with Astros pitchers and catchers for the first time at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Justin Verlander doesn't care for your opinion. He also doesn't care who the Yankees picked up -- 2017 National League Most Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton, by the way -- or that the Indians will be a deep and dangerous club.

"I think the American League goes through us," Verlander said Wednesday after working out with Astros pitchers and catchers for the first time at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

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Verlander's bravado certainly comes as no surprise, especially considering he took up for his team on Twitter a day earlier. During a segment on MLB Network's "High Heat" Tuesday, host Christopher Russo said: "There's no way you can't think that the Yankees are the team to beat in the American League."

Verlander's tweeted response: "I can think of a reason."

Video: Justin Verlander replies to Mad Dog's 2018 prediction

The ace pitcher's confidence in the Astros comes on the heels of the team's first World Series championship last year -- a title they probably would not have won had they not traded for Verlander on Aug. 31. Led by Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and newcomer Gerrit Cole, the Astros have perhaps the deepest rotation in baseball, as well as the game's most potent lineup.

Video: McTaggart compares Yankees' lineup to the Astros

"Obviously, the old saying, 'To be the best, you've got to beat the best,' and I think we proved we were last year," Verlander said. "This is a new year. Bottom line. Everybody's entitled to their opinion. Everybody in this locker room thinks we have a championship-caliber team here. We're not resting on any laurels. Everybody is excited to get back to work and excited for a good 2018."

Video: Verlander says the Astros are the team to beat

If the return of the team's core players, including 2017 American League MVP Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer, All-Star Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, weren't enough for Verlander to stick out his chest, the additions of Cole and relievers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon did the trick.

Video: Cole discusses joining a championship team

"We won the World Series last year and we got better this year," he said. "That's a pretty good recipe for success."

Verlander, who turns 35 in a week, doesn't show signs of slowing down. He put together a terrific second half last year, first for the Tigers and then the Astros, with whom he went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five regular-season starts. He credits a change with the way his elbow tracks for helping him find his groove in the middle of last season.

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"The first couple of months of the season I was trying to find it and I couldn't really get there, but I kept pressing forward and kept looking forward, and when I did find it, I didn't look back," he said.

The storybook end of the season, with the Astros beating the Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Series, came only days before he married supermodel Kate Upton in Italy. He admits he didn't relish in the championship as much as he would have liked, but adding another ring in 2018 would solve that.

"I think everybody in this locker room is still hungry, just as hungry as we were at this time last year," he said. "I'm looking forward to this spring and getting going."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros, Justin Verlander

Bregman's Valentine's delivery: iPads for kids

Third baseman's foundation provides educational support for special-needs children
MLB.com @alysonfooter

HOUSTON -- It's almost time for Alex Bregman to head to Florida for Spring Training, but on Wednesday, he had one more local stop to make before his offseason officially came to a close.

The Astros' third baseman dropped by Central Elementary in Angleton, where he delivered free iPads to a group of young students with special needs. This project, funded by Gulf Coast Auto Park and Bregman's foundation, AB for AUDS, is geared toward providing educational support for children with autism and Down syndrome.

HOUSTON -- It's almost time for Alex Bregman to head to Florida for Spring Training, but on Wednesday, he had one more local stop to make before his offseason officially came to a close.

The Astros' third baseman dropped by Central Elementary in Angleton, where he delivered free iPads to a group of young students with special needs. This project, funded by Gulf Coast Auto Park and Bregman's foundation, AB for AUDS, is geared toward providing educational support for children with autism and Down syndrome.

iPads have emerged as a tremendous communications tool for children with autism, a mechanism Bregman has learned a lot about since his 5-year-old godson, Brady, was diagnosed with autism. After researching the positive impact iPads can have on children with special needs, Bregman knew this was one of the causes he wanted to focus on as his career continues.

Tweet from @AngletonISD: Valentines Day Surprise! Houston Astros 3rd baseman Alex Bregman donated iPads to our special needs classrooms at Central Elementary! Thank you, Alex! pic.twitter.com/9JhxSWsxH3

"I felt like it was going to be my cause," Bregman said. "It's incredible to be able to make an impact and use the platform that we have in the right way."

Bregman started AB for AUDS with his friends, Jason Columbus -- Brady's dad -- and Jared Koutnik, and he partnered with Gulf Coast Auto to raise money to purchase the iPads. Donating iPads to school programs is one of the first projects that the organization is undertaking.

After the students excitedly opened their iPad packages, they presented Bregman with a large Valentine's Day card that read, "UR a Sweetheart/Thank you!"

Bregman's visit created quite a stir, an unsurprising result of a World Series-champion third baseman dropping by an elementary school unannounced. Bregman's appearance was kept under wraps, but as the arrival time drew closer, word started traveling among the faculty at Central Elementary that he was in the building.

So, there were a few teachers waiting for Bregman in the hallway when he was done gifting the kids with their iPads.

"We skipped our lunch for this," one excited teacher said, just before posing for a photo.

This visit was the first step in what Bregman envisions as a more expansive charitable effort. He plans to hold a fundraising dinner during the season that will involve his teammates as he works to grow AB for AUDS.

"We wanted to try to make a difference in the classroom, and bring awareness to autism and Down syndrome," Bregman said. "It really brings me to a loss for words, knowing you made an impact. I call my godson, and whether I'm doing well or doing bad, it puts a smile on my face. It's special."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Houston Astros, Alex Bregman