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Hinch keeps cool amid raised expectations

Astros' skipper at Winter Meetings preparing for 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- He's likable, smart and never short on confidence, and the A.J. Hinch who's walking around the lobby of the Opryland Resort and Convention Center during the Winter Meetings isn't any different than the guy who was at the Meetings in San Diego a year ago.

Sure, expectations have changed, coming off the Astros' surprising run to the postseason -- and heartbreaking loss to the eventual World Series champion Royals in the American League Division Series -- but Hinch's focus remains on helping the Astros improve in the right ways for 2016.

"We've been pretty busy, obviously, with all sorts of scenarios, but I think the good news for us is we're dealing from a little bit of a strength when it comes to the core of this group," Hinch said. "It's nice this year having a group, a big group, that we know is coming back."

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The Astros will return several of their core players from last season's 86-win team, led by the outfield of Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and George Springer, middle infielders Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers, and relievers Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Will Harris.

Houston has made it no secret it would like to add another arm to the bullpen -- or two -- as well as perhaps beef up the rotation. Pitching has been the key focus of the Winter Meetings.

"There's a lot of the unknown," Hinch said. "This time of year is very, very interesting in my chair because you can draw up on paper what a 25-man roster looks like, and the very next day it could be completely different. For me, I've learned over the years to be patient with the process of how offseasons unfold. There's certainly some anxiousness in the sense that I can't wait to get to camp with our team, and our team's probably not complete yet."

Video: Hinch joins the guys on Intentional Talk

Hinch finished second to Texas' Jeff Banister in the AL Manager of the Year voting last season and likely would have won it had the Rangers not surpassed the Astros to win the division following Houston's slump in September. Considering his extensive front-office experience, Hinch is operating more as front-office lieutenant to general manager Jeff Luhnow at the Meetings than as manager.

"I've got a lot of relationships around the game, and certainly when I'm available, I try to be a part of it," he said of the team's offseason plotting in Nashville. "It's obviously Jeff's decision on who travels to some of the meetings in the different rooms. But I've been side by side with him, which is good to be. I think it's an important time for us in the sense that we've come off of a really successful season. There's been a lot of buzz around the Astros. There's certainly a core that we've been trying to improve."

Hinch is the manager, though, and met with reporters Tuesday to talk about the state of the club. Instead of being asked about the future and when the team might contend like he was asked repeatedly a year ago, the questions were more focused on expectations that will be sky-high in 2016.

"I welcome it," Hinch said. "Our guys didn't get too high or too low last year based on the expectations. So I would expect our focus to be on the field, but it will be a little bit different in spring when teams are looking for Dallas Keuchel coming off a Cy Young season, and Carlos Correa now getting a full season in. With heightened expectations comes a lot more attention."

But Hinch remains as steady as ever.

Video: A.J. Hinch on big expectations for Astros in 2016

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.
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