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Astros aim to be baseball's most improved team

Young club, with deep Minor League system, promises to be more competitive

HOUSTON -- There should be a renewed sense of optimism this spring surrounding the Astros, who not only have the best Minor League system in baseball, they have added enough pieces to the Major League club this winter that they feel they can be more competitive.

Never mind that the Astros finished last season on a 15-game losing streak that sent them to a franchise-record 111 losses. The young club believes this is the year it will begin to rise toward being a contender in the American League West, and it begins with Spring Training in Kissimmee, Fla.

Owner Jim Crane said that the Astros' goal is to be baseball's most improved team.

"I think we can accomplish that," Crane said. "We've added a bunch of players in the offseason, and we're looking forward to the season. We have more depth with the bats, and they've brought in a lot of pitching to the bullpen. We'll have some competition for a few spots. We'll definitely be improved. We hope we can get it up above .500 this year."

Some of the stars of the future will be on display this spring, with pitchers Mark Appel and Michael Foltynewicz, outfielder George Springer, shortstop Carlos Correa and first baseman Jonathan Singleton in camp, and there are plenty of new faces, including outfielder Dexter Fowler and pitchers Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain and Matt Albers.

The Astros, as promised, opened their wallet this winter to plug some holes and are hopeful that some of their top prospects, such as Springer and Singleton, will make their mark on the Major League club at some point this season.

And don't forget the youngsters who made solid first impressions last season, a list that includes pitchers Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Brad Peacock, Josh Zeid and Kevin Chapman; outfielders Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes; and infielders Matt Dominguez and Jonathan Villar. If they continue to get better, the Astros could surprise many.

"So a lot of our spots that were open last year, we have players that have basically taken the bull by the horn and established themselves in those positions," second-year manager Bo Porter said. "But there are still a lot of positions where competition will exist, and there will be competition within our ballclub just to improve on what it is we did last year."

Pitchers and catchers report


Full squad reports

Feb. 19

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Braves, Feb. 28 at 5:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

Home vs. Yankees, April 1 at 6:10 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who will play first base?
The Astros tried all offseason to acquire a first baseman capable of playing every day, but they wound up settling for Jesus Guzman, who's in a competition for the job with Marc Krauss, Japhet Amador and Singleton. Guzman, a right-hander, could wind up platooning if Singleton doesn't crack the Opening Day roster. Brett Wallace was in the picture before he was designated for assignment last week.

2. Who will be the closer?
The Astros brought in veteran relievers Qualls, Albers and Crain, but only Qualls has significant experience closing games. He saved 45 games in three seasons with the D-backs but hasn't recorded one since 2010. Josh Fields got some experience closing games last season as a rookie, but expect the Astros to give the job to Qualls.

3. Which young pitchers will take the biggest step forward?
Youth hit the rotation last year with monster-truck force with the arrival of Cosart, Oberholtzer and Peacock. Each found success in his first long stretches in a Major League rotation, and each should be poised to win a spot this spring. The Astros added veterans Feldman and Jerome Williams to compete with Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Harrell, but there's only enough spots for five to make the rotation. Will youth be served again?

2013 record
51-111, last in the American League West

Projected batting order
1. CF Dexter Fowler:
.263 BA, .369 OBP, .407 SLG, 12 HR, 42 RBI in 2013
2. 2B Jose Altuve:
.283 BA, .316 OBP, .363 SLG, 5 HR, 52 RBI in 2013
3. C Jason Castro :
.276 BA, .350 OBP, .485 SLG, 18 HR, 56 RBI in 2013
4. DH Chris Carter :
.223 BA, .320 OBP, .451 SLG, 29 HR, 82 RBI in 2013
5. 3B Matt Dominguez :
.241 BA, .286 OBP, .403 SLG, 21 HR, 77 RBI in 2013
6. 1B Jesus Guzman :
.226 BA, .297 OBP, .378 SLG, 9 HR, 35 RBI in 2013
7. RF L.J. Hoes :
.287 BA, .337 OBP, .371 SLG, 1 HR, 10 RBI in 2013
8. LF Robbie Grossman :
.268 BA, .332 OBP, .370 SLG, 4 HR, 21 RBI in 2013
9. SS Jonathan Villar :
.243 BA, .321 OBP, .319 SLG, 1 HR, 8 RBI in 2013

Projected rotation
1. Scott Feldman, 12-12, 3.86 ERA in 2013
2. Jarred Cosart, 1-1, 1.95 ERA in 2013
3. Brett Oberholtzer, 4-5, 2.76 ERA in 2013
4. Dallas Keuchel, 6-10, 5.15 ERA in 2013
5. Brad Peacock, 5-6, 5.18 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Chad Qualls, 0/2 saves, 2.61 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Jesse Crain, 0.74 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Kevin Chapman, 1.77 ERA in 2013

The new guys
Feldman: The Astros signed Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract to be the anchor of a young rotation. He has won more than 12 games once in his career and has never topped 190 innings, so carrying a heavy workload and taking some of the burden off the young pitchers will be a new role for him.

Fowler: The team thought so much of Fowler that they traded starter Jordan Lyles and high-flying outfielder Brandon Barnes to get him from the Rockies. Fowler will be plugged into the leadoff spot and center field and figures to have a chance to be the Astros' best offensive weapon this season thanks to his combination of speed and power.

Albers: Albers is a Houston native who was drafted and developed by the Astros, so his return after being traded seven years ago is a homecoming. He's a dependable arm who should play a key role in the bullpen. He is coming off perhaps two of the best seasons of his career.

Qualls: Qualls was a key member of the bullpen in 2005 when the Astros reached the World Series, giving up a grand slam in the loss to the White Sox. He played with seven teams before returning to the Astros on a two-year deal in December and could wind up occupying the closer's role based on his experience.

Crain: Crain, who lives in Houston, has quietly put together a solid career, and his presence in the young bullpen should be huge. After being named to the All-Star team based on his first half of the season, he didn't pitch in the second half and underwent surgery on his biceps in October. He's not expected to be ready for the start of the season, but he should contribute heavily when healthy.

Guzman: Guzman, 29, will be given the opportunity to play first base, and his versatility as an outfielder could come in handy while Porter works to find at-bats for the veteran, who played in 334 games for the Giants and Padres over four seasons.

Williams: The Astros signed Williams to a one-year deal late in the winter to give them another veteran arm competing for a rotation or bullpen spot. If one of the starters falters this spring, the Astros feel comfortable plugging a veteran such as Williams into the rotation instead of relying on another young arm.

RHP Anthony Bass: Bass, acquired from the Padres during the Winter Meetings, certainly isn't a known commodity, but he has some experience the Astros can shuffle between Triple-A and the Majors during the season. He should be used to that role, having made 24 appearances, pitching 42 innings in four stints, out of the Padres' bullpen in 2013.

RHP Collin McHugh: McHugh has experience both starting and relieving, but general manager Jeff Luhnow envisions him as a starter. McHugh made seven Major League appearances combined for the Mets and Rockies in 2013, including five starts. He also made 20 Minor League starts in the Mets' and Rockies' Minor League systems.

LHP Darin Downs: Downs comes to the Astros from the Tigers, is the only experienced left-hander in the bullpen, and should compete for innings with youngsters Zeid and Chapman.

Prospects to watch
Singleton: This should be the year we see Singleton take over at first base, but it probably won't be on Opening Day. After a disappointing 2013 that began with a 50-game suspension for a failed drug test, Singleton made up some at-bats in Puerto Rico this winter. He should be a big part of the lineup at some point soon.

astros top prospects
Astros on's Top 100 Prospects list:
Rank Name Pos.
8 Carlos Correa SS
17 Mark Appel RHP
21 George Springer OF
50 Jonathan Singleton 1B
52 Lance McCullers Jr. RHP
54 Mike Foltyniewicz RHP
66 Delino DeShields Jr. OF

Springer: Luhnow has said that Springer will start in the outfield at some point in 2014, but it doesn't appear he's in the Opening Day plans. Springer put up monster numbers last season between Double-A and Triple-A and is the team's most anticipated prospect in years. That being said, fans might have to wait a little while longer to see him at Minute Maid Park.

Foltynewicz: The man with the explosive fastball moved a step closer to Houston when he performed well at Double-A last year. He's likely to begin the season in the rotation at Triple-A as he works to refine his command and his secondary pitches to go along with a fastball that touched 100 mph on several occasions.

Appel: The top pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, Appel goes to camp likely not competing for a rotation spot. The Astros have enough pitching depth that there's no reason to rush Appel, who could pitch in Double-A at some point this year.

Correa: The team's top prospect, Correa will be attending his first big league camp, but don't expect him to be intimidated. He put up big numbers in the Midwest League last year at the age of 18 and is wise beyond his years off the field, as well. His goal is to make the Double-A club out of camp.

On the rebound
Harrell: The Astros' pitcher of the year in 2012, Harrell suffered through a difficult 2013 that saw him removed from the rotation and relegated to spot starter. When he's on his game and has his sinker working, he can be a really effective starter.

RHP Alex White: White made the Opening Day roster before injuring his elbow throwing in an exhibition game at Minute Maid Park. He underwent Tommy John surgery but will go to camp healthy and ready to win a spot in either the bullpen or the rotation.

Long gone
Lyles: The Astros built up enough starting pitching depth that they felt comfortable trading the inconsistent 23-year-old to the Rockies for Fowler.

LHP Erik Bedard: No one expected the veteran to return to Houston, especially after the Astros signed Feldman to be the veteran in a young rotation.

OF Barnes: Barnes' was one of the Astros' biggest feel-good stories of 2013. He was a fan favorite thanks to his outfield acrobatics, but the organization envisioned him as a reserve outfielder and sent him to Colorado in the Fowler deal.

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