With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Astros squad each day this week. Today's topic: What's the difference?
HOUSTON -- There will be no more agonizing when writing out the lineup card for Astros manager A.J. Hinch. He won't have to swallow hard when putting down the names in the bottom half of the batting order, simply hoping for the best.
Hinch's lineup -- and his expectations -- are full of promise entering 2017, thanks to a series of moves early in the offseason in which the Astros traded for veteran catcher Brian McCann, signed veteran outfielders Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick and claimed outfielder Norichika Aoki off waivers to bolster the offense.
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An Astros lineup that was so often top-heavy last year is now complete and figures to be one of the deepest in the Majors. While the pitching staff returns mainly intact -- subbing out Doug Fister for Charlie Morton -- the Astros' lineup is a huge difference maker.
"I think we have guys that may hit at the bottom of the order that have never done it before, and that's a great luxury to have as a manager," Hinch said. "I have got the chance to mix and match our lefties and righties, couple of switch-hitters in there where it's going to be difficult for the opponent to match up."
Spring Training begins on Feb. 15, with pitchers' and catchers' workouts at The Ballpark of Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla. Full-squad drills get underway on Feb. 18.
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The top of the order will be anchored by Astros core players George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, who made a solid impact when he made his debut midseason. Adding McCann, Beltran, Reddick and Aoki gives Hinch some much-needed left-handed bats, as well as versatility. Slugging catcher Evan Gattis and Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel also have potent bats.
The Astros were a middle-of-the-pack team offensively last year, ranking eighth in the American League in runs, 12th in hits, ninth in homers, 13th in batting average and eighth in on-base percentage. Still, Houston's run differential was plus-23 (scored 724, allowed 701).
Now that the lineup is stacked and the center-field wall has been moved in at Minute Maid Park -- 409 feet from 436 -- the supercharged Astros lineup is poised to score runs in bunches and make filling out the lineup card Hinch's favorite thing to do each day.
"We've got to go out and do it on the field, but we've the makings of a pretty good run-scoring group," Hinch said. "As the batting order evolves, as the playing time is sorted out, I'm likely to have an angry guy next to me on the bench, which is a good problem to have. … It's a luxury item to have as deep of a group, provided we stay healthy."