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Young nucleus has Astros optimistic for 2014

Some additions are necessary, but GM Luhnow foresees improvement

HOUSTON -- Next year is the season Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow expects his team to progress and shed the label as one of baseball's doormats. He believes 2014 is when the Astros will begin taking the steps to enjoy the on-field success their Minor League clubs have produced in the last couple of years.

Simply put, it's time for the Astros to start moving forward.

"I think our expectation and our plan is to take the first of what is probably three or four steps towards being a consistently 90-win team each year," Luhnow said. "Obviously, we're far from that right now. We've got to take a big stride in that direction next year, and I think we will."

Coming off their third consecutive 100-loss season, the Astros do appear positioned to become more competitive. They should finally celebrate the arrival of center fielder George Springer, one of the team's top prospects who had a huge season in the Minor Leagues.

Highly touted prospects Jonathan Singleton, a first baseman, and right-hander Asher Wojciechowski could also make an impact from a Minor League system that posted the best winning percentage in baseball and saw its top six clubs make the playoffs.

Of course, the Astros saw a flurry of rookies play significant roles in 2013, especially when it came to the pitching staff -- including starters Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Brad Peacock and relievers Kevin Chapman, Chia-Jen Lo and Josh Zeid. Those players should continue to improve next year as well.

"I think as an organization, we're poised to take a step forward next year at the big league level much more so than we were last year," Luhnow said. "And we have a core of a young pitching staff, young position players that are, most of them, finishing their first full year or a partial year in the big leagues, and they're going to improve next year.

"That's going to be exciting to watch them to continue to develop and get better and help us win more games. I think we'll be smarter this offseason about figuring out how to complement the young core with things that we need to help us win more ballgames next year and start to get this organization moving forward at the big league level."

Luhnow said the Astros will have the flexibility to spend some money in free agency and do it with a different mindset. They're at the point they will sign players to fill some gaps and be in position to keep them instead of trade them at midseason, like they did last season with Jose Veras.

"I think we have a little more clarity on where the needs are to help this team win games, and I think we have the resources to go out and address those needs," Luhnow said. "I think we're going to do it in a way thinking about next year as opposed to thinking about what players could we bring in that if they have a good year could we trade them at the deadline.

"We're really thinking about what players can we bring in to help this team win an additional 10-15 games next year."

Arbitration-eligible: C Jason Castro, OF Trevor Crowe, RHP Philip Humber (if option is not picked up).

Free agents: LHP Erik Bedard.

Rotation: The Astros went with a young six-man rotation for much of the second half of 2013 that included Jordan Lyles, Peacock, Oberholtzer, Cosart, Dallas Keuchel and Paul Clemens -- all 25 and younger. They all figure to compete for the rotation to start next year and will be joined by Wojciechowski, who had a nice season at Triple-A, and Lucas Harrell, who's looking to bounce back after a rough season. Erik Bedard is unlikely to return, but expect the Astros to sign another veteran starter to complement the group.

Right-handers Alex White and John Ely are coming off Tommy John surgery and could be in the mix at some point.

Bullpen: Josh Fields, a Rule 5 pick who had to stay on the 25-man roster or risk being lost, was the only reliever to remain in the bullpen all season in 2013. He was one of a bevy of rookie pitchers who filled out the bullpen. Fields and fellow rookies Chapman, Lo and Zeid will be key pieces moving forward, but one of the Astros' top goals for the offseason will be trying to find a closer and a set-up man in free agency. Houston's bullpen blew too many games in the second half of the season.

Catcher: Castro entrenched himself as a solid everyday catcher with his breakout season in 2013, which included an All-Star nod, but he missed the final three weeks because he had surgery to remove a cyst in his right knee. He's expected to be healthy for 2014 and shoulder much of the load once again. Carlos Corporan proved to be a steady backup and should return, though rookie Max Stassi could push him for playing time. Stassi got his feet wet at the end of last season and has potential.

First base/designated hitter: Chris Carter started more games at designated hitter than any other Astros player, but he also split time at first base with Brett Wallace. Singleton, the slugging first baseman who missed the first 50 games of last season at Triple-A Oklahoma City because of a drug suspension, will be in camp and will have a shot to make the club.

Singleton has raw power, but he might have to start in Triple-A. Carter and Wallace figure to share the DH and first base roles again, unless the Astros decide to add a free agent bat at one of those spots. Marc Krauss and J.D. Martinez will also be in the mix.

Second base: Jose Altuve is one of the team's centerpieces. The Astros signed Altuve to a contract extension that begins in 2014 and runs through the '17 season with club options for '18 and '19. He wound up putting up career highs in several categories last season and will return as the starter. Jake Elmore and Marwin Gonzalez made a few starts at second, but Altuve gets the bulk of the playing time.

Shortstop: While the Astros await the arrival of 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick Carlos Correa, who is a couple of years away, they handed the reins at shortstop to Jonathan Villar midway through last season. Villar dazzled at times with his tremendous speed on the bases, but he committed a high number of errors in his abbreviated playing time and had some baserunning issues. Still, he's got enough raw talent for the Astros to want to see what he can do over the course of an entire season.

Third base: The Astros appear to have found their third baseman of the future in Matt Dominguez, who they acquired midway through 2012 from the Marlins in the Carlos Lee trade. He lived up to his billing as a strong defensive player, but he wound up among the team's leaders in homers and RBIs. If he could walk more and get his batting average up a few points, the Astros would feel even better about the 23-year-old.

Outfield: All three outfield spots will likely be up for grabs entering Spring Training, though expect the Astros to try to nab a veteran outfielder to fill one of the positions. Springer, who hit a combined .303 with 37 homers, 108 RBIs and 45 stolen bases last season at Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City, could be the Opening Day center fielder.

The Astros also have Brandon Barnes, Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes, all of whom are speedsters who could play anywhere in the outfield. Grossman settled nicely into left field before an oblique injury cost him most of September. Martinez, Crowe and Krauss will also return and battle for playing time.

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

Houston Astros, Jose Altuve, Brandon Barnes, Chris Carter, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Josh Zeid