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Astros find hope during first season in AL

Porter encouraged by potential despite young team's final record

HOUSTON -- The Astros' first season in the American League proved to be full of challenges, thanks to a roster that saw a dramatic turnover from the one that took the field Opening Day, some ill-timed injuries and a bevy of young players who took some lumps.

Despite a third consecutive 100-loss season for Houston, first-year manager Bo Porter managed to keep things upbeat throughout the season, but there were enough bright spots along the way to convince the Astros the franchise is heading in the right direction.

Led by the breakout season of catcher Jason Castro, the emergence of third baseman Matt Dominguez and the promising debuts of young arms Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock, the Astros found some key pieces to go along with an established player like Jose Altuve.

"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," general manager Jeff 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."

The Astros were banking on veterans like Rick Ankiel, Carlos Pena and Justin Maxwell to provide power on offense, but all three were wearing different uniforms by the middle of the season. The rotation and the bullpen underwent dramatic overhauls as well, spearheaded by the trade of veteran starter Bud Norris and closer Jose Veras.

Still, the Astros didn't get what they had hoped from starting pitchers Lucas Harrell and Philip Humber, and the 'pen was dominated by rookie arms for most of the second half of the season. As a result, the losses started to pile up.

"I think when you look at some of the positives, we found ourselves a third baseman," Porter said. "Obviously, Jason Castro turned himself into an All-Star catcher, Altuve had a career year and Brandon Barnes established himself as a Major Leaguer, whether that's an everyday guy or in a platoon situation.

"Chris Carter, you look at the power numbers and RBIs, and he fits somewhere in the framework of a winning team. It's just all a matter of the pieces you put around those guys from a position-player standpoint."

Cosart, Oberholtzer and Peacock joined the rotation in the second half of the year and pitched well, as did rookie relievers Chia-Jen Lo, Josh Fields and Josh Zeid -- all of whom figure to be key pieces moving forward.

Still, the Astros too often played the kind of baseball you might expect from a young team. They didn't run the bases very well, they struggled defensively at times and didn't do a very good job hitting with runners in scoring position. And, of course, they struck out way too much.

"We hoped that we were going to have a better win-loss record, and we hoped we would have better production from Lucas Harrell, J.D. Martinez, Justin Maxwell and Hector Ambriz," Luhnow said. "Those are all guys that performed well for us the year before and we were counting on them to continue to perform at a higher level this year, and it didn't happen.

"Not everybody takes a step forward every year, but it hurt us a little bit between injuries and performance not being what they're capable of. That was probably the biggest source of disappointment."

Record: 51-111, last in American League West

Defining moment: The Astros won their first game as a member of the AL by beating the Texas Rangers on Opening Day, but things quickly went south from there. Yu Darvish came within one out from pitching a perfect game in the second game of the season -- Marwin Gonzalez broke it up with a clean single up the middle with two outs in the ninth inning -- and that was the first of six consecutive losses that sent the tone for the year.

What went right: Altuve, despite a rough August in which he hit .200, had another solid season and set career highs in hits, RBIs and stolen bases in his second full season. … Finally healthy after missing all of 2011 following major knee surgery, Castro had a breakout season and was the team's first All-Star in the AL. … Outfielder Robbie Grossman, who struggled in his first stint with the club, played terrific baseball when he was called back up on July 27 and was a sparkplug in the lineup and in left field. … Dominguez swung a big bat and showed surprising power production while playing solid defensively. … Carter provided some much-needed pop by leading the team in homers, but he set a club record in strikeouts.

What went wrong: The Astros brought in veterans Ankiel and Pena to help provide power to the lineup and provide leadership. The latter was there, but Ankiel and Pena couldn't produce at the plate and were eventually cut loose. … Maxwell, one of the club's offensive leaders a year ago, couldn't duplicate his success, mostly because he broke his left hand in April and wound up missing 51 games before he was traded to the Royals in August. … Harrell, a huge surprise with his success out of the rotation a year ago, couldn't keep it up in 2013 and was lifted from the rotation full-time in July. … Martinez struggled for much of the season at the plate before being injured. … The signing of Humber proved to be a disappointment. He was 0-7 with an 8.82 ERA in seven starts to begin the year before being sent to the Minor Leagues. … The Astros set a club record in strikeouts at the plate and made a run at the Major League record. … After trading Veras in July, the Astros' bullpen struggled to close out games and blew 10 saves in August alone. .. Houston set a club record for the fewest home wins.

Biggest surprise: The emergence of young starting pitchers Cosart, Oberholtzer and Peacock in the final three months of the season gave the Astros a promising glimpse into the future. Cosart made 10 starts before being shut down, going 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA. Offensively, no one could have guessed Dominguez would put up the kind of power numbers that he did.

Hitter of the year: Castro had one of the best offensive seasons ever by an Astros catcher, despite missing the final three weeks of the season because of a cyst in his knee. Castro hit .276 with 35 doubles, 18 homers and 56 RBIs and was twice recognized as the AL Player of the Week.

Pitcher of the year: Cosart joined the rotation on July 12 in St. Petersburg and was dazzling from the start. He made only 10 starts before the Astros shut him down because of a career-high workload between the Minors and Major Leagues.

Rookie of the year: Considering they played 21 rookies at some point in 2013, the Astros had no shortage of candidates. But no rookie played in more games or made more starts than Barnes, who won a spot on the Opening Day roster and provided numerous highlights in the outfield. It was a feel-good story for a player who has spent more time in the organization than anyone before making his debut.

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

Houston Astros