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Start of games ramps up Astros' evaluation process

Young players learning to work with each other as Houston opens vs. Atlanta

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros have had hitting competitions against each other, a pair of intrasquad games and dozens of rounds of live batting practice during the first two weeks of spring camp. For the players, the start of Grapefruit League play can't some soon enough.

The exhibition schedule gets underway for the Astros at 5:05 p.m. CT on Friday (live on Gameday Audio), when they face the Braves at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It's the first of 26 games in Florida for the Astros, who feature several new faces under second-year manager Bo Porter.

"It's going to be nice to play against somebody besides ourselves and get back out there," said right-hander Lucas Harrell, who is scheduled to throw two innings or 45 pitches while starting against Atlanta. "It's nice to finally get a chance to play another team."

And the Astros will get to see their new additions in action soon, a list that includes outfielder Dexter Fowler, starting pitchers Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams and relievers Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain and Peter Moylan.

"It's nice to get back on the field, man," said Fowler, acquired in a trade with the Rockies. "Whether it's a day off or a week off, I'm ready to get back."

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff have been evaluating players since they hit camp earlier in the month, but the start of games ramps up the evaluation policy.

"I think you have to give people the benefit of the doubt early in spring games, because everybody is sort of feeling each other out, and it's the first time you've faced live hitting in a while," Luhnow said. "I think for a week or so everybody will be getting their feet under them, and that's when we kick into more evaluation mode. When somebody has a bad outing the first one or two times out, not a big deal. The middle of March, it's more of a concern."

Fowler will be playing alongside a pair of corner outfielders he had never played with previously, with Robbie Grossman in left and either L.J. Hoes or J.D. Martinez in right. The spring schedule will be about getting to know each other.

"It's good to know the guys you're playing with," Fowler said. "I take it just as practice. It's not really anything more than that. You can't read too much into it, but being with these guys for the first time, you want to know their range and how far they can run in the outfield and just the way they like to play."

Feldman, signed to a three-year, $30 million contract, will start Saturday against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., and Jarred Cosart starts Sunday against the split-squad Braves in Houston's first game of the spring at Osceola County Stadium.

"This time of year, you deal with a lot of dead arm and stuff, but this year, it feels pretty good," Feldman said. "Hopefully I can just keep it that way and stay healthy and get through spring and be ready to go."

Porter, with the exception of a couple of instances, has been pleased with how crisp the game has gone and how focused the players have been. Luhnow has noticed it too.

"There's more intensity and there's more focus on the outcome and the process to get that outcome and the consequences of not doing it right," Luhnow said. "I think that's been the theme of this camp, is that there are consequences both positive and negative for doing things the right way and not doing things the right way.

"All of our staff is on board. They're working together, and it's been a very positive camp from a learning perspective. No matter who makes the team, we're going to have one of the youngest teams in baseball this year, and we need to focus on the basics and make sure we execute so we don't put ourselves at a disadvantage."

And even though it's Spring Training, the thought of games starting brings excitement.

"We're at the point in the spring [where] we've put them in competition against each other enough to where I think they're going to be excited tomorrow to get an opponent in front of us," Porter said.

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

Houston Astros