Astros hungry for more after taste of triumph

February 29th, 2016

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Like dew-sweepers on one of the nearby golf courses, the Astros have been hitting the field shortly after the sun comes up at the Osceola County Stadium complex. Even Jose Altuve, the 2014 American League batting champ, was out early on Monday, working to get a few more bunt hits this season.

Manager A.J. Hinch describes his team's early work as "intense.'' If there was any thought in his mind that a 16-win improvement and unscheduled trip to the postseason in 2015 would impact the spectacular development of Carlos Correa and other young Astros, it was quickly replaced with renewed confidence.

"I like the fact I have to put a governor on them more than I have to push them,'' Hinch said. "These guys love to work, they love to try to perfect their areas and they're very focused. That type of mentality is pretty rare this early in the spring, but there's a real cohesiveness, real expectation among the players that we're going to do it right or we're going to do it again, and we're going to find ways to get better.''

This is not exactly what the other four teams in the AL West were hoping to hear.

The Astros joined the Cubs in leading Major League Baseball's youth movement last season. They had the AL Rookie of the Year Award winner in Correa and used nine other rookies, including difference-making guys like Lance McCullers and Preston Tucker, and benefitted greatly when lefty Dallas Keuchel grew from staff leader to AL Cy Young Award winner.

With another wave of prospects on the way -- don't be surprised if A.J. Reed wins the first-base job and makes a run at the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Award -- the Astros are positioned to make life difficult for the Rangers, Angels, Mariners and Athletics for the foreseeable future.

"It was a culmination of veteran leadership and young talent meshing together,'' Keuchel said about Houston's 86-win season. "You saw a lot of young guys grow up mentally. That's what you need. You needed a couple of guys growing up mentally with the veteran leadership still on field, performance-wise. That's what the game's all about. "

Keuchel established himself in 2013 and '14, when the Astros were a combined 121-203. He admits he was surprised by how such a young team answered challenges last season, getting off to a 29-16 start and then winning six of their last eight down the stretch to grab a Wild Card spot.

"Head and shoulders by far the [biggest surprise was] younger players coming in and stepping us for us,'' said Keuchel, whose schedule has been modified this spring after throwing 246 innings last season. "If we didn't have a couple of those guys come in and do it, we wouldn't be sitting here right now saying we went to Yankee Stadium and beat them and pushed the Royals to the brink of elimination.''

You can argue who has more young talent: the Cubs with Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez or the Astros with Correa, McCullers, George Springer, Tucker and on-the-cusp prospects like Michael Feliz, Reed, Colin Moran and Tony Kemp.

"This generation of young players is really impressive,'' Hinch said. "Across baseball, the number of 25-and-unders who are making their debuts, contributing, is hard to fathom, that this many players can make an impact this soon and become, not necessarily the faces of their teams, but very prominent.''

Hinch is right. There are more younger players producing, and this trend appears to coincide with the introduction of testing for performance-enhancing drugs that went into effect in 2004.

The average age of a player who finished in the top 25 in OPS+ in 2003 was 30.6. It dropped to 28.8 last season, when 11 of the 30 teams were led in the Baseball Reference-calculated Wins Above Replacement stat by a player 25 years or younger.

"The game is getting younger and younger,'' Keuchel said. "The teams that are doing the best are the ones who can get the best performance out of young players. That's just the way it is.''

That's a good thing for Houston. The Astros got ahead of the curve with the hiring of former Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow as general manager after 2011.

Luhnow has reached into his stable of prospects to make some major trades (acquiring Carlos Gomez from the Brewers last July and closer Ken Giles from the Phillies this offseason), but he has kept the pipeline of young talent flowing.

At 27, Matt Duffy's not a kid, but he was the MVP of the Pacific Coast League last year. He will join the highly productive Reed (.324 career hitter with 46 home runs and a .997 OPS in 203 Minor League games) in trying to hit his way onto the team this spring.


Then there's Correa.

"Physically, he looks like a 25-year-old and he's 21,'' Keuchel said. "Mentally, he's up there in age as well. I feel like he was just kind of born for it.''

Correa played at age 20 most of last season and still finished with a .279 batting average, 22 home runs and an .857 OPS in 99 games. He has been going through his drills this spring exactly the way Houston hoped (and expected) he would. Correa carries himself with confidence on the field and has a smile on his face off it. Who knows what he's capable of in a full season?

Upon arriving in camp, Correa described his mind as "bulletproof.'' He says that when Cactus League games begin later this week, he's going to be playing like he has to win a job. Correa says he will not be impacted by his job security, and that's the right way to approach it. Nothing the Astros did last season counts this year, and they know it. But let the rest of the AL know they've hit the ground running.