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Hinch: 'Believe it or not, we got better'

In bid to repeat, Astros boast deep lineup, rotation
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

HOUSTON -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch wasn't asked about easing injured players back into action. He wasn't asked if his team could finally beat the Rangers. He wasn't asked about filling innings at the back end of the club's rotation, or holes in the bottom of the lineup.

While meeting with the local media during the team's annual pre-Spring Training luncheon Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, Hinch spent much of his time talking about expectations and focus coming off the Astros' first World Series championship in 2017.

HOUSTON -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch wasn't asked about easing injured players back into action. He wasn't asked if his team could finally beat the Rangers. He wasn't asked about filling innings at the back end of the club's rotation, or holes in the bottom of the lineup.

While meeting with the local media during the team's annual pre-Spring Training luncheon Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, Hinch spent much of his time talking about expectations and focus coming off the Astros' first World Series championship in 2017.

"Believe it or not," Hinch said, "we got better."

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The Astros, who won 101 games last year, added Pirates ace Gerrit Cole and veteran relief pitchers Hector Rondon and Joe Smith to a team already loaded with stars and talent. Houston returns almost every significant piece from its 2017 World Series championship run and features the deepest lineup and perhaps the deepest rotation in baseball.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"The additions of Joe Smith and Hector Rondon, I think, are perfect additions to our team, both makeup-wise as well as what they're going to be able to do on the mound," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "Our team, on paper, is very strong. I'd be surprised if a team is stronger on paper, but that's all it is at this point -- on paper. We've got our work cut out."

Breaking down the 2018 Astros means getting deep into the weeds. Who will win the final spot on the 25-man roster? What role will Collin McHugh play? Will Derek Fisher get a shot in left field? Beyond that, the team is as solid and healthy as it gets a week away from the start of spring camp.

"If we're healthy, you can pretty much write out the 25-man roster right now," Luhnow said.

It appears the Astros plan to give Fisher a real shot in left field this year. As a rookie in 2017, Fisher hit .212 with five homers and 17 RBIs in 53 games across two stints in the big leagues and has a rare power-speed combination, but he also struck out at a high rate.

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Marwin Gonzalez, who started in left field in the playoffs, will get some reps in left, along with Tony Kemp, but Luhnow said Fisher could get 400-plus at-bats this year. Veteran Josh Reddick will play some left, too, with Jake Marisnick vying for playing time in right.

"He's going to have to earn his playing time, but he's fully capable of it," Luhnow said of Fisher. "We've seen how much impact he can have on the game. He probably didn't play as well as he wanted to when he came up, but the tools are there and the performance has been there in the Minor Leagues. He'll be given every opportunity to earn playing time."

Video: Luhnow is pleased with Astros' rotation

The additions of Justin Verlander last year and Cole last month to the rotation with Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, McHugh and Brad Peacock give the Astros unparalleled depth. McHugh went 5-2 with a 3.55 ERA in 12 starts after missing the first 3 1/2 months last season with an arm injury and could be an odd man out. Or not.

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"He could be a part of the bullpen, he could be a long man," Luhnow said. "As we know, five starters don't go wire to wire, and our starters, in particular, don't have a history of going wire to wire. We're going to need seven, eight, nine starters, and McHugh is certainly in that group."

The final spot on the 25-man could come down to either a third catcher (Max Stassi) or an extra position player, such as Tyler White. The roster is nearly set, but Hinch says the Astros can improve more still this spring.

"We've got some baserunning things to work on, we can clean up some things on defense I'm a stickler for," he said. "We're not just going to show up in West Palm, [Fla.], and checkmark the box. We're going to prepare for a championship run."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

Houston Astros