HOUSTON -- The soaring expectations entering Spring Training are clear in the Astros' 2019 campaign slogan: "Take It Back." A year after they launched what third baseman Alex Bregman dubbed a "back-to-back" tour coming off their first World Series title, Astros management touted Wednesday the team has enough talent to make another run at a championship.
When pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach, Fla., next week, the Astros have their new-look club together for the first time. Gone are championship cornerstones Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, Brian McCann and Charlie Morton, with new faces including Michael Brantley, Aledmys Díaz, Robinson Chirinos and Wade Miley coming to a team with World Series aspirations.
The Astros have had four winning seasons since AJ Hinch took over as manager prior to the 2015 season, including three playoff appearances, back-to-back American League West titles (2017-18) and one World Series championship. They believe they're poised for a second in three years.
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"There's an expectation of winning here, and it should be," Hinch said. "We have a good team and we have a chance to win the division."
The Astros have very few weaknesses entering 2019. Their lineup is potent and deep, led by Bregman, José Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer; they have two horses at the top of the rotation in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and boast a deep, veteran bullpen. The weaknesses? You'd need to look closely to see them.
"The big question is going to be the back end of the rotation, and I think we can definitely see the first four -- not necessarily in order, but Verlander, Cole, [Collin] McHugh, [Wade] Miley -- are guys we expect to be in the rotation, and the fifth spot can be a lot of different names," Hinch said Wednesday at Minute Maid Park at the team's annual pre-Spring Training luncheon.
Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow thanked Gonzalez, Keuchel and Morton for their contributions Wednesday, saying they're "part of Astros history forever." Perhaps the Astros have all but closed a door on a return for Keuchel and/or Gonzalez, but Luhnow said he could add to the roster.
"We talked about leaving something in the tank, whether it's money or prospects to make some deals during the season, or even before the season if it presents itself," he said. "We're not going to rest on our hands, but we like the team we have and we feel we have a pretty good chance of accomplishing our goals."
Among the candidates for the fifth spot are Josh James and Framber Valdez, two pitchers who weren't on the radar a year ago and then started key games down the stretch, and Brad Peacock. The final position-player spot on the roster figures to come down to Jake Marisnick, Tyler White and Tony Kemp -- all of whom are out of options. They'll battle for two spots if the Astros carry 13 pitchers.
"How the pitching shakes out seems to impact the roster a little bit greater than it usually does," Hinch said.
Versatility remains a key for the Astros, which makes Gonzalez's departure challenging. Diaz will be asked to play first base, left field, third base and shortstop, which is his primary position. Yuli Gurriel will play around the infield more, as well.
"It depends on how the back end of the roster shakes out," Hinch said.
In addition to the fifth starter, the final position-player spot and bullpen configuration, the Astros have to sort out a crowded outfield that includes Marisnick, Myles Straw, Derek Fisher, Kemp and top position-player prospect Kyle Tucker in addition to starters Brantley, Springer and Josh Reddick.
"We want it to be a competition and we want players that have a good spring have a chance to make this team," Luhnow said.
Health will be something to watch early in camp.
Altuve (knee surgery), Correa (sore back) and Bregman (elbow surgery) are coming off injuries that aren't expected to limit them at the start of the regular season (Bregman started hitting Wednesday). Hinch plans to ease them into Spring Training action, which he will do with any everyday players, including Springer and Brantley.
"We'll have a slow ramp for some of those guys, but I would normally," Hinch said. "I actually don't think Bregman is going to miss as much time as even a normal spring -- maybe a game or two. Maybe Jose DH's a little earlier in camp. We'll have to see how he feels."