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Astros open camp with bar 'set incredibly high'

MLB.com @brianmctaggart

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When you have this many stars and this much talent, you can't help but have visions of playing baseball deep into October. And considering it was only a year ago the Astros were talking about defending their World Series title, their window to win another one remains wide open.

Those crisp late October nights are a long way from the sun-splashed back fields of Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where Astros pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday morning with their gear and expectations in tow. Spring Training is underway for the Astros, a loaded club that followed up its 2017 World Series championship with a club-record 103 wins last year.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- When you have this many stars and this much talent, you can't help but have visions of playing baseball deep into October. And considering it was only a year ago the Astros were talking about defending their World Series title, their window to win another one remains wide open.

Those crisp late October nights are a long way from the sun-splashed back fields of Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where Astros pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday morning with their gear and expectations in tow. Spring Training is underway for the Astros, a loaded club that followed up its 2017 World Series championship with a club-record 103 wins last year.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Astros pitchers and catchers will work out for the first time Thursday, with position players slated to report Monday. The first full-squad workout is Tuesday. The Astros open Grapefruit League play on Feb. 23 against the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

"The bar is set incredibly high, and we need to have a good, productive spring," Astros manager AJ Hinch said.

Predicting Astros' Opening Day roster

Many players have been working out at the facility, including pitcher Justin Verlander and third baseman Alex Bregman. They are two of a handful of former All-Stars the Astros will have coming to camp, joining former MVP Award winner Jose Altuve, former World Series MVP George Springer, former Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa and newcomers Michael Brantley and Aledmys Diaz.

Verlander and fellow 2018 All-Star Gerrit Cole lead a talented pitching staff that includes former All-Stars in newcomer Wade Miley, closer Roberto Osuna and relievers Chris Devenski and Will Harris. With that kind of talent, the Astros are runaway favorites for the American League West title and should contend for another World Series.

"We have four position players that could be an MVP this year, and we've got two pitchers who could be a Cy Young," said Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow. "That is a pretty good starting point for a team. We're going to have good pitchers on the mound every night, we're going to have an offense that's going to score a lot of runs. We play good defense, we run and play good fundamentals. It's a fun team to watch and they all get along with each other so well."

Video: Luhnow on the additions of Miley, Brantley

Last year, the Astros lost in five games in the AL Championship Series to the Red Sox, but they weren't healthy. Altuve was essentially playing with a broken kneecap, Correa had a bad back and Bregman a bum elbow. Lance McCullers Jr. was pitching through a torn ulnar collateral ligament that eventually required Tommy John surgery, forcing him to miss this season.

The biggest storyline early in the spring will be the health of Altuve and Bregman, both of whom are recovering from offseason surgery, and Correa, who was bothered by a sore back in the second half of last year. All three are progressing well and expected to be ready long before the regular-season opener.

Spring Training FAQ

A loaded roster doesn't mean there won't be some camp battles.

Hard-throwing rookie Josh James and lefty Framber Valdez -- two players who weren't even on the radar a year ago -- will lead a competition for the fifth spot in the rotation behind Verlander, Cole, Collin McHugh and Miley. The addition of Brantley means the outfield got a little more crowded for top prospect Kyle Tucker and Tony Kemp, both of whom are trying to make the club.

The bullpen, led by Osuna and Ryan Pressly -- both of whom were acquired at last year's non-waiver Trade Deadline -- is deep enough to absorb McHugh's move to the rotation. There will be a spot or two open at the back of the bullpen, but these are first-world problems.

Video: Astros still sitting pretty despite quiet offseason

"The big question is the back end of the rotation," Hinch said. "I think we can definitively set the first four. ... What that competition leads to will balance out some of the bullpen. Do we carry 12 pitchers? Do we carry 13 pitchers to start the year? That will impact the position-player side. How the pitching shakes out seems to impact the roster a little greater than it usually does."

Not only are the Astros loaded at the Major League level, but the kids will be getting a chance to show their stuff in camp, as well.

In addition to Tucker, who's the No. 8-ranked prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, pitcher Forrest Whitley (No. 7 overall) have a chance to impress the big league staff while being a sponge around vets like Verlander and Cole. Whitley isn't expected to join the Astros out of camp, but he is rising fast. He'll be in his first big league camp with other intriguing prospects like pitchers Corbin Martin (No. 81 overall by MLB Pipeline) and J.B. Bukauskas (No. 97), and outfielders Yordan Alvarez (No. 44) and Ronnie Dawson.

"There's going to be some guys to pay attention to, which is going to be awesome for us," Hinch said. "If you're one of those three pitchers and you walk into the room and see Cole and Verlander, I bet they're going to get something out of it. Regardless of how much we pitch them, there's going to be an experience they can really value. We'll get to know them, and there's a chance some of those guys will push their way to our team at some point."

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

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