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Optimism reigns as Astros arrive at camp

Pitchers, catchers report with high expectations, few holes to fill
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, wearing his signature beard that is nearly two years old, sifted through boxes of new gear. Ken Giles, the Astros' biggest offseason acquisition, showed up with a Phillies equipment bag that was soon replaced by one with Astros colors.

There were handshakes and good-to-see-you hugs and questions from reporters about high expectations as Astros pitchers and catchers trickled into the team's Spring Training facility at Osceola County Stadium on Thursday morning in advance of Friday's first day of official workouts.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, wearing his signature beard that is nearly two years old, sifted through boxes of new gear. Ken Giles, the Astros' biggest offseason acquisition, showed up with a Phillies equipment bag that was soon replaced by one with Astros colors.

There were handshakes and good-to-see-you hugs and questions from reporters about high expectations as Astros pitchers and catchers trickled into the team's Spring Training facility at Osceola County Stadium on Thursday morning in advance of Friday's first day of official workouts.

"It's just a little nervous going to a new ballpark and all kinds of new things, new guys, not knowing what I'm getting myself into kind of things," Giles said. "So far, I'm enjoying the atmosphere here and now everybody is here to work hard and get in tiptop shape for the season."

Tweet from @brianmctaggart: Giles on fitting in pic.twitter.com/MFQImFjB6m

The players went through strength assessments Thursday and will have physicals Friday before hitting the field. Unlike last year, when no one really knew what to expect from the Astros, they open spring as one of the favorites in the American League, which is something not lost on the players.

"I think it's great and this team did a lot of great things last year," reliever Luke Gregerson said. "We went out there and we had a point to prove, obviously, where we were picked to finish last year. I'm proud of these guys. There's a lot of young guys on this team and they all did a great job stepping up, and I think there's no reason to think we should regress at all. We should be just getting better. I've got a lot of optimism going into the season."

Keuchel said he could sense a more relaxed atmosphere in camp this year, which is expected when there are so many spots already locked up heading into camp.

"There are a few holes to fill, but everybody's relaxed, it seems like, and it's going to be a good year here in Kissimmee," he said.

Tweet from @brianmctaggart: Keuchel talks pic.twitter.com/spVJnZgMww

Keuchel, who just three years ago was a late cut from camp and began the year at Triple-A Oklahoma City, is a force who won 32 games the past two years, including 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA last year en route to the team's third Cy Young Award. He's one of the reasons many are picking the Astros to make a run at the World Series.

"It's nice to get some love because we haven't been used to it," Keuchel said. "I think we have a shot to have more respect. A lot of that stems from we beat the Yankees in the Wild Card Game and pushed the Royals to the brink of elimination last year."

Astros manager A.J. Hinch, of course, doesn't pay much attention to expectations. He said the club believed it could win last year even though no one picked it to go to the playoffs, so he's not about to focus on headlines now.

"We feel like we're getting better and we're going to be pretty good," he said. "I don't think it changes how we look at things. I don't think it's going to change how people look at us. I'm not going to want a lot of talk about predictions and expectations and the drama that comes with that. We've got a ton of attention to work on every day that we'll focus on."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.

Houston Astros, Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Dallas Keuchel