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Crane envisions big step up for Astros

Owner discusses on-field improvements, TV contract and spring home

JUPITER, Fla. -- Astros owner Jim Crane made it clear Sunday: He doesn't want the fans to suffer through another 100-loss season.

Crane met with reporters for about 15 minutes in the press box at Roger Dean Stadium prior to the game between the Astros and Cardinals and spoke on a wide variety of topics, including the television deal with Comcast, Spring Training site relocation and expectations for 2014.

The Astros, who lost 111 games in their first year in the American League, are expected to be improved this season, and Crane laid out some lofty goals.

"I think the expectations of the team, we do not want to lose 100 games," he said. "That would not be good. We think the team's good enough to be very competitive and give some people some fits, and hopefully my expectation is I'd love to see us -- [general manager] Jeff [Luhnow] probably won't go on a number -- but I'd love to see us get to .500. [It] would be a big step for us, or somewhere close to that."

The Astros open the regular season April 1 with three games against the Yankees at Minute Maid Park. They should be more competitive considering the additions they've made this offseason, specifically to the bullpen.

Finishing .500 would mean a 30-game improvement, which would be a huge step forward in the team's rebuilding plans. In the past 30 years, there have been just three teams who improved their records by more than 30 victories: the 2008 Rays (97-66, 31-game improvement), 1993 Giants (103-72, 31 games) and 1999 D-backs (100-65, 35 games).

"Well, I'd like to see .500 this year," Crane said. "Somebody wrote an article that it's not even April and we're talking about next year. I'm talking about this year right now. So, yeah, we think this team's much better. We think we've got the bullpen shored up. We've had a couple guys that have shown some good promise. The starting pitching should be better, and we should get deeper into games and win a lot of those games we gave away last year."

Of course, the biggest issue on Crane's plate remains the ongoing television stalemate with Comcast. Only about 40 percent of the Houston television market has access to the team's games on Comcast SportsNet Houston, which is in bankruptcy.

Crane said Comcast did not make a bid to take out of bankruptcy the portion of the network it doesn't own, which doesn't bode well for games being shown in a large portion of the market anytime soon. He's hopeful local blackouts can be lifted on Astros games that are shown on the MLB Extra Innings package. The viability of that is unclear.

"The biggest issue is the long-term network positioning on whether that gets moved around or Comcast owns it, somebody else owns it, we own it," Crane said. "All of those possibilities are in play."

Crane also touched on the team's ongoing search for a new Spring Training site. The Astros are trying to partner with the Nationals to build a two-team spring site in Palm Beach County, and they are waiting to further review 10 sites -- eight in Palm Beach County -- proposed in a meeting two weeks ago, but there are some funding issues.

Regardless, the Astros' lease at Osceola County Stadium expires after 2016, so they'd like to have an agreement in place this summer.

"We're just trying to get something that's a good location, easy for the fans to get in and out. And the two-team facilities do make it more economical, not only generating revenue, but also using the facilities more like they do here," said Crane, referring to facilities shared by the Cardinals and Marlins.

Meanwhile, Crane addressed national reports last week that the club was considering and had offered long-term extensions to some of its young players, including prospect George Springer, third baseman Matt Dominguez and outfielder Robbie Grossman. Last year, the Astros signed Jose Altuve to a four-year extension, buying out his arbitration years.

"We want to get some long term out of these guys that are moving along steadily, and we think if it's a good deal for them, it's a good deal for us and keeps the guys in a little longer," Crane said. "We think that's good for the team and it gives them some certainty. So I think it's a positive for everybody. Whether they'll sign them or not, that's their business and they've got to make their own decisions."

As his team tries to tie up some of its up-and-coming players, Crane says it's vital for the club to start winning and increase attendance -- he said 3 million is the ultimate goal -- and get a fair-market television deal that's comparable to other teams in the AL West.

Crane is pleased with how Luhnow has helped rebuild the farm system and hopes the arrival of some of the team's top prospects this year will begin paying dividends. He says the objective since he bought the team hasn't changed -- win.

"We're not in this to build out a business," Crane said. "We're in this to put the best team we can develop through the system, go out and sign some guys and put the best team we can on the field. We didn't buy this team not to win. We're not running a deal that we're not going to focus on winning every day. We're focused on putting a good product on the field and having a winning team, period."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
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