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Pitchers and catchers mark start to Astros camp

New manager Hinch convening first Spring Training amid heightened optimism

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- There was no shortage of handshakes and hellos Friday morning as Astros pitchers and catchers -- a group that includes many new faces -- trickled into the clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium for the start of Spring Training.

For some, like pitchers Tony Sipp, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Joe Thatcher, it was a chance to get familiar with their new spring surroundings, while veterans like pitcher Chad Qualls and catcher Jason Castro know their way around the facility quite well.

On Saturday morning, 27 pitchers and six catchers will hit the field for the first workout under new manager A.J. Hinch and a coaching staff that has been revamped. Veteran pitcher Roberto Hernandez is in the Dominican Republic as he works out a visa issue and will be late, Hinch said.

The players will take physicals prior to hitting the field at 9 a.m. CT on Saturday.

"It's exciting to get on the field," Hinch said. "With all this planning and all this preparation leading up to this, when we can get on the field and get some activity it's always nice to put on a big league [uniform]."

Hinch and his coaching staff took part in two rounds of meetings Friday. The first meeting, which ran about three hours, involved members of the front office as they went over every player who is in camp and talked about their situation and their roles. The coaches then met for an hour by themselves.

"They were pretty thorough with a lot of information," Hinch said. "Great meetings."

Video: Astros have improved offense, 'pen, veteran presence

Hinch, who was hired the day after the regular season ended, inherits a club that is poised to improve on last year's 70-92 mark, which was a 19-game improvement from 2013. He pulled players into his office for quick one-on-one meetings Friday and hopes to talk to each one individually before workouts begin. Position players report Tuesday and work out for the first time Wednesday.

"My job as the manager being new here is to get some face time with these guys and understand why they're in camp and where I see them going in," Hinch said. "I believe in direct communication so you know where you stand."

There's optimism as camp starts stemming from the signing of free-agent relievers Neshek and Gregerson, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielder Colby Rasmus, and trades that netted catcher Hank Conger, third baseman Luis Valbuena, outfielder/designated hitter Evan Gattis and starting pitching Dan Straily. The Astros also return 2014 American League batting champ Jose Altuve and Gold Glove Award-winning pitcher Dallas Keuchel.

"We obviously made a lot of moves this offseason with a new staff in place, and it's kind of exciting right now," said Castro, who's the longest-tenured current Astro. "You can feel it when you walk in here. A lot of guys seem to be already kind of jelling together. It doesn't seem awkward at all."

When Neshek was signed in December, the Astros' busy offseason was just beginning. Now it's time to get to work.

"For me, I didn't really know if we were going to make any other moves or if that was it," Neshek said. "We made a handful after that. I like it. It's a young team and we've got some good, veteran players. Every team I've been on that has won before has that kind of characteristic. I've always been an underdog, and I feel like that's the case here as well."

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