KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Coming through the Minor Leagues together as teammates the past three years, outfielders T.J. Steele, J.B. Shuck and Jon Gaston have pushed one another on the field to succeed and grown closer together as friends away from the ballpark.
They've taken long bus rides together, shared meals in not-so-exotic towns around the New York-Penn, California and Texas Leagues, and experienced the hardships and joys of life as professional baseball players trying to leave their mark. Along the way, they've dreamed of reaching the Major Leagues and perhaps even patrolling the same outfield together, like they've done the past three years.
The dreams that seemed so far-fetched not so long ago are closer to being a reality for Steele, Shuck and Gaston, all three of whom are in the Astros' Major League camp this year for the first time as non-roster invitees.
"It's really cool," Gaston said. "Usually it doesn't happen that way. It's pretty rare, especially all three being outfielders coming up step by step and three years later we're all here in the big league clubhouse. It's cool to watch us all go together. We've bonded real well, and we've grown as friends and great teammates."
All three were drafted within three rounds of one another in 2008, the first Draft of the regime of general manager Ed Wade and scouting director Bobby Heck. Steele (fourth round) and Gaston (seventh) were teammates at the University of Arizona, and Shuck (sixth) was taken out of Ohio State.
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The three began their professional careers at short-season Tri-City in 2008, moved together to high Class A Lancaster in 2009 and spent all of last season at Double-A Corpus Christi. It's too early to tell where they'll end up this season, but they have a bond that can't be separated by miles.
"We talked about trying to move together and keep working at it and hopefully keep moving up together," Shuck said. "We have a good relationship where we're real good friends, but on the field, we can push each other, and I think that helps us, because we're always trying to almost one-up each other to the point we're all working as hard as we can and trying to continue to move."
They're all plus runners, Gaston surprisingly so, and they can play all three outfield positions and all throw well. Gaston and Steele, both 24, are projected to have more power, but the 23-year-old Shuck has proven to be a hitting machine, and he went 3-for-3 with a triple in Sunday's intrasquad game.
"They all have similarities, but they're all different as well," Wade said. "We tend not to look at them as a trio. We tend to look at them as individuals, because we're not looking for all them to graduate at the same time to the big league level. We're looking for the best player who can help us at any particular time and can get here and excel.
"It's great for them to have the camaraderie they've got and established those relationships, but at the end of the day, we're putting the best 25 players on the field, and if at some point in time, one of them is here, or all of them are here, the No. 1 criterion is how they help the Major League club."
Gaston, Steele and Shuck are part of an up-and-coming wave of Minor League talent bubbling up in an increasingly improving Astros organization. Outfielder J.D. Martinez, the Astros' Minor League Player of the Year for 2010, is in camp, and such younger prospects as Jay Austin and Austin Wates are waiting in the wings.
Of course, the Astros' outfield configuration at the Major League level is set with Carlos Lee in left, Michael Bourn in center and Hunter Pence in right. Bourn and Pence are cornerstones for the future, and Lee has two years left on his contract.
"It's not just playing for the Astros, because you're playing for the other 29 teams, too," Gaston said. "Whether you make it with the Astros or not, ultimately your goal is to make it to the Major Leagues. You've just got to get your opportunity and take advantage of it."
Gaston, who bats left and throws right, is a career .250 hitter with 24 triples, 50 homers and 176 RBIs in 333 career games. In 2009, he hit .278 with 15 triples, 35 homers and 100 RBIs at Lancaster. Shuck, a left-hander, is a career .303 hitter with seven homers and 95 RBIs in 335 games.
Right-hander Steele is a career .281 hitter with 10 homers and 79 RBIs in 157 games, though he has been slowed by injuries. Typically, Shuck has played in left field, Steele in center and Gaston in right, and they've usually occupied the top three spots in the batting order.
"More or less, we just kind of push ourselves and push each other to be the best we can," Steele said.
Gaston admits that it's unlikely he, Steele and Shuck will ever occupy the same outfield at Minute Maid Park, but the competition to get there keeps driving them.
"It makes us push each other to want it more," Gaston said. "Essentially, we're all competing for the same job, even though we've talked about what [it would be like] if all three of us were the big league outfielders in a couple of years. It's a cool thought to have.
"Will it happen? Realistically, probably not, because a couple of us, or maybe all of us, could be used as trade bait. But we don't know if any of that will ever happen. We're going to continue to make strides to make this big league team in the next year or two or whatever."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.