Development on agenda as Astros prepare for AL West
New skipper Porter looking to piece together lineup, rotation with recent additions
HOUSTON -- Opportunities will abound all around the baseball diamond when the new-look, new-league Astros hit the back fields at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., for Spring Training.
The Astros will once again be relying on youngsters at several positions as they move to the American League West this season. First-year manager Bo Porter will have plenty of time this spring to get a good look at all the new faces on board as a result of Houston turning over its 40-man roster by 50 percent since the end of last year.
The team isn't expected to compete in the rough-and-tumble AL West, and as the Astros continue to rebuild, the 2013 season will be more about individual performances than wins and losses. Who will step up? Which young players are ready? Who needs more time in the Minor Leagues?
"We want to develop the best young talent in baseball and get this organization to the point where we can consistently compete," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "It's as simple as that. We want to do it as quickly as possible. With everything we've done this offseason, we've done it with that strategy in mind."
The Astros have created plenty of competition in the outfield, adding Rick Ankiel and Chris Carter to the mix, both of whom bring needed power. They also dramatically increased their starting pitching depth by adding Erik Bedard, Alex White, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock and John Ely, putting them in position to have a deep rotation at Triple-A for the first time in years.
"I like the options we have as far as the rotation goes," Porter said. "Some of the guys in the running for rotation spots may end up in the bullpen, which makes our bullpen even stronger."
Making the move to the AL, the Astros also signed Carlos Pena to be their first full-time designated hitter. Pena, Ankiel and Bedard are veterans in a clubhouse full of fresh faces trying to make a name for themselves, trying to show the Astros they have what it takes to be integral parts of the club as it continues to rebuild.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Away vs. Phillies, Feb. 23, 12:05 p.m. CT
Home vs. Rangers, March 31, 7:05 p.m. CT
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. What impact will Bo Porter have on a rebuilding club?
This will not be an easy task for the first-year manager, who inherits a club coming off a combined 213 losses in the last two years and with a low payroll as it continues to rebuild. Oh, and the Astros are moving to the AL West, which is the toughest division in baseball.
Porter knew the challenges going into the process, and the Astros hired him because they believe he can mold a young club while it continues to bring talent along. Porter will have to be patient, he'll have to be a teacher and he'll have to be a master motivator if the team is struggling in the division.
2. How will the outfield alignment be configured?
With the exception of Justin Maxwell, who's probably assured a starting job, there figures to be a free for all in the outfield this season. You have the holdovers from last year like J.D. Martinez, Fernando Martinez and Brandon Barnes competing for spots, but the Astros added more depth by acquiring Ankiel as a free agent and Carter in a trade with the A's.
Carter gives the Astros some needed right-handed power, something they didn't get with J.D. Martinez last year, who couldn't duplicate his solid 2011 debut. Fernando Martinez certainly showed some big-time pop, but staying healthy has been a concern. Barnes is the best defender of the bunch, but he hasn't shown the ability to hit Major League pitching consistently.
And don't forget Jimmy Paredes, who was moved to the outfield last year and figures to be in the mix.
3. Who will survive the race for the back end of the starting rotation?
Luhnow certainly has created plenty of competition for the starting rotation, so much so that Houston figures to have its deepest rotation at Triple-A in years. But what about at the Major League level?
Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles appear to be locks for the rotation, and Luhnow has said at various points this offseason that Humber and Bedard have the edge for the final two spots. Still, Luhnow added White, Ely and Peacock to the mix via trades, and you still have youngsters Jarred Cosart and Dallas Keuchel competing for a spot as well.
Unlike the past few years when the Astros were exposed when they lost a starter to injury, Houston will have viable options as the season progresses.
55-107, sixth place in the National League Central
Projected batting order
1. 2B Jose Altuve:
.290 BA, .340 OBP, 399 SLG, 7 HR, 37 RBIs in 2012
2. SS Tyler Greene:
.230 BA, .274 OBP, .400 SLG, 11 HR, 30 RBIs in 2012
3. CF Justin Maxwell:
.229 BA, .304 OBP, .460 SLG, 18 HR, 53 RBIs in 2012
4. DH Carlos Pena:
.197 BA, .330 OBP, .354 SLG, 19 HR, 61 RBIs in 2012
5. 1B Brett Wallace:
.253 BA, .323 OBP, .424 SLG, 9 HR, 24 RBIs in 2012
6. LF Chris Carter:
.239 BA, .350 OBP, .514 SLG, 16 HR, 39 RBIs in 2012
7. RF Fernando Martinez:
.237 BA, .300 OBP, .466 SLG, 6 HR, 14 RBIs in 2012
8. 3B Matt Dominguez:
.284 BA, .310 OBP, .477 SLG, 5 HR, 16 RBIs in 2012
9. C Jason Castro:
.257 BA, .334 OBP, .401 SLG, 6 HR, 29 RBIs in 2012
1. Bud Norris, 7-13, 4.65 ERA in 2012
2. Lucas Harrell, 11-11, 3.76 ERA in 2012
3. Jordan Lyles, 5-12, 5.09 ERA in 2012
4. Philip Humber, 5-5, 6.44 ERA in 2012
5. Erik Bedard , 7-14, 5.01 ERA in 2012
The new guys
DH Pena: The signing of Pena to a one-year deal to become the club's first full-time designated hitter may have had as much to do with his leadership ability and terrific clubhouse presence as what he'll bring between the lines. Pena is one of the most solid citizens in the game, and should be a good influence on a young team. If he can hit for power and some average, all the better for Houston.
RHP Humber: The Astros claimed Humber off waivers and then signed him to a one-year deal. This will be a homecoming of sorts for Humber, the Texas native who was one of the aces of Rice University's 2003 College World Series championship team. He struggled after throwing a perfect game last May for the White Sox, and he's going to have to pitch well to keep his spot.
LHP Bedard: Luhnow believes Bedard, 33, has something left in the tank, saying he's not that far removed from being a very effective big league pitcher. He's coming to camp as a non-roster invitee, but appears to have a leg up on a spot in the rotation, assuming he's healthy and isn't a complete bust in camp.
OF Ankiel: Like the signing of Bedard, the Astros are inviting Ankiel to camp with hopes he has something left. He's got a good chance at making the team considering he's a veteran who can hit with some power, but it's been a couple of years since he's been considered a dangerous power threat. Both Porter and Luhnow have a history with Ankiel and have endorsed his addition.
RHP Josh Fields: A power arm who will compete for a spot at the back of the bullpen, Fields was the first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft. Fields, 27, has had control problems in the past, but the Astros said he started to come around towards the end of the 2011 season. Considering the bullpen is up for grabs, Fields will have plenty of opportunities in the spring.
1B/DH Nate Freiman: The chance to add a power bat from the right side of the plate was enough for the Astros to snatch Freiman away from the Padres in December's Rule 5 Draft. He destroys left-handed pitching and will be trying to get playing time with Wallace, Pena and Carter all capable of playing first base and designated hitter.
Prospects to watch
RHP Cosart: The Astros' top pitching prospect, Cosart will be in Major League camp for the first time. He appeared to have a chance to pitch for a spot in the rotation early in the winter, but the Astros' acquisition of Ely, White and Peacock likely means Cosart will begin the season in Triple-A. Still, expect him to be heard from this year.
LHP Rudy Owens: Owens, who was Pittsburgh's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009 and '10, came to the Astros last July in the Wandy Rodriguez trade, giving them a much-needed left-handed starter in the system. He made 19 starts with the Pirates' Triple-A Indianapolis last year and was very effective and throws strikes, and he's likely to begin the season with the Astros' Triple-A Oklahoma City team.
OF George Springer: Springer, the Astros' first-round pick in 2011, had a monster season last year offensively at hitter friendly Lancaster in the California League, hitting .316 with 22 homers and 82 RBIs in 106 games. He got his feet wet at Double-A Corpus Christi, which is probably where he'll begin the season. He could be the Astros' center fielder of the future.
2B Delino DeShields, Jr: No player in the Astros system proved to be more exciting to watch last year than DeShields, who set an organizational record by stealing 101 bases combined between Class A Lexington and Class A Lancaster. He's settled in nicely at second base after a move from the outfield, and he should be an interesting one to watch coming off such a huge season at the plate and on the bases.
SS Jonathan Villar: Villar remains one of their top prospects and will be at Major League camp again this year. He has plenty of tools, but remains raw. He lost valuable at-bats last year after breaking his right hand punching a door last July 13 with Double-A Corpus Christi, and didn't return to action until Sept. 6.
On the rebound
RHP Norris: Norris, who will make $3 million this year for the Astros if he's not dealt before the start of the season, started 2012 strong and finished with a flourish, but it was the middle 18 starts, during which he was 0-12, that were a concern. He battled injury and inconsistency and finished 7-13, but this could be a big year in his development as a solid Major League starting pitcher.
OF J.D. Martinez: Coming off an impressive Major League debut in 2011, taking over nicely in the lineup for Hunter Pence, Martinez struggled last year in his first full season in the big leagues. He hit .241 with 11 homers and 55 RBIs in 395 at-bats before undergoing surgery at the end of the year to remove the hook of the hamate bone in his left hand. He'll need to re-establish himself this year to have a future with the club.
OF Paredes: Paredes appeared to be the next big thing when he made his Major League debut in 2011, but another position switch -- he's moved to the outfield -- and an undisciplined approach at the plate during his time in Houston has dimmed his star. He still bursts with athleticism and has some great tools, but will he ever put it all together?
LHP Xavier Cedeno: Cedeno, a native of Puerto Rico, appeared in 44 games in two stints with the Astros last year after beginning the year at Triple-A Oklahoma City. He posted a 3.77 ERA, closing the season with 12 consecutive scoreless outings.
OF Martinez: Martinez, claimed off waivers from the Mets a year ago, hit .237 with six homers and 14 RBIs in 118 at-bats last year for Houston, playing in a career-high 41 games and showing some impressive power. Though he's playing for Spain, he was born in the Dominican Republic.
RHP Cruz: Cruz, who was born in the Dominican Republic, appeared in 52 games last year in his rookie season, posting a 6.05 ERA. He was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 Rule 5 Draft and ranked fifth among NL rookies in appearances. He throws hard, but was wild at times last year.
RHP Chia-Jen Lo: Lo, who missed almost all of the 2010 and '11 seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery, made it back to the mound last year and appeared in 10 games between the Gulf Coast League and Class A Lancaster. He'll be pitching in the Classic for Chinese Taipei.
SS Jed Lowrie: Less than two weeks before he was set to report to Kissimmee, the Astros dealt Lowrie to the Oakland A's in a five-player deal that saw the Astros get three players in return. He had a solid season at the plate in his only year in Houston while playing a steady shortstop, but he was limited to only 93 games because of a sprained right thumb suffered last spring and an ankle injury that forced him to miss 52 games in the middle of the year.
RHP Wilton Lopez: Lopez was a strike-throwing machine during his time in Houston and ended the season as the team's closer. The Astros were able to get two players in return for sending Lopez to the Rockies in December, including a starting pitcher in White. It could turn out to be a very nice trade for Houston, considering Lopez's right elbow has been an issue.
RHP Fernando Rodriguez: The hard-throwing Texan had a nice debut with the Astros in 2011, but he struggled heavily last year and wound up losing 10 games in a relief role. He can be an effective pitcher when keeping the ball down, but he didn't show enough to suggest he'd be a big part of the team's future.