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02/06/11 10:00 PM ET

Spring a time of growth for Astros' youth

Club counting on maturity as it lays foundation for contention

HOUSTON -- They're a year older and wiser, and the Astros hope a year more prepared. The club's youth movement rides into its second year this spring with the team counting on a handful of young players who could become the cornerstones of the future.

Brett Wallace, acquired in a side deal of the Roy Oswalt trade with the Phillies, will be trying to prove he's ready to start at first base, while fellow 2008 first-round Draft pick Jason Castro knows it's time to step up behind the plate. Third baseman Chris Johnson had a terrific rookie season, and the club has built a stockpile of young arms through the First-Year Player Draft, trades and the Rule 5 Draft.

These players hold the key to 2011 and beyond. Can Wallace and Castro step up? Can Johnson continue his rise to stardom? Is top prospect Jordan Lyles ready to step into the starting rotation at age 20? Finding out those answers begins when the Astros open Spring Training next week.

No matter how the young players perform, the Astros will be led by a veteran outfield that includes three former All-Stars -- Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence -- a starting rotation anchored by Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez, as well as the contributions of newcomers Clint Barmes and Bill Hall.

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The man in charge of bringing it all together is second-year manager Brad Mills, who shook off a miserable 17-34 start last year -- and the departure of franchise icons Lance Berkman and Oswalt -- and had the Astros clipping at the heels of the second-place Cardinals late in the year. Slowly but surely, the pieces are being put in place for the Astros to return to contention.

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 16.

Full squad reports

Feb. 20.

First Spring Training game

at Braves, Feb. 28, 12:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day

At Phillies, April 1, 12:05 p.m. CT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Is Wallace ready to be the starter at first base?
The Astros traded for Wallace last July with the intent of having him replace Berkman as their starting first baseman. He struggled offensively and didn't show the power potential he displayed in the Minor Leagues, and wound up splitting time at first in September with Carlos Lee. The Astros have options at first if they're not satisfied with what they see from Wallace this spring.

2. Who will win the fifth-starter's job?
There are veterans Nelson Figueroa and Ryan Rowland-Smith, Rule 5 pick-ups Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton and hot-shot prospect Lyles. Somewhere in this group the Astros hope to be able to identify a fifth starter to add to a rotation that has the potential to be pretty good.

3. Are the young players ready for prime time?
The Astros used 11 rookies last year, many of whom figure to play key roles in their second season. We all know about Wallace (first), Castro (catcher) and Johnson (third base), but pitchers Lyles, Fernando Abad and Wilton Lopez are as much a part of the club's future.

2010 record

76-86, fourth place in the NL Central

Projected batting order

1. CF Michael Bourn:
  . 265 BA, .341 OBP, .346 SLG, 2 HR, 38 RBI in 2010
2. 2B Bill Hall:
  . 247 BA, .316 OBP, .456 SLG, 18 HR, 46 RBI in 2010
3. RF Hunter Pence:
  . 282 BA, .325 OBP, .461 SLG, 25 HR, 91 RBI in 2010
4. LF Carlos Lee:
  . 246 BA, .291 OBP, .417 SLG, 24 HR, 89 RBI in 2010
5. 3B Chris Johnson:
  . 308 BA, .337 OBP, .481 SLG, 11 HR, 52 RBI in 2010
6. 1B Brett Wallace:
  . 222 BA, .296 OBP, .319 SLG, 2 HR, 13 RBI in 2010
7. SS Clint Barmes:
  . 235 BA, .305 OBP, .351 SLG, 8 HR, 50 RBI in 2010
8. C Jason Castro:
  . 205 BA, .286 OBP, .287 SLG, 2 HR, 8 RBI in 2010

Projected rotation

1. Brett Myers, 14-8, 3.14 ERA in 2010
2. Wandy Rodriguez, 11-12, 3.60 ERA in 2010
3. J.A. Happ, 6-4, 3.40 ERA in 2010
4. Bud Norris, 9-10, 4.92 ERA in 2010
5. Nelson Figueroa, 7-4, 3.29 ERA in 2010

Projected bullpen

Closer: Brandon Lyon, 20/22 saves, 3.12 ERA in 2010
RH setup man: Wilton Lopez, 2.96 ERA in 2010
LH setup man: Fernando Abad, 2.84 ERA in 2010

The new guys

SS Clint Barmes: The Astros traded pitcher Felipe Paulino to the Rockies in November to add Barmes, a right-handed hitter who should bolster the offense and defense. The Astros only had two home runs last year out of their shortstops.

2B Bill Hall: Signed Dec. 20 as the club's biggest free-agent acquisition of the winter, the versatile Hall will be called upon to play second base and add some run production to an offense that ranked at the bottom of the National League in 2010.

RHP Ryan Rowland-Smith: The Australian will come to camp after a miserable season in Seattle, competing for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. But he could wind up in the bullpen if he doesn't crack the starting five.

Prospects to watch

RHP Jordan Lyles: He's the top prospect in the Astros' increasingly improving Minor League system, and will come to camp trying win the fifth-starter's job. Lyles will pitch at 20 years old this entire season, and it's more likely he begins at Triple-A Oklahoma City and reaches the Majors at some point in 2011.

RHP Aneury Rodriguez: Rodriguez was one of two players the Astros took in the Rule 5 Draft, in an effort to add some competition for the fifth-starter's spot. He has all the tools to be a starter, and the Astros hope pitching coach Brad Arnsberg can bring it all together.

LHP Fernando Abad: The lefty made a strong first impression last year, when he pitched in 22 games in his Major League debut -- and he was terrific in the Dominican Winter League, going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA. He could wind up in the rotation, but for now he's likely the lefty specialist.

On the rebound

LF Carlos Lee: Coming off perhaps the worst season of his career, Lee -- in the fifth year of a six-year, $100 million deal -- is determined to prove last year was a fluke and that he's not on the decline at 34 years old. His homers and RBIs were his lowest since 2001.

CF Michael Bourn: Bourn was a model of inconsistency at the plate in 2010, and ultimately didn't quite put up the numbers he did in his breakout season of 2009. Still, he led the league in stolen bases for the second year in a row and won his second consecutive NL Gold Glove.

Long gone

IF Geoff Blum: Blum wanted to return to Houston for another season, but the Astros told him at the end of the regular season they weren't going to exercise his option. He signed with the D-backs.

LHP Tim Byrdak: A late-bloomer who enjoyed two solid full seasons in Houston in 2009-10, the Astros outrighted Byrdak in December after they had identified some younger and cheaper options to become their left-handed specialists.

RHP Matt Lindstrom: With the hard-throwing right-hander set to get a raise in arbitration coming off a season in which he dealt with inconsistency and back issues, the Astros sent him to the Rockies for Minor League pitchers Wes Musick and Jonnathan Aristil.

RHP Felipe Paulino: Paulino had spent nine years in the organization and showed some flashes of excellence, but he couldn't stay healthy and lacked consistency. The Astros dealt him to the Rockies in November for Barmes.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.