2/20/2014 3:00 P.M. ET
Astros set out to be 'most improved' in 2014
By Joe Morgan / Special to MLB.com
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- No team won fewer games in 2013 than the Astros.
In fact, no team had lost as many games as last year's Astros since the Arizona Diamondbacks finished with an identical 51-111 record in 2004.
But manager Bo Porter's club has a new distinction in mind as the team held its first full-squad workout of Spring Training.
"It's our goal to be the most improved team in Major League Baseball," Porter said. "And I believe, collectively as an organization, we have the group together, and we can actually accomplish that.
"We want to be the most improved team as far as the win-loss column goes."
The path to that improvement is a focus on attitude. Numerous signs in the Astros clubhouse in Kissimmee drive home the message.
One sign reads, "W.I.N. -- What's Important Now." Another says, "The Process." A large pinwheel lists the qualities of winning teams in numerous panels, two of which include a picture of the Commissioner's Trophy.
Houston wants to build toward a championship.
"The players can kind of sense that there's something special happening here," Porter said. "We're all going to hold each other accountable to see the vision come true. It just means being accountable and being professional."
Numerous signs also recognize the Astros' 2005 National League championship, and Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Morgan Ensberg were at camp Thursday.
Pitching prospect Mark Appel said the team even watched video of Houston's NL Championship Series victory against the St. Louis Cardinals.
"The atmosphere the Astros had at home, just how dynamic it was," Appel said, "Houston is a baseball town."
The Astros want to give their town a winner. The club made efforts to surround its youth with talented veterans this offseason by adding outfielder Dexter Fowler, starter Scott Feldman and relievers Jesse Crain and Chad Qualls.
Porter believes winning begins with the people in the clubhouse. Talent alone will not secure players a roster spot come April.
"You're at work 24 hours a day," Porter said. "Everything that you go out and you do, you're representing the Houston Astros. The vision is simple. The vision is to consistently compete for a championship each and every year.
"From a player's standpoint, when we evaluate you and we grade you, we're looking at the whole person. We're saying, 'Can this person help us accomplish our vision?'"
The philosophy of responsibility both on the diamond and in the clubhouse has trickled down from management to the prospects. First baseman Jonathan Singleton believes Houston can be competitive this season. The goal stands. More wins than last year's team and more improvement than any other team in the Majors. The Astros know the odds are stacked against them. They are ready to face those odds.
"We've had a couple of rough years, and hopefully I can be a part of the solution, but it's not just going to be me," Appel said. "It's going to be every guy in that clubhouse. I firmly believe that we're a team that can go out and shock some people."
"We're all willing to go out there and get our uniform dirty and hopefully come out with the 'W,'" Singleton added. "There's not much that we expect others expect of us. More or less, we just go out there and play hard and have fun."
MRI reveals Crain has strained right calf
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jesse Crain's MRI results came back on Thursday and revealed his right calf injury suffered on Tuesday is a strain. Astros manager Bo Porter, who announced the results prior to the team's pre-workout stretching, said there's no timetable for Crain's return.
"It's just a strain, and he will continue to work with the training staff, and they'll keep me abreast of his progress," Porter said.
Even before receiving the news that his injury was just a strain, Crain felt good on Thursday morning, saying he did not believe the injury was "anything too major."
"It's getting better, but I don't know how fast [recovery] is going to be," Crain said. "But it's a little easier to walk on today, so that's a good sign."
The right-handed reliever, who is wearing a walking boot, suffered the strain while stepping onto a box during a workout in the weight room on Tuesday.
"It's something I definitely wasn't planning on," Crain said. "It's something that just happened. There was nothing leading up to it or any kind of warning. It just went out on one thing. It's frustrating, but you've just got to keep on moving forward. I've had stuff like this before, so just try to keep a positive attitude and get better."
The Astros signed Crain to a one-year deal on Dec. 31 to help add a veteran presence to their bullpen. In 46 appearances with the White Sox last season, he posted a 0.74 ERA in 37 innings. Crain was traded to the Rays on July 29, but he never threw a pitch for American League East runners-up.
Although the calf strain is a setback, Crain hopes to press forward without much issue.
"As long as I can get some kind of throwing in and keep my arm there, I don't think it's going to cause too much of a problem," Crain said.
Appel tosses first bullpen after appendectomy
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- A January appendectomy brought Mark Appel more than pain. It brought him perspective.
"I don't want to say an appendectomy is a good thing, but it really gave me time to just think about the things I need to accomplish at Spring Training," Appel said. "Laying down in bed for a couple of days just really helped me prepare myself mentally for what to expect and just the stuff that I need to do."
On Thursday, Appel went through his first bullpen session this season. He fired 22 pitches from a mix of the wind-up and the stretch on the mound.
"I was going to end on the 21st one, but it wasn't a good pitch," Appel joked. "So I threw one more."
Appel felt good following the exercise. He said the soreness he felt was nothing more than the standard that comes with bullpen sessions.
"It felt great," Appel said. "I love getting to pitch, and I love getting to go out there and compete. I know I wasn't competing against a hitter today, but I was just competing against myself."
Before his bullpen session on Thursday morning, Appel said he was feeling "80-85 percent" recovered from his appendectomy. Following the conclusion of the day's workouts, Appel is not sure when he will throw again.
"I think I'll feel good," Appel said of possibly pitching another bullpen session on Friday. "We have one of the best training staffs in the country, so I'm sure that they'll get me ready and I'll put in the work to be ready for [Friday] and see what the day has in store for me."
Appel, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's MLB First-Year Player Draft, has a large legacy to live up to in Houston. Luckily, two of the men who cast that long shadow -- Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt -- were in Kissimmee on Thursday.
Clemens has proven especially helpful to Appel, advising the 22-year-old to stay focused in the face of distractions both during Spring Training and the regular season.
"It's amazing having Roger Clemens here at camp, just the amount of knowledge he has about the game," Appel said. " … He's just a passionate guy. He loves this game. He loves Houston, and he loves the Astros. That's really cool being a part of the Astros.
"He's really rooting for us. He's in our corner. I think it's just so cool that even though he's retired, he's making himself available to whoever wants to talk to him."
In a young 2014 that has already seen Appel rub shoulders with Clemens and undergo an appendectomy, all while owning the status of one of baseball's hottest prospects, the Stanford grad from the state where everything is bigger knows that his path to the big leagues is paved with the small things.
"Months down the road, years down the road, the stuff I do right now in these times that don't seem important is really going to define me," Appel said.
Oswalt lends a hand at full-squad workout
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- On April 5, the Astros will celebrate their past with a special ceremony honoring former franchise stars Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. The duo will sign one-day contracts and officially retire as Astros.
But during his visit to Houston's first full-squad workout day on Thursday, Oswalt wanted to celebrate the club's future.
"I think it's just a matter of time before they put a winning team on the field, for sure," Oswalt said. "The guys have grown."
Oswalt has also grown from being one of the best pitchers in baseball to a mentor.
He recently spoke to the Mississippi State University baseball team at the school's "First Pitch" banquet in early February, and although Oswalt is only assisting the Astros in an unofficial capacity for now, he can envision himself coaching down the road.
"I don't want to get too far away from [baseball]," Oswalt said. "I'm doing some things here and there with some guys back at Mississippi State. It's fun just being around it. I like the young part of it, the guys coming up. [I tell them] kind of what to expect and how to adapt to the big leagues."
Oswalt is not the only former Astros starting pitcher at camp. Roger Clemens has worked with some of Houston's pitchers in Kissimmee, a presence Astros manager Bo Porter welcomes.
Former infielder Morgan Ensberg was also with the team on Thursday.
"It's great to have all those guys stop by," Porter said. "I've said this to all of them. We want them around as much as possible. I know a lot of them have busy schedules, but our door is completely open.
"They are a part of our family, and it's always good for our players to get an opportunity to talk to the guys that have laid the foundation around here of some great teams."
Joe Morgan is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.