A year ago, manager Bo Porter headed into spring training saying second baseman Jose Altuve was the only certainty in his lineup. Now that owner Jim Crane has lived up to his promise to loosen up the purse strings this winter, the Astros are probably the best they've been in two years.
Moreover, the Astros have also attacked the porous bullpen and the starting rotation by signing veteran right-hander Scott Feldman to lead the rotation and right-handers Chad Qualls and Matt Albers to help the bullpen. They also acquired center fielder Dexter Fowler to lead off and righty Anthony Bass to bolster the bullpen.
"Last year when you look at our ballclub coming into spring training, and I was asked this question, all I said was Jose Altuve is going to play second base," Porter said. "That competition is a little different this year. I mean, we have a third baseman in Matt Dominguez. We have a shortstop in Jonathan Villar. We have a catcher in Jason Castro. And Robbie Grossman has proven that he has the capabilities of being an everyday player. We traded for Dexter.
"So a lot of our spots that were open last year, we have players that have basically taken the bull by the horn and established themselves in those positions. But there are still a lot of positions where competition will exist, and there will be competition within our ballclub just to improve on what it is we did last year."
With Feldman in the fold, he'll probably be the front runner for the Opening Day start. Then right-hander Jarred Cosart, left-hander Brett Oberholtzer and right-hander Brad Peacock appear like locks with lefty Dallas Keuchel and right-handers Lucas Harrell and Paul Clemens fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation or long relief roles.
A day after the Astros finished the season with a franchise-record 111 losses and a season-ending 15-game losing streak, Crane said the team had hit rock bottom and would start the rebound. Some fans doubted Crane when he promised to spend money to improve the roster, but he has lived up to the promise.
"We definitely want to win more games," Porter said. "But to take that step forward, we had to evaluate our core pieces and figure out, 'okay, what pieces can we add to this core to make us a better baseball team?' I think we've taken the necessary steps to do that. Because we have more established players and we've added veteran players to that core group, you look at our roster, and we overall have a better group of talented players. That's going to equate to more wins on the baseball field."
--RHP Matt Albers and the Astros agreed to terms to a one-year, $2.45 million contract, multiple media outlets reported Dec. 16. Albers, 30, had a 3.14 ERA in 63 innings for the Cleveland Indians in 2013. The Houston native pitched for the Astros in 2006 and 2007. "I'm very excited about this opportunity," he told the Houston Chronicle. "Being around quite a few teams after leaving Houston, and being back, to come home, is just pretty awesome."
--C Jason Castro, who overcame a jarring collision in 2012 with the Brewers' Mat Gamel, welcomed MLB's decision to ban plate collisions. "Hopefully guys are able to make that adjustment," he said. "I think in the long run it's going to be positive. Being able to eliminate it is only going to help the game in the long run."
--2B Jose Altuve is skipping winter ball for the first time in his career. The 2012 All-Star consulted with the Astros' front office before the sides agreed it was in his and the team's best interest if he took a rest. He'll return from his native Venezuela in January to begin preparing for spring training.
--RHP Lucas Harrell, who pitched his way out of the starting rotation in August and was arguably the biggest disappointment of the 2013 season, will be given every chance to earn a spot in the Astros' rotation this spring. He entered last spring as a candidate for the Opening Day start that went to Bud Norris, and the Astros hope he can regain the form that made him the club's best pitcher in 2012.
--CF Dexter Fowler, acquired in a Dec. 3 trade with the Colorado Rockies, is being penciled in as the Astros' leadoff hitter in 2014. The Astros didn't have a consistent leadoff hitter in 2013. "Dexter Fowler leading off, (Jose) Altuve second, (Jason) Castro third. Get back to me with the rest of it," manager Bo Porter said of his lineup for 2014.
--RHP Scott Feldman, the free agent who received a three-year, $30 million contract, will head into spring training as the top contender for the Opening Day start.
--OF J.D. Martinez, who was taken off the 40-man roster last month, is having a stellar offseason, giving the Astros reason for optimism. "I tell you, we were extremely happy that we were able to retain J.D. Martinez," manager Bo Porter said. "A lot of that had to do with the fact that he missed a lot of time due to injuries. To J.D. Martinez's credit, he was adamant about going to winter ball. He wanted to go to winter ball because he felt like he missed so many at-bats that he wanted to not only prove to the organization but also prove to himself that he could be the quality of player which he was his rookie year."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We definitely want to win more games. But to take that step forward, we had to evaluate our core pieces and figure out, okay, what pieces can we add to this core to make us a better baseball team? I think we've taken the necessary steps to do that. Because we have more established players and we've added veteran players to that core group, you look at our roster, and we overall have a better group of talented players. That's going to equate to more wins on the baseball field." -- Manager Bo Porter.
The Astros lost a franchise-record 111 games, establishing a new losing record for the third consecutive season. They also ended the season with the longest losing streak in franchise history. The farm system is strong, but the major league club needs major upgrades.
BIGGEST NEEDS: The Astros have addressed the bullpen by signing free agent RHP Chad Qualls and acquiring RHP Anthony Bass from the Padres. The starting rotation got a boost with the signing of veteran Scott Feldman, and the outfield was improved with leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler acquired to play center field. The team could still go after another starter or a power bat to play first base or outfield.
ARRIVALS: CF Dexter Fowler (trade with Rockies), RHP Chad Qualls (free agent from Marlins), RHP Scott Feldman (free agent from Orioles), RHP Anthony Bass (trade with Padres), RHP Matt Albers (free agent from Indians)
DEPARTURES: RHP Jordan Lyles (traded to Rockies), OF Brandon Barnes (traded to Rockies)
FREE AGENTS: LHP Erik Bedard
The Astros will talk to Bedard about returning, but it's unclear if they'll be serious about retaining him. He was extremely respected by his teammates.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: C Jason Castro
The Astros have talked about locking up the All-Star catcher to a multiyear deal.
--C Jason Castro (right knee surgery in September 2013) had a cyst removed. He already has started his offseason training program.
--RHP Alex White (Tommy John surgery in April 2013) is probably going to be ready to at least start throwing in spring training.
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- Matt Albers
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- Bo Porter
- Chad Qualls