After going 232-416 (.358) from 2011-2014 – a brutal stretch that included three 100-loss seasons – the Houston Astros finally turned the rebuilding corner in 2015. They won 86 games, beat the Yankees in the AL Wild Card, and pushed the Royals to the brink in the division series before losing in five games.
So, is the feeling at spring training a little different this year than it was last year?
“Maybe a little bit,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “One, we all know each other. We return a group almost in its entirety, but for the most part, we’re very familiar with one another. And then the reality is, we do have more expectations. It’s been fun. But from the work standpoint, it’s been business as usual.”
Last year, the Astros were expected to finish with a winning season – or at least come close to doing so. This year, they’re expected to win the AL West and make some noise in the playoffs. Those are different goals requiring different mindsets. As Tiki Barber said, it’s one thing to defy expectations; it’s another thing to live up to them.
“It’s one of the first things I told our guys,” Hinch said. “We’re going to embrace the expectations and live with it. They’re here. We obviously played in October last year. We had a good run. We had a good group of guys. I want our guys to remember the tough loss at the end against the Royals but also remember the good things and the progress we made. But we don’t have to look at ourselves any differently. We’ve got to do a lot of work. I’m paid to sort of let our guys know exactly what kind of work we have to put in to get to where we want to get, but it would be a disservice to reality if I didn’t address it with our group. It’s the way it is. Now we got to go get some work in.”
The Astros didn’t have a lot of turnover in the offseason but did lose Chris Carter, who filled in at first base last year and hit .199 with 24 home runs in 129 games. Carter signed with Milwaukee in January.
“We’re going to have as many guys at first base as we can because it’s the one position that is wide open,” Hinch said. “There’s usually a bench role (and a bullpen role up for grabs) and we’ve got to sort out some roles on the pitching staff, but first base is something that was a revolving door a little bit last year. Chris Carter provided a ton of home runs, a low batting average. He’s now on to Milwaukee. But we’ve got some young players. A.J. Reed is a guy to watch. Twenty-two years old, he was all-everything out of college, minor league player of the year last year – he’s probably a little ways away from impacting our major league team, but you never know.”
Tyler White, Matt Duffy and Jon Singleton will also compete for the position.
“Jon Singleton has had (some) opportunities and he’s starting to get a little bit of pressure to step up and take over the position,” Hinch said. “So the good part about this is I really can say it’s an open tryout and the best guy gets the job because we have a good team that we have a lot of confidence in. But they don’t have to be Superman. They don’t have to hit 3 or 4 or 5 in our order. They need to play good defense. We don’t make errors. We run the bases. We play a complete brand of baseball. So whoever wins that job is going to be joining a pretty good team.”
Hinch also has to iron out his bullpen. Luke Gregerson, who saved 31 games last year, wants to close, but ultimately it’s Hinch’s decision.
“I understand that athletes want these prominent roles,” the 41-year-old Hinch said. “They want declarations of what their place in the world is. I was the same way when I was a player. You want the competitiveness in there, but they’ll do what’s best for our team. They’ll understand that I’ll communicate their roles to them. Cry me a rive if I’ve got too many guys that can pitch late in the games or want to be the closer or want to hit third or fourth. That’s a good problem.”