Young Astros look to improve in last NL season

By Kristie Rieken

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 11:10 a.m. MDT

Members of the Houston Astros warm up before a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins in Jupiter, Fla., Monday, March 19, 2012.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

HOUSTON — The Houston Astros lost a franchise-worst 106 games in 2011, so it isn't a surprise that things were shaken up in the offseason.

If Chris Johnson doesn't win the starting job at third base over Jimmy Paredes, the Astros won't have a single player starting on opening day in the position they started at last year.

"We'll see how the position changes come out, how guys play together," Houston manager Brad Mills said. "We're going to have a whole different lineup than we had a year ago on day one, and these guys need to feel comfortable playing next to each other.

New general manager Jeff Luhnow joined the team in the offseason after Ed Wade was fired and vowed that each player would have to earn his starting spot this spring.

The first major move of spring training was moving former staff ace Brett Myers into the closer role. Myers closed for the Phillies in 2007, but has spent most of his career as a starter and was Houston's opening day starter a year ago. He went 7-14 last season.

The Astros needed a new closer after trading Mark Melancon to the Red Sox.

"We had a bunch of starters in '07 and we have a bunch of starters here," Myers said. "I've always considered myself a team player and I'll do anything to help the team win. If I can help us win ball games every night, we're going to have a lot of fun around here."

Expectations for the Astros are pretty low after the team didn't make any big moves to improve on last year's squad. Luhnow, who came to Houston from St. Louis, isn't deterred.

"Most people are going to say we're not going to compete this year, but I don't believe it," he said. "I think we've got the players and the staff to come out of the gate strong and come out this year, and if we stay healthy I know we've got the talent to do some damage."

New owner Jim Crane bought the team for $680 million after unsuccessful attempts to buy the Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs and an earlier attempt to buy the Astros. He, too, is looking for more from Houston in 2012.

"We certainly want to be better than last year," he said. "Jeff won't go out on a limb, but I think if everything clicks, the pitching hangs in there and you stay away from injuries, I think we'll give some teams some very competitive games. We're shooting to improve considerably over last year, 10 to 20 games could make a big difference."

The sale of the team from Drayton McLane, who had owned it since 1992, was approved in November, months after it was announced. The deal requires that the Astros move from the National League to the American League next season.

Reliever Brandon Lyon, who is trying to bounce back from an injury-filled season, is happy everything with the ownership change is finally over.

"We started talking about the sale of the team two years ago ... I think we finally have a resolution where we can move in some direction," he said. "There was no direction before."

The Astros are excited about the return of catcher Jason Castro, a first-round pick in 2008, who was supposed to move into the starting role last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in spring training.

He's finally healthy after an injury to his left foot required surgery in December.

"Jason is critical to the future of this team, and all indications are that he's coming along well, recuperating from his injuries," Luhnow said. "He's somebody who can be a leader and who can produce offensively and defensively, and set the right tone for the entire team."

Veteran Carlos Lee, who is in the last season of a $100 million contract, will move full-time from left field to first base this season. J.D. Martinez will take over in left field and Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic will take the places of Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, who were traded near last year's deadline.

Schafer, who has been Houston's leadoff hitter since Bourn was traded, has had a great spring, hitting .391.

Jose Altuve, who did well last season after being promoted from Double-A, will play second base and Jed Lowrie, acquired in the deal for Melancon, is Houston's new shortstop.

"I thought it was a great opportunity for me — new ownership, a new general manager," Lowrie said. "Obviously, they're going in a new direction and I'm excited to be a part of it."

Veteran lefty Wandy Rodriguez will lead Houston's rotation and Bud Norris and J.A. Happ look to have secured two of the other starting positions. Former World Series MVP Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Kyle Weiland and Jordan Lyles are vying for the last two spots in the rotation.

Hernandez, who was signed to a minor league contract, believes he still has something left that could help the Astros.

"I still love the game," he said. "I still want to pitch. I'm 37 years old. I know I can still pitch and I don't want to retire. I feel good."

He likes Houston's youth.

"I played in Arizona with a young team," he said. "Washington, too, is a young team. It's fun and I enjoy every moment of it."

AP freelance writer Dick Scanlon in Kissimmee, Fla., contributed to this report.

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