Astros one step closer to moving spring facility south

Palm Beach County approves financing plan for new complex

HOUSTON -- The Astros cleared a major hurdle in relocating their Spring Training operations to Palm Beach County, Fla., on Tuesday when county commissioners voted to approve a financing plan for a new facility the club will share with the Nationals. The teams have 90 days to find a location for the complex.

County commissioners voted, 5-2, to allocate $108 million in hotel tax revenue for the facility, which will cost $135 million to build. The Astros have two years remaining on their lease at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., and are aiming to hold their first Spring Training in south Florida by 2017.

More

"We still have a little bit of work to do to find the right location, but the funding for it has been approved," Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe said.

Kibbe said the Astros are considering a list of four or five potential sites.

"We have several locations that we're looking at," Kibbe said. "We just need to figure out which one is the best location for everyone involved: the teams, the county and the communities. But there are multiple sites to look at, and I'll get to work on that evaluation and hopefully get this moving forward as quickly as possible. Today was important in that the financing has been approved and we're ready to go."

By moving to south Florida, the Astros and Nationals would give the area five teams during Spring Training. The Cardinals and Marlins share a site in Jupiter, which is in northern Palm Beach County, and the Mets are in Port St. Lucie, which is 33 miles north of Jupiter.

The Astros have held Spring Training at Osceola County Stadium since 1985 and will likely have only two years remaining there before moving south. The Nationals have held Spring Training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., since 2005.

"The timing of it depends on what happens, as far as how quickly we move forward with the location and when the construction will start," Kibbe said. "It's a little up in the air as to when the facility would open. If we find a suitable location, we'll start moving as quick as we can. I'm just not sure when construction will start. Our plan is to try to get the new facility open in January of 2017."

Meanwhile, Kibbe was scheduled to testify in a downtown Houston courtroom on Tuesday morning in the Comcast SportsNet Houston bankruptcy case. The Astros and Rockets want the network reorganized and sold to AT&T DirecTV, which would rebrand it as Root Sports Houston. Comcast opposes the plan.

"We hope the bankruptcy judge will confirm our plans tomorrow evening after the trial is completed, and we hope to launch a new network on Oct. 29 with the Rockets game," Kibbe said.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Appel deals, continues scoreless streak in AFL

Astros prospect throws five shutout innings, now at 12 consecutive in Fall League play

Appel deals, continues scoreless streak in AFL

After a disappointing start to the season at Class A Advanced Lancaster, right-hander Mark Appel righted himself in the last month of the season at Double-A Corpus Christi. Now, in the Arizona Fall League, he is pitching like the dominant starter the Astros expected when they made him the first overall pick of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.

Monday, Appel, ranked No. 41 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, threw five scoreless innings to earn his first victory in the AFL, as Salt River defeated Peoria, 4-2.

More

Box score

Appel, the Astros' No. 2 prospect, hasn't allowed a run in his first three starts this fall, a streak of 12 innings. He has struck out 12 batters and held opponents to four hits and three walks.

Appel said he can't pinpoint any one thing that has led to his strong start to the AFL.

"I think it's a combination of continuing to work hard, not giving up and trusting my stuff," Appel said. "I've gotten here because I'd been doing some things the right way and I'm continuing on same track tried to finish the season on in Corpus Christi."

Appel posted a 3.69 ERA and held opponents to a .236 batting average in Corpus Christi. It was a big turnaround from his start to the year at Lancaster, where he went 2-5 with a 9.74 ERA.

This fall, Appel has continued to build on his late-season success. Against the Javelinas, Appel struck out four batters, walked none and allowed just two hits. It was his longest start of the fall as he gradually builds back up after a month off between the end of the Minor League season and the start of the AFL.

Appel said he asked pitching coach Joshua Miller if he could keep going, but the Rafters stuck to their preseason plan of going to the bullpen after five innings.

"I felt great," Appel said. "I felt like I was definitely ready for it."

The Rafters gave Appel an early lead, scoring two runs in the first without getting a hit, as right-hander Jamie Schultz issued three walks and catcher Justin O'Conner committed a costly throwing error. Salt River added a run in the fourth and another in the eighth, which proved to be enough for Appel and the bullpen.

Center fielder Byron Buxton, baseball's top prospect, went 1-for-4 with a walk, a stolen base and an RBI. Third baseman Rio Ruiz, the Astros' No. 9 prospect, added a walk and a run.

While Schultz's wildness allowed the Rafters to take the lead, Appel had no such problems with his control. Of his 54 pitches, 36 were strikes.

Appel said he isn't focusing on a specific area of his game this fall, instead he simply wants to be more consistent and improve every start. His improved control helped him meet that standard Monday.

"My last game was probably my best up to that point and today was even better," he said. "The difference today was my fastball command out of the windup."

The only player to reach base against Appel was shortstop Francisco Lindor, the Indians' top prospect. Lindor singled in the first and doubled in the third and impressed Appel with his ability to work the count and hit pitchers' pitches.

"He's a good player," Appel said. "You know he's going to be a star in the big leagues, obviously."

Once Appel was relieved to start the sixth inning, the Javelinas wasted little time getting on the scoreboard. They scored two runs in the inning off right-hander Nelson Gonzalez, but weren't able to get any more against the Rafters bullpen.

Lindor, ranked No. 4 on the Top 100, finished the day 3-for-4 with a run and a stolen base. Right fielder Edward Salcedo and first baseman Cody Stanley each added RBI doubles.

With Monday's victory, Salt River improved to 8-3-1 -- the best record in the AFL. Appel said he and the rest of the Rafters are having fun playing together in the desert.

"We have a bunch of great guys who all enjoy playing hard and enjoy winning," Appel said. "Being in that kind of environment makes it easy to go out and have fun and whatever the results are, they'll take care of themselves. It's great to go out there with guys that have same focus, same mentality and just have fun."

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Astros expected to raise payroll in 2015

Houston looking to bolster bullpen, offense

Astros expected to raise payroll in 2015

HOUSTON -- The Astros took a 19-game step forward in 2014 when they won 70 games a year after winning only 51. While a similar leap next season would be welcome, just how much better the Astros will be in '15 depends on the offseason.

Astros owner Jim Crane said last week the payroll will likely rise by at least $20 million -- up from $45 million in '14 -- and it could increase even more now that the team's television stalemate with Comcast is nearing completion. The Astros were paid only half their television rights fees in '13 and none this year and have been in court trying to recoup some money as they work on a new TV deal.

More

"It has a big impact on what we'll be able to spend," Crane said. "We're still on plan. The intent is to go out and sign some free agents, and Jeff's [general manager Jeff Luhnow] working on that now, and continue to have a meeting in the middle with the farm system and the guys developing quickly."

No matter how much the payroll increases, the needs remain clear: bolstering the bullpen, adding a corner infielder and a corner outfielder with some thump. The Astros ranked 16th in baseball in OPS and fourth in homers, but were 21st in runs scored.

"We may not know what the team is going to be shaped like until well into the Winter Meetings or past the Winter Meetings," new manager A.J. Hinch said.

The payroll figures to rise quite a bit considering the Astros have nine arbitration-eligible players, a few of which -- reliever Anthony Bass and outfielder Alex Presley -- are non-tender candidates. Another, veteran center fielder Dexter Fowler, made $7.35 million this season and will be up for a big raise in the year before he hits free agency.

Luhnow invested in the bullpen last year with the signings of Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain, but only Qualls worked out because Albers and Crain were hurt. Houston picked up Jose Veras in the middle of the season, and he appears to be a good fit with the Astros.

Still, the Astros are going to need at least two proven, healthy arms to add to a bullpen that was last in the American League in ERA and first in blown saves with 25. Some money could be spent on the rotation, too, though Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh are a solid trio.

With Fowler, Jake Marisnick, a healthy George Springer and Robbie Grossman, there are options in the outfield, but a power bat could provide some thump.

"It's a great foundation here. … and some of the veteran players like Fowler and Feldman and Qualls, guys that provide real stability," Hinch said. "What I learned in this process is how badly Jim wants to win, how badly Jeff wants to do it right, and these are tough decisions when it comes to players coming and going. I've got firsthand experience of that, so I do have an understanding.

"Whether that player is a brand-new player on the rise and he's 19 years old and he shoots through the Minor Leagues and he's on this team, once you walk into this clubhouse we're going to embrace every player and see how they can help us win, and if that guy's a 10- or 12- or a 15-year veteran that provides leadership for this group, all the better. We'll put it together. Jeff and his group will communicate strengths and weaknesses and why each player is in this organization, and we certainly feel like we can contribute on the field."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Astros name four coaches to Hinch's big league staff

Astros name four coaches to Hinch's big league staff

The 2015 Major League coaching staff for new Astros manager A.J. Hinch is beginning to take form, after the team named four new members Friday.

Trey Hillman was named bench coach, Dave Hudgens as hitting coach, Gary Pettis as the third-base coach as well as outfield/baserunning instructor and Rich Dauer as first-base coach and infield instructor.

More

Houston previously announced Brent Strom will be retained as pitching coach while Craig Bjornson will return as bullpen coach, each for a second season with the Astros.

Hillman served as the Yankees special assistant in Major and Minor League operations in 2014, after spending the previous three seasons as bench coach for Don Mattingly and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Hudgens spent the last four seasons as the hitting coach with the Mets, but was dismissed in May. This will be his second stint with the Astros. He served as the roving hitting instructor in Houston's system from 1989-95.

Pettis spent the past eight seasons on the coaching staff with the Rangers, and had been the third-base coach since 2013. Dauer owns a combined 15 years as a coach in the Majors during his career, and has been the manager for the Double-A San Antonio Missions in the Padres organization during the past two seasons.

Jamal Collier is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Listach won't return as third-base coach

Listach won't return as third-base coach

Astros third-base coach Pat Listach was informed by general manager Jeff Luhnow on Friday that he will not return next season.

"I'm very disappointed not to be coming back," Listach told MLB.com. "I understand it's a business, but at the same time I'm disappointed."

More

Listach spent one year on the Astros' staff under manager Bo Porter, who was dismissed before the end of the season. Houston selected A.J. Hinch as its new manager last month.

Tarrik Brock, the Astros' first-base coach, was told he would not be on Hinch's staff earlier this week.

The Astros announced Friday afternoon that they have made four additions to the Major League coaching staff -- Trey Hillman as bench coach, Dave Hudgens as hitting coach, Gary Pettis as third-base coach and outfield/baserunning instructor and Rich Dauer as first-base coach and infield instructor.

Pettis served as the Rangers third-base coach, and had been a part of Texas' staff since 2007.

Hinch will not completely clear the coaching staff, however, as pitching coach Brent Strom will return for a second year.

Jamal Collier is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Appel dominates again in AFL start

Astros pitching prospect makes it nine scoreless innings for Salt River

Appel dominates again in AFL start

SCOTTSDALE -- The Salt River Rafters were credited with a 1-0 victory over the Surprise Saguaros on Tuesday night in the Arizona Fall League, but the win may as well have gone to the Houston Astros organization.

Astros prospects Mark Appel -- the 46th-ranked prospect by MLB.com and the No. 2 prospect in the Astros organization -- and Andrew Aplin led the way with strong pitching and timely hitting. And Tyson Perez, another Houston farmhand, sealed the deal by picking up the save with a scoreless ninth.

More

The game also marked the first use of a 20-second pitch clock, which Major League Baseball's Pace of Game Committee is testing -- along with other time-saving rules -- in the Fall League. The game lasted just two hours and 14 minutes.

Appel is coming off a rocky 2014 season as he posted a 6.19 ERA over 18 starts between Lancaster and Corpus Christi, but those struggles have been a distant memory in the Arizona Fall League.

After twirling four shutout innings, Appel has now thrown nine scoreless innings in two AFL starts.

On Tuesday, Appel allowed just one hit while striking out six. Although the box score looked great, his teammate feels the best is yet to come.

"He was a little sporadic at first," Aplin said. "He got a little messed up by the clocks, I guess you could say, but I thought he was under control. He settled in, threw a lot of strikes. He used his fastball a lot which set up his slider and his changeup. I wouldn't say it was his best outing, but he put up zeros and we needed that."

The Rafters needed all the zeros they could get as Saguaros starter Keith Couch was also on top of his game.

Couch, a Red Sox prospect, escaped a two-on, no-out jam in the third on his way to five shutout innings.

However, the Rafters ultimately broke through in the bottom of the eighth. Astros catching prospect Tyler Heineman singled with one out and after a fly ball to center, Aplin came to the plate with one on and two outs.

"I was just looking for a pitch elevated and up in the zone," Aplin said. "The first pitch had good run and sink on it, so I knew the only way I was going to drive something was if I looked up in the zone."

Aplin, who hit .265 in 126 games between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City, got his pitch and drove it to right field for an RBI triple.

Game-winning hits are always special, but playing in the AFL has additional significance for Aplin.

The center fielder played his college baseball at nearby Arizona State University and is relishing the chance to play in Arizona once again.

"I love it," Aplin said. "It feels like home again, like back in college when I played at ASU. It's fun playing with this group of guys and these coaches. The talent here is awesome."

William Boor is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Lawless sees great things in Astros' near future

Former interim manager believes club can take another leap forward in '15

Lawless sees great things in Astros' near future

HOUSTON -- When asked if he would like seeing a rematch of the 1985 World Series between the Royals and the Cardinals, Tom Lawless didn't have to think too long for an answer.

"I wouldn't like that at all," said Lawless, who managed the Astros on an interim basis in September. "That would bring bad memories back."

More

Lawless, of course, was playing for the Cardinals when they were beaten in the '85 Series by the cross-state Royals, though he played in only one-half of an inning in Game 6 that year. He's better known for his three-run homer off Frank Viola in Game 4 of the 1987 World Series against the Twins.

That was the highlight of an eight-year career for Lawless in which he played in 343 games with four different teams while serving in backup roles. He only hit three career homers, including his postseason blast in 1987 that left his mark on the St. Louis baseball landscape.

Since his playing career came to an end in 1990, Lawless has remained in baseball and this year served as manager at both Triple-A Oklahoma City and with the Astros in interim roles. He's awaiting his assignment for 2015, but figures to remain in the organization.

Lawless began the season as the infield coach at Double-A Corpus Christi.

"I'm sure my other job is still there waiting for me," he said. "I'm fine. I'm all happy. My golf game is rounding into shape."

Lawless, 57, took over the Astros on Sept. 1 after Bo Porter was dismissed and led the club to an 11-13 record. He interviewed for the full-time spot, but the club hired A.J. Hinch last month. Still, the chance to manage at the Major League level was a dream come true.

"It happened so fast and went by so fast, it was a lot of fun," Lawless said. "It was fun being around the kids, especially because I knew a lot of the kids and we played pretty well. It only looks good for the future for us, and that's the important thing."

Lawless spent the first few weeks of the season as the interim manager at Oklahoma City when manager Tony DeFrancesco was on medical leave. He's served as manager, coach and instructor in the Angels, Mets, Cardinals, Padres and Orioles systems. He also managed team China during the 2008 Olympics.

With the Astros, he was the roving infield instructor in 2012 and managed at Double-A Corpus Christi (2011), Class A Lancaster (2010) and Class A Lexington (2009). He managed Oklahoma City the final two weeks of the 2012 season when DeFrancesco was promoted to the Majors, so he's familiar with Houston's young talent.

"We're going in the right direction," he said. "We were 19 games better than last year, and hopefully we're 19 more games better next year. We have a lot of young kids with a lot of talent and it takes some time. Take, for example, the Kansas City team. All those young kids they have over the past two or three years, they all get together and it takes time.

"As long as you're patient with the young kids, that's what we have going on for us right now and we're looking to do a lot of good things in the next couple of years."

Lawless is enthused about the Astros' future because of the potential of outfielder George Springer, who hit 20 homers in 78 games in his debut last year before injuring a quad, and the team's promising pitching rotation.

"Once you get George back in the lineup, there's a key piece missing for most of the year," he said. "He's an offensive juggernaut. He can do a lot of things offensively to help a ballclub score some runs. Our starting pitching was tremendous last year. If we shore up the bullpen and find a closer, if that's possible. You've got to win ballgames when we're winning in the seventh inning. It's hard to find. Hopefully, you can find one of the kids in the system that can come up and do that. There's a lot of positives going on in Houston with the Astros, and it's just great to be among them."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Astros decline Albers' option, cut down 40-man roster

Houston outrights Guzman, Owens while clearing space

Astros decline Albers' option, cut down 40-man roster

HOUSTON -- The Astros cleared some space on their 40-man roster Thursday by outrighting first baseman Jesus Guzman and left-handed pitcher Rudy Owens and declining the option on veteran reliever Matt Albers.

Meanwhile, right-handed pitcher Jorge De Leon was claimed off waivers by Oakland, leaving the Astros with 36 players on their 40-man roster. Clubs typically clear space on their 40-man roster this time of year so they can add some prospects they might be in danger of losing in December's Rule 5 Draft.

More

"We know we're going to have to add some guys to the roster and we're going to sign some free agents, either before the Winter Meetings or not, we don't know," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We definitely feel like we have to clear some spots for guys that have to go on. They're not always 100 percent clear-cut decisions. You make the best decision based on the information you have. We felt this was the right time to do it."

The Astros signed Albers to a one-year, $2.45-million contract last winter, but he pitched in only eight games because of biceps tendinitis. The Astros will pay him a $200,000 buyout instead of $3 million to play in 2015.

Guzman, who was acquired by the Astros from San Diego in exchange for Ryan Jackson last December, appeared in 69 games last season. Owens spent the majority of the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City, making his only appearance in a May 23 start at Seattle, in which he lost.

De Leon made eight relief appearances for the Astros as a September callup. He spent most of the season at Oklahoma City, making 46 appearances in relief.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Dierker hosts golf tournament to raise money for at-risk kids

Dierker hosts golf tournament to raise money for at-risk kids

CYPRESS, Texas -- Larry Dierker made his Major League Baseball debut on his 18th birthday on Sept. 22, 1964 and struck out the Giants' Willie Mays in the first inning as a member of the Houston Colt .45s.

Dierker would go on to pitch 14 years in the majors until 1977, the first 13 years with the Colt .45s/Astros. He guided the Astros to the playoffs four of the five years he managed the club from 1997-2001, and he was a longtime broadcaster with the team.

More

His presence is still felt in the Houston area. On Monday, Dierker delivered again. Not on the baseball field but on the golf course, raising money for at-risk kids.

For the second year Dierker hosted a celebrity golf tournament at BlackHorse Golf Club with proceeds to benefit Cy-Hope. The mission at Cy-Hope is for every school in the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District to earn exemplary status by making life better for children in the school district and the community.

"We have 114,000 kids in the school district," said Dierker. "It's the largest suburban school district in Texas, and third overall in Texas total, and it's growing. To serve that many kids is a challenge."

Foundry United Methodist Church partnered with the school district to create programs to help the kids who need help. Whether it be tutoring, mentoring, after-school programs.

"In most cases, in most people's lives, what you do is heavily influenced by other people and relationships," said Dierker. "Our pastor wanted to start this. I've been on a couple mission trips with him.

"As we're taught, a part of it is faith and a part of it is works. Our pastor likes to go to El Paso or Costa Rica or somewhere and carry bags of cement around and build structures for people that don't have one. He really believes in works.

"That's when he had this idea of get out in the school district and get beyond our little campus where we all know each other and get the people that need help here. Instead of having to go to a foreign country to do it, let's do it in our own neighborhood."

Basketball Hall of Famer Moses Malone, former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, former Astros catcher and current team broadcaster Alan Ashby and former pitcher Burt Hooton were among the celebrity golfers Dierker lined up.

"I came out here because Larry and I have been friends for many year," said Pastorini. "And when I need him for something, he's always there for me, and whenever he needs me I'm there for him.

"At our event next week, Larry is one of our honorees in our golden halo award for people who do outstanding work with their communities throughout the city of Houston and Harris County."

Pastorini will host a charity golf tournament this coming Monday at Sugar Creek Country Club in Sugar Land, Texas that benefits Be An Angel and the Bum Phillips Charities.

Former Astros hitting coach Deacon Jones came out to play on Monday to help the cause.

"Any time you're talking about kids, reading, writing, it's so important," said Jones.

The tournament included a silent auction. Among the items on auction were a J.J. Watt autographed jersey, as well as autographed jerseys by Earl Campbell, Roger Staubach, Emmitt Smith and Drew Brees. There also was a picture of Nolan Ryan and Pete Rose, autographed by both baseball players.

Last year's charity golf tournament raised more than $50,000 for Cy-Hope.

"We're all about making life better for kids in our community," said Lynda Zelenka, executive director of Cy-Hope. "There are 114,000 kids in Cy-Fair ISD and 50 percent of them are considered at-risk. We want to reach all of them."

For more information about Cy-Hope visit cyhope.org or call 713 466-4673.

Richard Dean is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Chicago native Mallee leaves Astros for Cubs

Hitting coach was instrumental in helping young players such as Altuve, Carter improve

Chicago native Mallee leaves Astros for Cubs

HOUSTON -- When John Mallee was a young hitting coach in Class A in 1996, he was driving past Wrigley Field in his native Chicago and told his father he would one day coach on that field while wearing a Cubs uniform. The dream has come true.

Mallee, who spent the previous two years as Houston's hitting coach and helped Jose Altuve win a batting title this year, accepted the position to be the Cubs' hitting coach Thursday, giving him the opportunity to live near his home. Mallee is a Chicago native and his family lives in nearby northern Indiana in the offseason.

More

"My dream was to stand there on that field, and I just called him now and told him," Mallee said of his father, John. "I said, 'We're going to live our dream.'"

Mallee could have returned to the Astros under new manager A.J. Hinch, but he couldn't pass up the chance to return close to where his wife and two sons, age 15 and 9, live year-round.

"To have them know that on an off-day I could have a normal family life and not be away is huge," he said. "I've been away from home the entire time I've been playing or coaching and had a part-time family for 20 years, and to be able to coach a team like the Cubs and see my wife and kids, I couldn't have asked for anything more."

This year, Mallee boosted the Astros offensively across the board, helping Altuve win the first batting title in club history. Under Mallee's guidance, Chris Carter blossomed into one of the most dangerous power threats in baseball in the second half.

"I'm very proud of the two years we worked and the time we put in with the players," Mallee said. "When I came in, we put in a new offensive program throughout the Minor Leagues and big leagues and got to know these players by watching them grow -- Altuve, Carter and George [Springer].

"Leaving the Houston Astros is the toughest decision I've ever had to make. Amazing owner, general manager, front office and beyond-talented players. I wish my Houston family the best of luck and their future successes and hope they can understand and respect that I had to make the best decision for my family."

Mallee actually spent three days as the Cubs' hitting coordinator before being hired by the Astros prior to the 2013 season. With the Astros, he worked with assistant hitting coach Ralph Dickenson and Minor League hitting coordinator Jeff Albert to revamp the club's hitting philosophy.

Mallee said he was buoyed by the information he'd receive regularly from the Astros analytics department, praising director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, baseball development analyst Mike Fast and analytics developer Ryan Hallahan.

"They helped me develop my players and they're a big part of the success we had on the field," Mallee said.

Hinch, who was hired last week to replace Bo Porter, is in the process of interviewing candidates to become his bench coach, and he's said he'd like a former Major League manager. Pitching coach Brent Strom is returning for '15, and it's unclear if third-base coach Pat Listach or first-base coach Tarrik Brock will return.

When Mallee told Altuve during Spring Training he needed to improve his strike-zone discipline, the second baseman was skeptical at first.

"I had three years in the big leagues and had a little success, and why change at this point?" Altuve said last month. "But I changed it, and it's a big difference. I give [Mallee] credit. I hope to keep working with him for a long time."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Orbit will join MLB All-Stars for Japan Series

Orbit will join MLB All-Stars for Japan Series

HOUSTON -- Astros mascot Orbit has been selected by Major League Baseball to join the All-Star team taking part in the 2014 Japan All-Star Series in November. He was the only mascot selected for the trip.

Orbit will join Astros second baseman and American League batting champion Jose Altuve, who is among the MLB All-Stars participating in the series. The MLB All-Stars will play a five-game series against "Samurai Japan," which is Japan's national team.

More

Orbit, who was also a part of the 2014 All-Star Game festivities in Minnesota, has become one of MLB's most popular and visible mascots since making his return to Houston prior to the 2013 season. Many of Orbit's antics have earned him numerous appearances and mentions on several national media outlets.

Seven players have been confirmed for the Japan Series, with Bryce Harper, Justin Morneau, Robinson Cano, Adam Jones, Yasiel Puig and Albert Pujols joining Altuve.

The Japan All-Star Series games will be hosted in Osaka (Kyocera Dome), Tokyo (Tokyo Dome) and Sapporo (Sapporo Dome). Two exhibition games will complement the five-game series, with one game in Osaka (Koshien Stadium) and the other in Okinawa (Okinawa Cellular Stadium).

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Appel sharp in Fall League debut

Top pick in 2013 fires three shutout innings; two D-backs prospects hit HRs

Appel sharp in Fall League debut

For right-hander Mark Appel, a trying start to his first full professional season has given way to the results expected from the top overall pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.

Appel continued his turnaround Wednesday, as he threw three scoreless innings in his Arizona Fall League debut and Salt River defeated Scottsdale, 6-3.

More

Appel, ranked No. 41 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, struck out two batters and held the Scorpions to one hit and one walk. He threw 47 pitches.

Appel said he felt some nerves early in his start before settling into the outing.

"I was excited to go ahead and start the Arizona Fall League," said Appel, the Astros' No. 2 prospect. "I had a little bit of butterflies in the first inning. Once I got feet my wet, I felt normal. I thought I threw the ball well and my arm felt good."

Appel was able to work Wednesday with Tyler Heineman, his catcher at Double-A Corpus Christi. The pair worked together for the final month of the regular season, when Appel was promoted from Class A Advanced Lancaster.

Appel praised Heineman's ability behind the plate and said pitching to him has been beneficial.

"He called a great game, not just with me but all the way until the end," Appel said. "He's someone I feel real comfortable throwing the ball to."

Right-hander Christian Bergman relieved Appel to start the fourth inning. The change was a boon for the Scorpions, who greeted Bergman with three straight singles and took advantage of two errors and a wild pitch to score three runs in the inning and take the lead. For the second straight day, Greg Bird and Tyler Austin, the Yankees' Nos. 11 and 15 prospects, led Scottsdale's offense. Both singled and scored in the inning and Austin added an RBI.

But the Scorpions did no more damage against the Rafters' bullpen, as right-handers Jake Reed, Reid Redman and Enrique Burgos combined for five hitless innings. The effectiveness of Salt River's relief allowed its offense to score five runs over four innings to retake the lead and then put the game away.

"Reed was filthy in his two innings that he got and then Burgos shut it down," Appel said. "It was a combined effort with everybody playing their part, doing their job, taking care of the job they've been given."

Designated hitter Brandon Drury and first baseman Peter O'Brien, the D-backs' Nos. 6 and 7 prospects, each hit a home run to power the Rafters' offense. For O'Brien, it was his second in as many games to begin the AFL. He went 1-for-2 with two walks. Drury finished the night 1-for-5 with two RBIs.

Center fielder Byron Buxton, baseball's top prospect, added two hits and scored a run.

With his first start of the AFL in the books, Appel is looking forward to the rest of the fall. He said he wants to make the most of the opportunity to pitch in the AFL and show he deserves to be there.

Appel said he took a similar mindset when he was promoted to Corpus Christi in late July after struggling in the hitter-friendly parks of the California League. He went 2-5 with a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts for Lancaster, but found his stride in Corpus Christi. He posted a 3.69 ERA and struck out 38 batters in 39 innings for the Hooks.

Eager to build off that success, Appel said he didn't take much time off after the regular season ended.

"I was still working on my throwing program, working out and getting work in to be as prepared as possible to go out compete and have a great experience here," he said.

That effort showed Wednesday. Now, Appel said he wants to work on being more efficient on the mound so he can work deeper into games on his pitch count.

"I got a little bit behind hitters early in the game, but I started to hit my stride a little later," Appel said. "This is a great place to build off of. I'll get my work in this week and get ready for this next start."

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Accolades pouring in for hitting king Altuve

Astros second baseman's record-setting season recognized by club, CITGO

Accolades pouring in for hitting king Altuve

HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve, two days removed from being crowned the first batting champion in Astros history, worked out Tuesday and said he wished he could have played another game. Even though the season is over, Altuve isn't slowing down.

The All-Star second baseman was the guest of honor at a private reception Tuesday night at Union Station, where he was presented with an award by CITGO in recognition for his 2014 season. In addition to leading the Majors in batting average (.341), Altuve led the Majors and set a team record with 225 hits and led the American League in stolen bases (56).

More

"I feel really happy for what the organization and CITGO are doing for me today, and people from my country and people from the States," he said. "I appreciate everything they're doing for me. I'm going to have another good season to have this again."

Congratulations began rolling in Monday for Altuve, who said he's been getting a flood of love on social media. He also fielded phone calls from Tigers sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, whom he edged for the batting title. He returned a call from all-world defensive tackle J.J. Watt of the NFL's Houston Texans, but hearing from his fellow Venezuelans was the highlight.

"Those two guys made my day yesterday when they called me," Altuve said.

Earlier Tuesday, Altuve was able to meet new manager A.J. Hinch, who was hired Monday. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow introduced the two in the clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, and they talked for 15-20 minutes.

"There's such an energy about him and it looks like it's infectious," Hinch said. "Watching him play, getting the chance to meet him, they match. What he does on the field and how he plays on the field, it's exactly what I expected in his personality.

"He's a player that wants to win, he definitely feels like an Astro. It's exciting to have him as a league-leading hitter, but also just the style and the makeup of the type of player that's fun to be around and fun to have on the team."

Altuve was named the Astros' nominee for the Hank Aaron Award, which has recognized the most outstanding offensive performer in each league since it was established in 1999. For the fifth consecutive year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award.

"He had one of the most impressive seasons in the history of the Houston Astros, and quite frankly in recent baseball history," Luhnow said said. "He deserves all the accolades and all the recognition for it -- 24-year-old old guy who's been able to accomplish this in his career. For us, for the Astros, we're excited what the future holds, and he means everything to this franchise right now."

When asked about his favorite Altuve memory from the season, Luhnow didn't have to reach too far back in his memory bank.

"I would say when he came back into the manager's office on Sunday and said, 'I really want to play this game,'" Luhnow said. "That was a representation of his character. We were thinking of letting him off the hook and winning [the batting title] in the dugout, and he wanted to win it on the field, and to me that speaks volumes about his character."

And Altuve's favorite moment?

"There was a lot of good moments this year, but I think when I hit the 210 hits [to tie Craig Biggio's club record] and Biggio shook my hand and said congratulations," he said. "That was the best moment in my season."

Altuve will leave Friday and head to Venezuela to spend a few weeks with his family before reporting to Arizona in early November to begin working out with the MLB All-Stars who are traveling to Japan this to play a five-game series against Japan's national team.

"It's a great recognition," Luhnow said. "When MLB asked for our permission, it was without hesitation. It's going to be a great trip for those guys. I've talked to some people who have been on that trip before, and it's a way to be an ambassador for the sport to a country that really cares about the sport."

With the season in the rearview mirror, Altuve said he already missed the fans, who have developed a love affair with the 5-foot-6 dynamo.

"I'm going to miss the season," he said. "I'm going to come back with the same attitude and try to make it happen again."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Hinch headed to Stanford Hall of Fame

New Astros manager won Pac-10 Player of the Year Award twice at university

Hinch headed to Stanford Hall of Fame

HOUSTON -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch will be among seven former athletes and one coach inducted into the Stanford University Athletics Hall of Fame on Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif.

Hinch, who was hired by the Astros last week, will be inducted with Nicole Barnhart (women's soccer), Notah Begay III (men's golf), Toi Cook (baseball and football), Laura Granville (women's tennis), Skip Kenney (men's swimming and diving coach), Anika Leerssen (sailing) and Heather Olson (synchronized swimming).

More

The inductees will be honored at a private reception and dinner on Saturday as well as introduced at halftime of Stanford's football game against Washington State on Friday night. Hinch's wife and two daughters will make the trip to Stanford with him, joining his mother and sister from Oklahoma and other family and friends.

"It's about as humbling a call you can get given the history of sports there and all the people that have come through there," Hinch said. "It's a great honor to share with my family this weekend and to see some old friends, my old coaches, in a place that's really dear to me, having spent four years there and continuing to hopefully be around that campus."

Hinch, a two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year, graduated from Stanford with a degree in psychology in 1996. The catcher hit better than .300 in all four seasons at Stanford, including a .381 mark with 11 home runs and 59 RBIs as a senior. He also caught for the Cardinal's '95 College World Series team and earned a bronze medal at the '96 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

"It's a place where I grew up a lot," Hinch said. "When I left Oklahoma and went to college, little did I know the impact it was going to have -- and the people that I've met, the long-time friendships, the continuous learning that's gone on there. It's really set the stage for my career in baseball, because I was drafted out of there and it's sort of really a place I call home.

"Any time between 18-22 [years old], those are important years to learn a lot more about yourself and develop some lifelong friends and life-long habits. I'm not sure there's a better place to do it than Stanford."

A third-round draft pick in 1995 by Minnesota, Hinch opted to stay at Stanford for his senior season. He was picked by Oakland the following year, also in the third round, and debuted with the A's in '98. Hinch played for seven MLB seasons, his last coming with Philadelphia in 2004. He batted .219 with 32 home runs and 112 RBIs in 350 career Major League games.

Hinch was in Houston this week interviewing candidates to be his bench coach before heading to California for the ceremony.

"It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks for me," he said. "This is at a perfect time where I can celebrate the job as the Astros manager and the Stanford weekend. October's been pretty good to me."

Hinch is united with a pair of former Stanford player in the Astros organization. Catcher Jason Castro was a first-round pick out of Stanford, and Minor League pitcher Mark Appel was the No. 1 overall pick by the Astros in 2013 out of Stanford.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Hinch hits ground running in first day on job

Manager gets to know club staff, inspired by meeting with Altuve

Hinch hits ground running in first day on job

HOUSTON -- A.J. Hinch went right to work in his first day as manager of the Astros on Tuesday, a day that included a series of meetings, a tour of Minute Maid Park and a get-to-know-you session with All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve.

The work's only beginning for Hinch, who was hired Monday as the Astros' 18th manager. General manager Jeff Luhnow, speaking Tuesday night at a reception for Altuve at Union Station, said the 40-year-old Hinch certainly isn't without stamina.

More

"He wore me out," he said. "We talked about a lot of things. He met a lot of people, and he's coming back tomorrow morning early and he'll be here all day. I think one of the best meetings we had was when I took him down, and he spent about 15-20 minutes with Jose in the clubhouse and there was an instant connection there."

Altuve, who is coming off a season in which he won the Major League batting title by hitting .341 and set a club record with 225 hits, made a solid first impression on Hinch.

"There's such an energy about him and it looks like it's infectious," he said. "Watching him play, getting the chance to meet him, they match. What he does on the field and how he plays on the field, it's exactly what I expected in his personality.

"He's a player that wants to win, he definitely feels like an Astro. It's exciting to have him as a league-leading hitter, but also just the style and the makeup of the type of player that's fun to be around and fun to have on the team."

Hinch spent some time bouncing around the office with the baseball operations group and going through the typical first-day routine with human resources. He's going to return to his home in San Diego on Thursday before returning next week.

"I had some long meetings talking about staff, talking about the first 40 to 50 days, what we're going to try to accomplish, what I'm going to try to accomplish," Hinch said. "I met with the entire company in an all-employee meeting and just chipping away at returning texts and phone calls and getting my feet back on the ground after a great day."

Much of Hinch's focus in the coming days will be about the coaching staff, which Hinch and Luhnow will assemble. The Astros have said pitching coach Brent Strom is returning, but no other decisions have been made.

Hinch would like to announce a coaching staff sooner than later, and one of the priorities will be having a former manager on his staff. The Astros have an opening for bench coach.

"Tomorrow I'm going to start to reach out to all of the coaches and the players and say hello and have those conversations with them, and I'm going to spend next week doing that," Hinch said. "But I'm going to come back to Houston next week and try to set up some meetings."

Luhnow said he and Hinch went over some information about other teams and started talking about the current roster.

"We don't know when the staffing is going to come together because there may be people we want to speak to that are on playoff teams," Luhnow said. "The work all happens simultaneously, but having A.J. on board for less than 48 hours, the guy works really hard and he's going to, maybe not burning it too much at both ends, but he's obviously going to put a lot of time and effort into this."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Stars of tomorrow ready to shine as '14 AFL season begins

Stars of tomorrow ready to shine as '14 AFL season begins

Over its 23-year history, the Arizona Fall League has developed a reputation as a finishing school for baseball's top prospects. This year, once again, many of the game's best young players will gather in the desert, hoping to prove themselves in the same league that helped catapult Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Trout to stardom.

When the AFL opens play Tuesday, the concentration of talent will again be readily apparent. Two of the three Opening Day games feature premium pitching matchups, and the third game is highlighted by two of the best shortstops in the Minor Leagues.

More

The action begins at 3:35 p.m. ET when Peoria and right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the Royals' No. 2 prospect, visits Surprise and right-hander Taijuan Walker, whose last start was a complete game for the Mariners in the midst of their pennant race.

At the same time Tuesday afternoon, Glendale and shortstop Corey Seager, the Dodgers' No. 1 prospect, will host Mesa and shortstop Addison Russell, the Cubs' No. 2 prospect. The day ends with another pitchers' duel, as right-hander Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates' No. 1 prospect, will take the mound for Scottsdale at 9:35 p.m. ET at Salt River, facing right-hander Archie Bradley, the D-backs' No. 1 prospect.

Games with that level of talent are commonplace in the AFL, where 23 players ranked on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list will play this season.

For the second year in a row, Byron Buxton, baseball's top ranked prospect, is among the top prospects playing in the desert this fall. Last year, the Twins' No. 1 prospect hit .212/.288/.404 in 12 games as a 19-year-old for Glendale. This year, he will be playing for Salt River as he tries to make up for lost time after missing most of the regular season due to injuries.

Buxton played in just 31 games during the regular season. A wrist injury he suffered during Spring Training delayed his start to the season and continued to hamper him throughout the first half with Class A Advanced Fort Myers. Then, in his first game after being promoted to Double-A New Britain in August, he suffered a concussion in a harrowing outfield collision and was sidelined for the final three weeks of the season.

Now healthy again, Buxton will be one of the most-watched players in the AFL. But his is far from the only storyline to watch over the next six weeks.

Making up for lost time
Like Buxton, several other players are headed to Arizona to make up for time they lost to injury during the regular season. Others who are taking advantage of the extra developmental time include outfielder Jesse Winker, the Reds' No. 2 prospect, and shortstop Tim Anderson, the White Sox's No. 2 prospect.

Many of the starting pitchers in the AFL are there because injuries prevented them from reaching their innings caps during the regular season. Bradley, Glasnow, Zimmer and Walker all spent part of this season on the disabled list, as did right-handers C.J. Edwards, the Cubs' No. 5 prospect, and Roberto Osuna, the Blue Jays' No. 5 prospect.

Recent Draft picks
Last year, just four months after he was selected second overall in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Cubs sent third baseman Kris Bryant to the AFL. He hit .364/.457/.727 with six home runs in 20 games. He was named MVP and helped Mesa to the league championship game. That performance helped serve as a springboard for his historic '14 season, when he hit 43 home runs and reached Triple-A.

It is unlikely any player will be able to repeat Bryant's spectacular performance this season. But three members of the '14 Draft class will play in the AFL, led by shortstop Trea Turner, the Padres' No. 5 prospect. He was selected 13th overall in June and hit .323/.406/.448 with five home runs and 23 stolen bases in 69 games between short-season Eugene and Class A Fort Wayne.

In addition to the small group of '14 draftees, several members of the '13 Draft class will play in the AFL. Right-hander Mark Appel, the first overall pick last year, headlines the group. The Astros' No. 2 prospect had a rocky start to his first full professional season, but pitched much better after his promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi in July. He will try to build on that progress while pitching with Salt River this fall, where he joins Bradley and Buxton to form one of the most star-studded rosters in the league.

Pace of play
Major League Baseball announced last week a set of experimental rules designed to speed up the pace of play would be used in the AFL this year.

• A hitter must keep one foot inside the batter's box throughout his plate appearance, unless one of a few exceptions, such as a foul ball, occurs.

• Intentional walks will be called for by the manager and the batter will automatically take first base.

• There will be a maximum break of two minutes, five seconds between innings, with hitters required to be in the batter's box by the one-minute, 45-second mark. If either team doesn't comply, a ball or strike will be assessed accordingly.

• There will be a maximum of two minutes, 30 seconds allowed for pitching changes, including those that occur during an inning break. A ball will be called if a team takes too long.

• Each team will be permitted three "timeout" conferences covering any meeting involving pitchers and catchers, managers, coaches and batters. Timeouts during pitching changes and those that result from an injury or other emergency will not be counted toward the limit. Additionally, at Salt River home games, a 20-second pitch clock will be used. Those games will also include instant replay, as MLB continues to study potential modifications to the review system.

The experimental pace of play initiatives continue the AFL's tradition of being a testing lab for MLB's potential rule changes. Last year, the instant replay system was debuted in the AFL.

Defensive moves
Position changes often happen in a less-competitive environment than the AFL, but the league gives players who are moving around the diamond another chance to get experience.

This year, Josh Bell, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect, will be the most prominent player learning a new position. He has exclusively played the outfield in the Minor Leagues, but the Pirates already have a star-studded trio of young outfielders in the big leagues. So, this fall, Bell will try out first base, where he began taking ground balls during the regular season.

Although Peter O'Brien, the D-backs' No. 7 prospect, won't be changing positions when he catches for Salt River this fall, his progress defensively will be closely watched by evaluators. The 24-year old was a catcher in college, but has played four positions since the Yankees drafted him in the second round in '12.

The D-backs acquired O'Brien at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in exchange for Martin Prado, but injuries limited him to four games with his new club. The D-backs are sending him to the AFL as a catcher, and how he performs behind the plate over the next six weeks could inform his ultimate defensive home.

No matter where O'Brien ends up defensively, his offensive prowess gives him a chance to reach the Major Leagues. He hit 34 home runs in 106 games this season, ranking fifth among Minor Leaguers.

MLB.com's Top Prospects in AFL
1. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins
4. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
5. Addison Russell, SS, Cubs
9. Archie Bradley, RHP, D-backs
13. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
16. Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Pirates
29. Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates
38. Raul Mondesi, SS, Royals
40. Jesse Winker, OF, Reds
41. Mark Appel, RHP, Astros
47. Kyle Zimmer, RHP, Royals
49. D.J. Peterson, 3B, Mariners
53. C.J. Edwards, RHP, Cubs
60. Brandon Nimmo, OF, Mets
71. Hunter Renfroe, OF, Padres
82. Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox
84. Nick Williams, OF, Rangers
85. Daniel Robertson, SS, A's
86. Hunter Dozier, 3B, Royals
87. Miguel Almonte, RHP, Royals
88. Dalton Pompey, OF, Blue Jays
96. Trea Turner, SS, Padres
98. Matt Olson, 1B, A's

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Prospect Moran hitting stride at Astros instructs

Prospect acquired in trade impressing at Houston's instructs

Prospect Moran hitting stride at Astros instructs

Before the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Astros' shortlist for the top overall selection included North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran. The Astros scouts had evaluated Moran as one of the best college hitters in the country after he hit .345/.470/.544 with 13 home runs in 71 games for the Tar Heels.

The Astros ultimately took right-hander Mark Appel with the first pick and Moran went sixth overall to the Marlins.

More

Houston didn't forget about Moran, however, and a little more than a year later they were able to acquire him as a part of their Trade Deadline deal that sent right-hander Jarred Cosart to Miami.

Now that Moran is in the organization, the Astros player development staff has been able to work with its latest pupil, beginning with the final month of the regular season and now instructional league. Director of player development Quinton McCracken said Moran has lived up to the scouting reports.

"He's an extraordinary hitter," McCracken said. "He has a beautiful left-handed stroke."

Moran showed off that swing when the Astros promoted him to Double-A after the trade, a move that united him with Appel. In 28 games with Corpus Christi, Moran hit .304/.350/.411. Those numbers were in line with his career slash line of .297/.346/.408 in 159 games as a professional.

Moran's advanced skill set, especially offensively, helped him reach Double-A in his first full professional season. But he still has room for improvement and just celebrated his 22nd birthday last Wednesday. McCracken said the Astros are working with him to improve his agility and range at third base and to polish his approach at the plate.

"He's working on agility some, to improve range, lateral movement," McCracken said. "Continue to develop that stroke at the plate. He's a gifted hitter. We want to see him continue on path he's currently on."

• Joining Moran in instructional league are outfielder Derek Fisher, first baseman A.J. Reed and third baseman J.D. Davis, the top three members of the Astros' 2014 Draft class. The trio all came from the college ranks and were selected among the first 75 picks in the Draft.

The Astros picked Fisher 37th overall in June, but his professional debut was delayed as he helped Virginia to a runner-up finish in the College World Series. After signing, he spent most of his summer with short-season Tri-City, where he hit .303/.378/.408 with 17 stolen bases and two home runs in 41 games.

McCracken said the Astros believe Fisher was one of the most athletic players in the Draft.

"He's one of the best athletes we have in the system," McCracken said. "We're fortunate to have him in our ranks and we look forward to letting him play ball. He can beat you with long ball and he can beat you with small ball."

Reed and Davis signed early and were promoted to Class A Quad Cities in July, little more than a month after they were drafted. After leading the NCAA Division I ranks with 23 home runs this spring at Kentucky, Reed hit 12 home runs in 68 games between Tri-City and Quad Cities. Davis hit .303/.363/.516 with eight home runs in 43 games for Quad Cities.

"They're very advanced college players," McCracken said. "That's why they were able to get some time in low A and both fared well."

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Broadcast pioneer Cardenas a Frick Award finalist

He created first Spanish-language MLB program, called Astros games for 16 years

HOUSTON -- Rene Cardenas, who created the first Spanish-language Major League Baseball broadcast in 1958 while with the Dodgers and later called games in Spanish for the Astros for 16 years, has again been named one of 10 finalists to be recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Cardenas was named on Friday as a finalist for the Ford C. Frick Award, presented annually for excellence in baseball broadcasting by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He was also named a finalist for the award in 2010 and '11.

More

Cardenas still lives in Houston and writes columns about the Astros for La Prensa, a Spanish-language paper based in Nicaragua. Last year, he was inducted into the Houston Baseball Media Wall of Honor.

The other finalists for the 2015 Frick Award are Richie Ashburn, Billy Berroa, Dizzy Dean, Dick Enberg, Ernie Johnson Sr., Ralph Kiner, Ned Martin, Joe Nuxhall and Jack Quinlan. The winner will be announced on Dec. 10 at the Winter Meetings and will be honored during the weekend of July 25 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Cardenas broadcast games in Spanish for 38 years. He teamed with 1998 Frick Award recipient Jaime Jarrin in Los Angeles from 1958-61, before moving to the expansion Houston franchise in '62, pioneering Spanish-language baseball in Houston as a broadcast director and announcer from 1962-77.

He conceived and organized the first international broadcasting network in Spanish from Houston to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, before returning to baseball in 1981 and calling Rangers games. He teamed again with Jarrin on Dodgers broadcasts from 1982-88.

Cardenas was inducted into the Nicaraguan baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. He began his career at age 20 in that country and broadcast winter baseball games for several seasons.

The 10 finalists for the 2015 Frick Award include three fan selections chosen through online balloting at the Hall of Fame's Facebook page in September: Enberg, Kiner and Quinlan. The other seven candidates were chosen by a Hall of Fame research committee. Cardenas and Enberg are the only living candidates on the ballot.

Final voting for the 2015 Frick Award will be conducted by a 20-member electorate, comprised of the 15 living Frick Award recipients, including Milo Hamilton and Gene Elston of the Astros, and five broadcast historians/columnists.

To be considered, an active or retired broadcaster must have a minimum of 10 years of continuous Major League broadcast service with a ballclub, network or a combination of the two. More than 40 broadcasters were eligible for consideration for the award based on these qualifications for 2015.

The annual award is named in memory of Hall of Famer Ford C. Frick, renowned sportswriter, radio broadcaster, National League president and baseball Commissioner.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Crane provides updates on Astros at charity event

RICHMOND, Texas -- Astros owner Jim Crane headed to the suburbs on Monday morning for a very special round of golf.

The golf was for a good cause as the Astros held their Astros Foundation annual golf classic at Shadow Hawk Golf Club to benefit the Urban Youth Academy, with Crane joining former Astros legends Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, and president of business operations Reid Ryan and other former players and sponsors.

More

Coming off a season in which the Astros improved by 19 games and finished 70-92 and in fourth place in the American League West, Crane takes satisfaction that two of his biggest off-the-field issues appear to be close to coming to a close.

The Astros will learn Oct. 21 whether their proposed two-team Spring Training facility to be shared with the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla., will be reality when they go back before the county commissioners, who last month rejected a financing request, but vowed to keep negotiating with the teams.

The Palm Beach County commissioners have agreed to commit $90 million in bed tax money to help finance a new stadium, which is short of the $145 million the clubs had requested. The two sides have been working to make up the difference.

"We're actually paying a lot more than most teams have paid in the past and we want to try to make it happen," Crane said. "It's a good deal for the city, West Palm and the state. It gets two more teams down there."

Meanwhile, bankruptcy judge Marvin Isgur began hearing a case Monday before deciding whether to accept a proposal to reorganize the Astros' regional sports network partnership with the Rockets into a new partnership owned by DirecTV and AT&T, which would dissolve Comcast SportsNet Houston and, most importantly, put Astros games on the air next year to a majority of the market.

"A couple of years ago we only got paid half of our rights fees and this year we didn't get paid anything, and hopefully we can go back and get something paid for our coverage," Crane said. "It has a big impact on what we're able to spend on the team."

Crane said the payroll could increase by at least $20 million next year, a number that will be influenced by a new TV deal. The Astros had a $45 million payroll last year and have nine arbitration eligible players, though some won't be tendered a contract. Regardless, the payroll will go up incrementally.

"We're not going to spend it to spend it," Crane said. "We're going to spend it effectively. If we need to stretch it a little, we'll stretch it a little. If there's not a good reason to do that, we won't do that."

Crane said the Astros will try to fill some more holes this year in free agency and said general manager Jeff Luhnow is already working to that end. Free agency won't begin until five days following the end of the World Series.

"I think the intent is…to meet in the middle with the farm system and get the guys developing quickly," he said. "As you saw last year, we had some good improvement from a lot of players and we need to see a little bit more of that and some more cornerstones on this team."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Golf Classic brings out big names for charity

Astros Foundation's second-annual event expected to raise more than $300K

Golf Classic brings out big names for charity

RICHMOND, Texas -- Former Astros players Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens were the main attractions Monday afternoon at Shadow Hawk Golf Club at the second-annual Astros Foundation Golf Classic, which was expected to raise more than $300,000 for charity.

Local business leaders committed $10,000 per team to be paired with a former Astros player or other local celebrity for the tournament, which was delayed briefly by rain. A silent auction also brought in a substantial amount of money to benefit programs like the Urban Youth Academy and the Astros' Community Leaders project.

More

"We started it up last year and it went very well," Astros owner Jim Crane said. "We got some great response from the local community and have a lot of ex-players and supporters of the Astros. We're really raising a lot of money for the Foundation, which we'll give back to the city in some form or fashion."

Shawn Taylor, president of Zaxby's Houston LLC and an Astros ownership partner, said the event last year grossed $394,000, with the team clearing about 81 percent of that for charity. Taylor hopes for similar success this year.

The tournament was reshaped last year in an effort to raise more money than it has in the past. Taylor, who was raised in the projects on the south side of Chicago by a single mother, is a former restaurateur. He's now an advocate for inner-city children.

"It looks like we're going to do about the same or better than last year," he said.

Among the former Astros to participate were Craig Reynolds, Jimmy Wynn, Enos Cabell, Alan Ashby, Terry Puhl and John Hudek. Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan also played, along with Tom Lawless, the former big leaguer who managed the club in September.

"When Jim bought the club, he and the partners had the goal of having one of the best foundations in all of professional sports," Reid Ryan said. "Over the last couple of years, we've been focused on our Community Leaders program, which pairs local companies with city of Houston-owned fields to revitalize parts of underserved areas of our community."

Taylor said several of the top business leaders in Houston were eager to get on board with the event this year.

"I was flying back from D.C. about four weeks ago and in airplane shutdown mode, and while I was on the airplane, I started sending text messages to all the people I had relationships with in the Houston business community," he said. "When I landed, I turned the phone back on and within an hour I had sold half of the teams. It's a big ask.

"It's really exciting. It's showing a lot of support for what we're trying to do with the Urban Youth Academy. We're starting to build some momentum. I probably had about five or six people who supported the program last year who were unable to play who actually gave a fairly sizable donation as well. That was encouraging."

Clemens showed up with his wife, Debbie, who is a former women's club champion at Shadow Hawk, where they're both members.

"She's won the ladies club championship about four times, and [in the] men's, you won't find my name and she lets me know about it," Clemens joked.

As for Nolan Ryan, he said his golf game isn't very good because he's never taken the time to become proficient.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

McHugh named AL Rookie of the Month

McHugh named AL Rookie of the Month

HOUSTON -- Astros pitcher Collin McHugh has been named American League Rookie of the Month for September.

McHugh is just the fifth Astros player ever to win a Rookie of the Month Award, and the second this season, joining outfielder George Springer (May 2014), outfielder Hunter Pence (May 2007), right-hander Kirk Saarloos (July 2002) and right-hander Roy Oswalt (August 2001). Pence, Saarloos and Oswalt all won NL Rookie of the Month awards.

More

McHugh went 4-0 in four September starts with a 1.59 ERA, 25 strikeouts and one walk. He led all Major League rookies in ERA, opponents' average (.150), WHIP (0.56) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (25), while ranking tied for first in wins.

McHugh's ERA in September marked the third-lowest in Astros history for a rookie during the month, behind Mark Lemongello (1.29 ERA in 1977) and Ken Forsch (1.24 ERA in 1971). His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 25 was the highest produced by any Astros pitcher during a single month in club history (minimum 28 innings).

This season, McHugh made led all Major League rookies with a 2.73 ERA while ranking second among MLB rookies in wins above replacement (4.2), behind only Jose Abreu (5.5). McHugh's ERA was the second-lowest recorded by an Astros rookie in club history (Forsch, 2.53 ERA in 1971).

McHugh also led all Major League rookies in opponents' batting average (.208), while ranking second among AL rookies in strikeouts-per-nine innings (9.14), third in strikeouts (157) and tied for fourth in wins (11). He closed out the year on a seven-game winning streak, becoming the first Houston pitcher to do so in a single season since Andy Pettitte in 2005.

Less

Biggio hosts Sunshine Kids party at Minute Maid Park

Astros legend a spokesman for non-profit organization

Biggio hosts Sunshine Kids party at Minute Maid Park

HOUSTON -- The roof at Minute Maid Park was partially open Tuesday morning, protecting the kids from the sun but not from the overwhelming humidity that offered no reminder the calendar had flipped to October. That still wasn't enough to stop the fun.

Astros legend Craig Biggio and his wife, Patty, played host to dozens of kids at their annual Sunshine Kids party on the ballpark's playing surface. Children of all ages got the chance to bat against Biggio and run the bases and outfield before being treated to lunch, an autograph session and an Astros goodie bag.

More

Biggio is the national spokesman for the non-profit Sunshine Kids, an organization that assists kids with cancer and their families. He wore the organization's sunshine pin on his cap during Spring Training games and regular season batting practice throughout his career, and has been treating the kids to a party for 24 years.

"Today's great," Biggio said. "It's a lot of fun for these kids to come out here and get on a big league baseball field and forget about some of the worries they have going on in their lives and just go out here and have some fun. That's what it's all about."

Biggio threw batting practice to waves of kids swinging plastic bats, some swinging from their heels, some not knowing which side of the plate to stand on. It didn't matter to Biggio, who took time with each kid to make sure they had a good time.

"This is something we've been doing over 20-something years now and it's been a lot of fun," he said. "It started off in some high school field somewhere, then we brought it in the Astrodome and we brought it in here to Minute Maid now. It's been a lot of fun. I love these kids. I don't leave home without my [Sunshine Kids] bracelets, and they've been family to me for a long time."

Several of the kids have been coming to the party for years, and Biggio has built some special relationships along the way. He's come to learn about their struggles and hardships and is glad he's able to provide them with a morning of fun.

"There's quite a few kids that come back and continue to come back," he said. "This is one of the events, that when they sign up for [Sunshine Kids], this is one of the first ones. We have the Christmas party at the Children's Museum, which has been a huge success also. But this is one of the favorite ones. You're on a big league baseball field and it doesn't get much better than this."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Astros hand managerial reins to Hinch

Astros hand managerial reins to Hinch

HOUSTON -- When it came to checking the boxes of what the Astros wanted from their next manager, A.J. Hinch filled many of them. He has a vast tool set as a former big league player and former Major League manager, and he even spent time as a club's vice president and assistant general manager.

The 40-year-old Hinch on Monday was given perhaps the most important challenge yet of his career when the Astros -- in a news conference at Minute Maid Park the day after the season ended -- tabbed him to be the 18th manager in their history.

More

"The goal is to win championships," Hinch said after slipping on a No. 14 jersey. "The arrow is turning toward success in talking about winning a little bit and talking about the ultimate goal. I'm proud to be here. To wear this orange and blue is something I cherish, and to put this uniform on and be called the 'Skipper' is something I'm very privileged to be."

Hinch managed the Arizona Diamondbacks from May 2009 until July 2010, compiling an 89-123 record, and he was the vice president of professional scouting and assistant GM of the Padres (2011-14), a run that ended in August. He came highly recommended to Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.

"I've known A.J. for a long time -- he's got a lot of passion for this game and he's got a passion for winning," Luhnow said. "He very well understands what it is we're doing here, and I couldn't be happier with our choice. I think A.J. is going to be the manager who's here when we win the World Series."

Astros owner Jim Crane sat among the media at the news conference, along with several members of his ownership group, who clapped in approval of Hinch's message.

"We're very excited about A.J.," Crane said. "He really touches all the bases, has had all of the jobs. ... He's got a great resume, he's a smart guy and we felt he understands what Jeff's trying to do and the communication between them will be very good."

A breakdown in communication between Luhnow and former manager Bo Porter led to Porter's dismissal on Sept. 1 after less than two years on the job. Hinch was one of 10 candidates the Astros considered, and in an effort to get the hire right, Luhnow spoke to as many people as he could about Hinch.

"Communication is critical in any department, for any business," Luhnow said. "There's no doubt that A.J. and I are off to a good start communicating, and we're going to continue that. It's also communication with the rest of the organization, communication with the players and a lot of the research that I did about A.J.'s communication skills with players, his ability to connect with players and staff, and I felt very good about what I was hearing. So I think that, combined with our communication, is going to put him in a position to be very successful."

Hinch graduated from Stanford, where he was a third-round Draft pick after his junior year. He won a bronze medal with the United States at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In his Major League career as a catcher, Hinch hit .219 with 32 homers and 112 RBIs in 350 games.

Hinch, who lives in San Diego with his wife, Erin, and daughters Haley (12) and Kaitlin (9), will spend the next few days in Houston working with Luhnow. One of their first tasks will be putting together a Major League coaching staff.

Pitching coach Brent Strom is under contract and expected to return, and hitting coach John Mallee appears on solid footing. Third-base coach Pat Listach is as respected as anyone in baseball and interviewed for the manager's job. The status of first-base coach Tarrick Brock is up in the air.

"We're going to start to talk about assembling the big league staff," Luhnow said.

The fact that Hinch has such a dynamic background in the game made him very appealing to the Astros, who interviewed him for the job two years ago. In addition to playing parts of seven seasons in the Major Leagues with Oakland (1998-2000), Kansas City (2001-02), Detroit (2003) and Philadelphia (2004), Hinch was director of player development for the D-backs before being hired as their manager in 2009 at age 34.

Hinch managed Arizona for parts of the 2009 and '10 seasons before moving on to San Diego, where he oversaw all aspects of the club's professional scouting and medical departments, while assisting with roster composition, player acquisition, talent evaluation and contract negotiations.

"He's had all of those experiences," Luhnow said. "I think that's helped. I like the well-roundedness of A.J., the fact he has worked in a front office in various capacities. He understands my perspective, because he's done my job. He understands the perspective of [farm director] Quentin [McCracken] because he's been a farm director. He knows what it takes to go out and find a player, to scout a player, to get a player into the system and move him through and get him to the big leagues.

"He's been there when a lot of the Arizona Diamondbacks' young prospects got there and helped shepherd them through the system, and he knows our system pretty well. ... He comes in with this breadth of experience that just very few candidates have. We have a lot of guys out there who have had the experience or have played, but the whole combination, the whole package for us was really good."

Hinch inherits an Astros team coming off a 70-92 season that saw them post their best record in four seasons. While the arrival of George Springer, the emergence of pitchers Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel and having a batting champion in second baseman Jose Altuve give Hinch reason for optimism, he knows there's plenty of work ahead.

"This is about players, this is about front office, this is about the coaching staff all playing their part in this big puzzle in getting more wins than your opponent," Hinch said. "It takes close to 90 wins to get to where you're trying to get to, and to watch these teams celebrate last week, if that doesn't get you burning a little bit to taste that champagne a little bit, that, to me, is the essence of why we do this.

"We do this to win. I believe we can do it. I trust the people bringing the talent in to the organization, and we've got a chance to do something with the hard work and dedication that I feel with the Houston Astros."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Altuve to play for MLB All-Stars in Japan games

MLB All-Stars to participate in five games against national team in November

Two of baseball's top hitters and one of its brightest young stars have been added to the roster of Major Leaguers that will represent Major League Baseball in the Japan All-Star Series in November.

The league announced on Tuesday that American League batting champion Jose Altuve, National League batting champion Justin Morneau and Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper were added to the roster, which already includes Robinson Cano, Adam Jones, Yasiel Puig and Albert Pujols.

More

Red Sox manager John Farrell will manage the club, which will play a five-game series against "Samurai Japan," Japan's national team. Games will take place in Osaka, Tokyo and Sapporo, and two exhibition games will complement the five-game set.

The first exhibition game is scheduled to be played on Nov. 11, and the series is scheduled to run through Nov. 20.

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Hinch eager to start getting to know players

New manager has strong handle on talent pool, now wants to connect personally

Hinch eager to start getting to know players

HOUSTON -- A.J. Hinch said all the right things when he was introduced to the media at a press conference Monday at Minute Maid Park as the Astros' new manager, which wasn't easy considering how many questions he was peppered with throughout the day.

Hinch spoke about his family, his passion for baseball and what he plans to do to turn the Astros into a winner. He was even asked about his relationship with former manager Bo Porter, who is a former teammate and was on his staff in Arizona.

More

The 40-year-old with a degree in psychology from Stanford was ready for any question. Much of his thoughts were covered in Monday's coverage at MLB.com, but here's Hinch on a few other issues that came up:

Hinch began reading up on the Astros when general manager Jeff Luhnow called him a few weeks ago, and it's clear he already has a good handle on the talent: "The arrows point in the right direction. From the outside looking in, without this position either being available or Jeff calling me about it, the talent's real here. You see some of the breakthrough performances, whether it's Collin McHugh, whether it's [Jose] Altuve, whether it's seeing guys come in -- [Jake] Marisnick's September, watching him a little bit closer this September after being contacted by Jeff. … But getting guys their first taste of the big leagues is important, even if it comes in a little bit of a rocky, steady climb to the big leagues.

"So that talent pool is very important, and the hard work of the coaches and seeing guys start to rise up to the occasion means there's some pretty good coaching going on here, which is exciting to see and good continuity to have. … I think the tide's turned. I think there's talent in the Minor Leagues coming."

Hinch probably wouldn't be in Houston had he not embraced analytics: "I do embrace it. I think shifting has definitely impacted the offense part of the game. It's taken away a lot of singles. I think it messes with the hitters' psyche. I need to learn a little bit more about it, but it's part of our game and the analytics and information is golden. You've got to figure out how to use it, when to use it, how much to expose it to the players. All the stuff is factored into putting them in position of how to succeed."

Even though Hinch praised the team repeatedly Monday, he knows there are areas for improvement: "I think we've got to play better defense, first and foremost. Run prevention is going to be very important. You give too many outs to your opponent, you're asking for trouble. I want every area of the game to take at least an incremental step forward and not be satisfied with, 'Well, we were pretty good with our starting rotation.' Can we be a little bit better? Can we turn it just a touch?

"Brent Strom, one of the best pitching coaches around, has really made advances with these guys. Can we get it a little bit better? We have high standards, and want to see teams continually strive and get better. You never have this game perfected ... no matter how well you hit, no matter how well you defend. It's a 162-game grind to tell you how you match up against the other teams and where your organization is."

Every manager has a style, and Hinch offered a hint at what kind of baseball the Astros might play under him: "It's not a one-size-fits-all to win games. You've got to do a little bit of everything well to beat different styles of teams. Run prevention is at a premium right now. Offense is down around the league. Keeping those guys down is very important, it's very difficult in this division that we play 19 times a year each. That makes runs scored very important.

"I like runs that score on three-run homers. I like runs that are created, runs that are put together with back-to-back hits. If you have your preference, you want to put as much pressure on your opponent as you can. If that means starting runners, great. If that means letting Chris Carter hit a three-run homer, that's OK by me, too. It's certainly a strategy. You've got to take advantage of an opponent's weakness and score at least one more run than your opponent."

Hinch is remaining in Houston to this week to get his staff up and running, and soon he'll begin to reach out to the players: "I want to get to know as many people as I can. I'd like to reach out to the players, reach out to the coaches and start to develop a game plan for Jeff on what's next for the next 30, 60 days. I plan on meeting with a lot of players the next couple of months.

"We've got time, because the season ended, but prior to the holidays, I'd like to have a pretty good beginning of relationships with players I don't know or never been around. Guys like [Chad] Qualls, [Gregorio] Petit, [Jesus] Guzman, I've had guys in some way. [Jason] Castro, I'd like to meet and sit with him, talk pitching and things like that. It's not easy now, because they're not in one place."

Hinch wore No. 7 while managing in Arizona and wore several numbers as a player, including No. 7. That number, of course, is retired in Houston because of Craig Biggio, so Hinch slipped on No. 14 on Monday: "One of the best Astros ever is No. 7, and I was going to joke, saying I trust catchers the most, so Alan Ashby wore this number, so it must be OK. And Guzman [who wore 14 for the last season], I had in San Diego. I signed him as a Minor League free agent and he made his way, and he's probably the guy I could talk to the most and say, 'Hey, don't be offended, I'm going to kind of steal your number.'"

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Hinch hiring a bold move by Astros

Hinch hiring a bold move by Astros

Baseball's most interesting front office made another gutsy, fascinating hire on Monday by naming A.J. Hinch the new manager. Not the first for Houston, probably not the last. Onward. Here's to years of success and a long, happy marriage.

"From afar, it feels like the right guy at the right time," Josh Byrnes said.

More

Once upon a time, Byrnes had the same one himself. That's the irony in all of this. Sometimes, a guy is so far ahead of his time that he ends up paying a ridiculously high price.

Five years ago, as general manager of the D-backs, Byrnes attempted to light a fire under his struggling team by dismissing a popular, respected manager in Bob Melvin. Rather than making a traditional hire -- promoting a coach or recycling a guy with managerial experience -- Byrnes had a different idea.

What if he gave the job to someone who was bright and ambitious, someone who knew the game inside and out, someone who would learn everything else on the fly? What would be wrong with that?

Hinch was 34 at the time and had been working as the club's farm director. He'd never coached or managed at any level. These days, that's no big deal as the hiring of Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, Walt Weiss, Mike Redmond and Robin Ventura have forced fans, executives and the media to see the job differently.

"Perceptions have changed about what it takes to lead a group of men," Byrnes said. "That being said, A.J. has a lot of respect for the things that aren't going to change in the game -- and shouldn't change. That's fundamentals, hard work, the environment of a winning team."

Back in 2009, Hinch's hiring caused a firestorm. Fans hated it immediately. Columnists didn't get it. Players, loyal to Melvin and uncertain about the new guy, never bought in, either. At some point, ownership agreed.

Hinch and Byrnes lasted just 212 games together, and ultimately both paid for the experiment by losing their jobs. Looking back on it, Byrnes apologizes only for the fact that, partly because of injuries, he was unable to give Hinch a better team.

He still thinks it was a move that could have worked and sees a bunch of baseball's recent hires -- and those in other sports, such as Derek Fisher coaching the Knicks -- as reinforcement that his original idea was sound.

And it was the thinking behind that original idea that went a long way toward convincing Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow that Hinch deserved another chance.

As Luhnow evaluated candidate after candidate, he kept coming back to Hinch, whose background and experience are unlike few others. Hinch is only 40 years old, but he has spent 20 years in the game. He's bright and ambitious, with a psychology degree from Stanford.

But there's more. Hinch was drafted three times and played parts of seven seasons in the big leagues. He has worked as a farm director, instructor and front-office executive.

And he has been a big league manager for 212 games. He was 89-123. Luhnow was unbothered by the record, and at a time when the Astros hope Luhnow's nice work acquiring young talent is on the verge of paying off, Hinch separated himself from the pack.

When those young players go through tough times, Hinch can tell 'em, "Been there, done that." He had a .219 batting average in 350 games.

Another thing Luhnow wanted was someone comfortable with the advanced analytics that have become the backdrop for everything the Astros do. Almost every team uses advanced analytics. The Astros are all in, hiring law-school graduates and rocket scientists and even some traditional baseball people.

Luhnow became convinced that Hinch understands managing a baseball team in 2015 isn't like managing one in 1985. The Astros can furnish him with reams of data regarding lineups, defensive alignments and pitching matchups.

Hinch's job is to deal with players on a more personal level and to understand their insecurities and to get a consistently hard effort on the field. Upstairs, there will be cold, hard numbers driving decisions. Hinch's job will be to get players to believe that all of them are what's best for the Astros.

To some of the people who know Hinch best, they're convinced these last 20 years, including those 212 games in Arizona, have prepared him to flourish in this second chance.

"He's a great human being," Byrnes said. "He loves the game. He loves the competition. When things haven't gone well, he evaluates and tries to get better."

There's one other reason he believes Hinch will succeed. That's the man himself.

"I hate to be corny, but it's his character," Byrnes said. "People who know him well trust his judgement, character, intentions. Those are important things in a job like that."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Astros hope to boost offense, look to youth next season

Young core of Altuve, Springer and Keuchel will lead club going forward

Astros hope to boost offense, look to youth next season

HOUSTON -- When asked what his top priority will be this offseason in terms of improving the Astros, general manager Jeff Luhnow didn't hesitate in saying offense.

The Astros were an improved offensive team from a year ago, thanks to Jose Altuve's remarkable season, the arrival of George Springer, the acquisition of Dexter Fowler and the second-half resurgence of Chris Carter. Still, the Astros relied too much on the home run and had the lowest production at the corner infield spots with third baseman Matt Dominguez regressing and rookie first baseman Jon Singleton struggling in his debut.

More

"That needs to be addressed, whether it's a combination of those guys coming back after disappointing years and really performing the way we know they're able to next year, or us addressing the needs in free agency," Luhnow said. "We're going to look long and hard on that."

The Astros' $45 million payroll figures to jump because of the additions they'll have to make to keep some of their nine arbitration-eligible players, including Fowler ($7.85 million in '14), Carter ($510,000) and catcher Jason Castro ($2.45 million). All will get significant raises.

Having Springer in the lineup daily will be a huge boost to the offense, but they'll be looking to add some power in the outfield, which becomes a must when the corner infielders aren't producing it.

"We feel good about the starting pitching, but we need to improve our offense," Luhnow said. "We cut down on the strikeouts and I think our guys are getting better with their approach."

Another area the club will address in free agency or trades is the bullpen. Houston tried to shore up its bullpen a year ago by signing Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain and Jerome Williams, but Albers pitched in only eight games and Crain never got on the mound. Williams was cut loose in June.

With club on the cusp of finally sorting out its television stalemate, Luhnow said there's "going to be substantial resources" to keep the arbitration-eligible players, as well as having some money to spend in free agency.

Arbitration-eligible: RHP Anthony Bass, DH Chris Carter, C Jason Castro, C Carlos Corporan, CF Dexter Fowler, IF Marwin Gonzalez, OF/IF Jesus Guzman, OF Alex Presley, LHP Tony Sipp.

Free agents: RHP Matt Albers ($3 million club option for 2015), RHP Jesse Crain, RHP Jose Veras.

Rotation: The top three in the rotation are set with veteran Scott Feldman, left-hander Dallas Keuchel and rookie revelation Collin McHugh all coming off solid seasons, with Keuchel emerging as an ace. Lefty Brett Oberholtzer did an admirable job as the fourth starter and figures to remain in the mix for the final two spots entering 2015 with Brad Peacock, who was inconsistent this year, and youngsters Jake Buchanan, Mike Foltynewicz and Nick Tropeano

Bullpen: This will be near the top of Luhnow's offseason to-do list. Last winter's signings of veterans Albers and Crain were a whiff as both were injured all season. Qualls did a nice job at closer (with the exception of facing the A's), but the Astros could use another proven arm or two to lock down more games. Lefty Tony Sipp was a solid pickup and should return. Josh Fields emerged as a solid option, while fellow youngsters Josh Zeid and Kevin Chapman were a mixed bag. Luhnow hinted he wants Veras to return as well.

Catcher: Castro slumped offensively this year following his All-Star season of a year ago, and he's arbitration eligible for the second time, so the Astros are going to have to decide whether to try to lock him up. Corporan did a nice job as a backup, and prospect Max Stassi didn't make many strides offensively all season at Triple-A, though he should be in the mix for significant playing time next year.

First base: The Astros have a lot invested in highly touted rookie Singleton, who made his Major League debut in June after signing a five-year extension worth $10 million. Though he flashed some power, he struggled mightily at the plate and racked up the strikeouts and the frustration. He'll undoubtedly open the season as the starter, but the pressure will be on to produce, especially if the Astros add some corner infield help.

Second base: The Astros are set here for the next few years with Altuve, who set the franchise record for hits in a season, multi-hit games and three-hit games and wound up with more hits in a season than any Venezuelan-born player. He was also the first player in Astros history to win the batting title. He's under contract at a bargain through 2017, so this is one area Luhnow doesn't have to worry about.

Shortstop: While the Astros continue the wait for 2012 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa to arrive (Correa missed the second half of the season at Class A after breaking his leg), the club could choose to give the inconsistent Jonathan Villar one more chance to prove his worth. Marwin Gonzalez did a nice job for much of season, but he's probably more valuable as a backup. Correa appears to be the real deal and could arrive in 2015.

Third base: Dominguez, who did a nice job in 2013 in his first full season in the Majors, was a disappointment at the plate and saw his numbers slump across the board. The Astros traded for former No. 6 overall draft pick Colin Moran at the Trade Deadline, and he figures to be coming to big league camp and perhaps push Dominguez for playing time. The Astros will be in the market for a veteran corner infielder, where Houston's production was the worst in the Majors.

Outfield: A healthy Springer will lock down one of the three outfield starting spots in 2015, and whether he's in center field or right field will depend on Dexter Fowler, who's eligible for arbitration and could make close to $10 million. Could the Astros try to trade him this winter? Don't be surprised to see the Astros try to find a power corner outfield bat via free agency or trade, though this year's outfield free-agent crop isn't great. Beyond that, Jake Marisnick, Robbie Grossman, L.J. Hoes and Alex Presley all figure to be in the mix somehow.

Designated hitter: Carter's second-half power surge likely secured a spot for him in the lineup next year, though he is arbitration eligible for the first time and figures to get a nice raise. He pushed 40 homers and turned into a more disciplined hitter in the second half of the season, while cutting down on his strikeouts.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Astros take leap forward in eventful 2014 season

Altuve makes history while Springer, Keuchel and McHugh emerge

Astros take leap forward in eventful 2014 season

HOUSTON -- Yes, the Astros had nowhere to go but up after winning only 51 games in 2013, and their performance this year certainly brings reasons for optimism when you consider they finished with one of the biggest turnarounds in the Major Leagues.

More important to general manager Jeff Luhnow than wins and losses, however, are the reasons why the Astros showed so much improvement on the field. Several players emerged, some surprisingly so, to make the kinds of contributions that could set the club up nicely in the near future if they can add the right pieces.

More

The Astros pitched better, struck out fewer times and showed more power. And even though manager Bo Porter didn't make it through the season -- he was dismissed Sept. 1 after clashing with Luhnow -- there was tangible evidence at the Major League level the Astros are on the right path.

"At the beginning of the year, I was asked about what we were trying to achieve win-loss-wise, and I said we're looking for a bit step in the right direction," Luhnow said. "I didn't know what that meant in terms of wins and losses, but I thought we would know. And I do feel we know.

"We've made a substantial improvement, whether we went up with 70 or 71 wins is really irrelevant. More important, we feel we've got a foundation in place to build on to get the team to the next level, and the next level really is a .500 team or better. I think we're in position with a good offseason to get there."

The Astros avoided 100 losses for the first time since 2010 and climbed out of last place in the rugged American League West by winning the season series from their in-state rival Texas Rangers, who had dominated them in recent years.

The bright spots were many: All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve set a team record, led the Major Leagues in hits and won the first batting title in Astros history, the starting rotation -- led by Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh -- was much improved, designated hitter Chris Carter came into his own in the second half of the season and rookie outfielder George Springer showed exciting promise, when healthy. Veteran outfielder Dexter Fowler was a nice addition as well.

"I think it's been a pretty strong improvement," veteran catcher Jason Castro said. "It's definitely what we were looking for in Spring Training this year. To see a lot of the pitching staff really step up and grow as pitchers has been kind of one of the biggest bright spots for this organization moving forward."

The Astros started poorly out of the gate once again and were 17-32 in late May when they came together and played close to .500 ball the rest of the year. In May, they posted their first winning month in three years, thanks in part to Springer's stellar performance that earned him Rookie of the Month honors.

"Having Springer in the lineup every day makes a huge difference for us," Luhnow said.

Even though Springer didn't play after July 19 because of a strained quad, the Astros rode the hot bat of Altuve and Carter, who led the Majors in homers after July 1, to post a second winning month in August, going 15-14. Keuchel, Feldman, McHugh and Brett Oberholtzer all pitched well down the stretch and gave the Astros a solid foundation in the rotation.

"It all starts with the starting pitching, and we made some giant strides," Luhnow said.

Record: 70-92, fourth in the American League West

Defining moment: The Astros were 12-27 with the worst record in the Major Leagues after being shut out on May 12 by the Rangers, who had dominated them the year before. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel took the ball the next day at Minute Maid Park and threw his first career shutout, sparking the Astros to 12 wins over a span of 17 games to get back to respectability. It also was the Astros' first of seven consecutive victories against the Rangers en route to winning the season series against them for the first time since 2006 -- a big reason why Houston finally escaped last place in the division.

What went right: All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve put himself on the national stage by breaking Craig Biggio's franchise record for hits in a season and leading the Majors in hits on his way to the Astros' first batting title. … Rookie outfielder George Springer made his much-anticipated debut and showed his potential by hitting 20 home runs in 78 games before missing the final 2 1/2 months with a strained quad. … Left-hander Dallas Keuchel established himself as the ace of the staff by reaching career highs in nearly every category, including five complete games. … McHugh, a waiver claim, came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the AL's top rookie starting pitchers. He was nearly unbeatable the final six weeks. … Despite a three-week stint on the disabled list early in the year, veteran pitcher Scott Feldman delivered one of his best seasons of his career. … Designated hitter Chris Carter went on a second-half tear and emerged as one of the biggest power threats in the AL.

What went wrong: A growing discord between general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter came to a head Sept. 1 when the second-year skipper was dismissed and replaced on an interim basis by Tom Lawless. … The signings of veteran pitchers Matt Albers and Jesse Crain to shore up the bullpen proved to be busts after injuries kept them off the field. Albers, signed for $2.25 million, pitched in eight games, and Crain, signed for $3.25 million, didn't get on the field. … Prospect Jon Singleton made his debut in June and struggled mightily for much of the season with many strikeouts. … Shortstop Jonathan Villar got off to a quick start, but didn't pan out and spent much of the season in the Minor Leagues. … Third baseman Matt Dominguez and catcher Jason Castro both took steps backwards offensively after promising seasons a year earlier.

Biggest surprise: McHugh, called up when Scott Feldman went on the disabled list early in the season, struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his Astros debut April 22 in Seattle. It wasn't a fluke. McHugh blossomed into one of the top young starters in the AL by piling up the quality starts and eventually the wins. Had he pitched enough innings, McHugh would have finished among AL leaders in ERA this year. Not bad for a pitcher claimed off waivers from the Rockies last winter.

Hitter of the Year: Who else? Jose Altuve. He set the franchise record for hits in a season, multi-hit games and three-hit games and wound up with more hits in a season than any Venezuelan-born player. Winning the first batting title in Astros history, Altuve joined Ty Cobb as the only players to have at least 220 hits, 45 doubles and 54 steals since 1917. He had the most hits by a second baseman since Charlie Gehringer (227) in 1936.

Pitcher of the Year: Keuchel. The lefty didn't even make the starting rotation until the final days of Spring Training, but he quickly emerged as the Astros' ace. Keuchel set career highs in almost every category, including wins, innings pitched, ERA and complete games, where he was among the leaders in the Major Leagues. When he was on the mound, the Astros won more often than not.

Rookie of the Year: McHugh. Springer, who was named AL Rookie of the Month for May, would have earned this honor had he not missed the final three months of the season. McHugh would have made a run at AL Rookie of the Year had it not been for Jose Abreu of the White Sox.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less

Astros players back Hinch managerial hiring

Astros players back Hinch managerial hiring

HOUSTON -- New Astros manager A.J. Hinch might not be a name many of the players he'll inherit next year know much about, but relief pitcher Chad Qualls knows the new skipper well, having played for Hinch during his managerial stint with the D-backs.

Hinch, introduced Monday at Minute Maid Park as the Astros' 18th manager, spent parts of the 2009 and '10 seasons managing in Arizona, where Qualls was the team's closer.

More

"I think it's a good fit for Houston," Qualls said. "Obviously, he's managed in the past and was doing a good job over there in Arizona, and he's gotten a lot more experience in the front office. I think this is something he'll embrace. He's got some guys here that have already been in the big leagues for a little bit and we've got the younger guys that gained some maturity to deal with, but it's a good, fresh start for him."

Astros infielder Gregorio Petit also knows Hinch, though not as well as Qualls. He was playing in the Padres organization when Hinch was the vice president and assistant general manager from 2011 through August of this year, when he resigned.

"I didn't get to know him that much, but from what I saw, he was a real honest guy when I talked to him, which tells you a lot about a man," Petit said. "He knows the game. When you know the guy, it makes it a little easier."

Qualls said Hinch stood by his players in Arizona.

"He'll side with [the players] at all times," Qualls said. "I have nothing but good things to say about him. When he was managing the Diamondbacks, I was closing over there, I ended up hurting my knee and was having a rough season, and he was sticking with me and trying to let me pull through the rough season. He really gave the players the benefit of the doubt and gave them all the opportunities to do what they can. He'll back you 100 percent."

Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel didn't know Hinch prior to Monday, but he said communication will be important with the new manager. A communication breakdown between general manager Jeff Luhnow and former manager Bo Porter led to Porter's dismissal on Sept. 1, and there were communication lapses between Porter and the players as well.

"I think we need to have better communication than we've had in the past couple of years," Keuchel said. "That being said, our job is to go out and play. I think we did that a lot better this year. I just think he needs to come in and deal with everybody, but let everybody play and have a relaxed environment."

The thought of having a new manager does bring excitement, Keuchel said.

"We're all excited," he said. "With the way season ended, we're all ready to play again."

Like Hinch, Jason Castro played catcher at Stanford under legendary coach Mark Marquess, though he's never met Hinch.

"We came through the same organization so I know probably a lot of the same values and things were instilled in us going through coach Marquess' program at Stanford, and I'm sure a lot of the stories are the same," Castro said. "I've heard good things about him and heard from a few guys that have come into contact with him or have met him in the past. I'm excited to meet him moving forward and get a chance to see his managerial prowess and the kind of baseball we'll be playing under him."

Castro said having a manager who's played for several years in the Major Leagues will help him relate to the players.

"I think probably someone who really kind of understands the game and gets the best out of his players and can relate to his players from that aspect," he said. "A guy who played himself for quite a while understands the daily grind and the intrinsic qualities of a baseball team and can relate to a lot of those. In that regard, he should have an inside track with the guys, and at the same time, pushing players and expecting the best out of them and getting guys to play to the best of their ability."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less