Hall of Famer Ryan optimistic about Astros' young talent

Executive advisor speaks about strength of Minor League system

Hall of Famer Ryan optimistic about Astros' young talent

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The amount of promising talent in the Astros' farm system is music to the ears of Nolan Ryan, who was with the team when it had three underwhelming Drafts nearly a decade ago that sent the system spiraling towards the bottom of baseball.

Things are different now, with Houston having benefited from high Draft picks and a series of trades that netted prospects in exchange for veteran players. Ryan, an executive advisor, arrived at camp Thursday in time for the Astros' first Grapefruit League game against the Phillies and spoke about the quality of talent.

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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.

Conger should be back for weekend spring games

Backup catcher held out of bullpen sessions in recovery from sore left wrist

Conger should be back for weekend spring games

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros backup catcher Hank Conger is expected to play this weekend after he was held out of some bullpen sessions in recent days as he recovers from what manager A.J. Hinch described as a sore left wrist.

"He hasn't been feeling particularly well," Hinch said. "I think we're going to get him into a game this weekend. He's not injured, but we're ... delaying this spring until most likely this weekend."

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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.

Veteran Hernandez reports to Astros camp

Veteran Hernandez reports to Astros camp

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Despite feeling under the weather, veteran right-hander Roberto Hernandez reported to Astros camp on Thursday morning and threw in the bullpen. Hernandez, who arrived two weeks late because of visa issues, flew from his native Dominican Republic on Wednesday night.

Hernandez, who signed a Minor League deal on Feb. 12, said he'll throw in the bullpen again on Saturday. He should then be ready to be inserted into Grapefruit League games, as he worked out in the Dominican while he waited for his paperwork to arrive.

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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.

Dominguez welcoming chance to evolve as ballplayer

Third baseman by trade set to make bid for utility role with veteran Valbuena on board

Dominguez welcoming chance to evolve as ballplayer

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The trade that brought veteran third baseman Luis Valbuena to the Astros forced incumbent Matt Dominguez to order a first baseman's mitt. The way Dominguez viewed things, it was a chance to add another apparatus to the toolbox.

The Astros acquired Valbuena, who came over in the Dexter Fowler trade with the Cubs, to start at third -- the position Dominguez has held the past couple of years. The club needed more offensive production from the hot corner, but it still likes the 25-year-old Dominguez enough to find out if he can help in other ways.

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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.

Berkman to be inducted into college Hall of Fame

Berkman to be inducted into college Hall of Fame

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Former Astros slugger Lance Berkman, who won the National Player of the Year Award at Rice University in Houston, was named to the 2015 National College Baseball Hall of Fame induction class on Wednesday.

Berkman will be inducted June 28-29 in Lubbock, Texas, along with former Major Leaguer Frank Viola, who led St. John's to the College World Series in 1980 prior to a 15-year Major League career.

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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.

Hinch planning to ease veterans into spring games

Hinch planning to ease veterans into spring games

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch said he's going to ease his veterans into action when Grapefruit League play begins. The Astros open their spring season against the Phillies on Thursday at Osceola County Stadium, but Hinch said American League batting champion Jose Altuve and shortstop Jed Lowrie won't play until Saturday.

Hinch didn't reveal his full lineup for the Phillies game on Wednesday, but catcher Jason Castro will be the designated hitter for the first couple of games.

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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.

Neshek boasts impressive cards, memorabilia collection

Astros reliever sends fans his autograph in exchange for others

Neshek boasts impressive cards, memorabilia collection

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- On any given morning at spring camp, Astros reliever Pat Neshek can be spotted at his locker signing dozens of baseball cards with a discarded stack of envelopes at his feet. He rips them open, scribbles his name on each card and sends them back to where they came from.

Neshek, the sidearm reliever in his first season with the Astros, is an avid sports memorabilia collector who appeases other collectors and fans interested in getting his signature by returning any cards they send him -- as long as they include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the return.

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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.

Astros including shift drills in team fundamentals

Altuve, others getting comfortable fielding, throwing from different areas

Astros including shift drills in team fundamentals

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros have incorporated the shift into team fundamentals this spring in an effort to make sure their fielders grow more comfortable fielding balls and throwing to bases from areas on the field that aren't typical of their position.

No team utilized the shift more last season than the Astros, who see themselves at the forefront of analytics. Simply put, the best defense is often positioning the infielders and outfielders where the hitter is most likely to hit the ball, tradition be darned.

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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.

Hinch lining up seven-man bullpen

Manager looking to add long reliever, lefty with five spots already secured

Hinch lining up seven-man bullpen

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Tuesday it's likely the club will open the season with a seven-man bullpen, which is not a surprise. It's possible they'll use one of those spots on a long reliever, which means Alex White, Samuel Deduno, Jake Buchanan, Dan Straily, Brad Peacock and Asher Wojciechowski will be considered for the bullpen as well as the fifth spot in the rotation. Whoever doesn't make the club could potentially be stretched out for the Triple-A rotation.

Five spots in the bullpen already appear to be locked up, with Chad Qualls, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Josh Fields and lefty Tony Sipp. If the Astros carry a second lefty -- Kevin Chapman, Darin Downs or Joe Thatcher -- they'll have one bullpen spot remaining.

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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.

After winding road, Hoyt moving closer to Majors

Astros reliever spent time working on sailboats before joining Braves' organization

After winding road, Hoyt moving closer to Majors

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The two players the Astros received from the Braves in a January trade that sent three prospects to Atlanta have done some soul-searching away from the game -- slugger Evan Gattis working odd jobs that range from ski lift operator to janitor, and pitcher James Hoyt working on sailboats.

Both eventually got back to baseball, and Gattis established himself as a power threat by hitting 43 homers during the past two years with the Braves. Hoyt, a 28-year-old right-hander who stands at 6-foot-5, is still trying to reach the big leagues, but the fact that he's this close is a credit to his resolve.

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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.

Berkman first of former Astros to lend hand at camp

Hinch has Bagwell, Biggio scheduled to help young Houston team

Berkman first of former Astros to lend hand at camp

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros have a long line of former players coming into training camp this spring at the urging of new manager A.J. Hinch. And first up on Monday was first baseman Lance Berkman, who played the bulk of his 15 seasons in Houston.

"This is exciting. It's awesome being back down here," said Berkman, who played for the Astros from his rookie season of 1999 until he was traded to the Yankees on July 31, 2010. "It's good to be back in the Astros uniform."

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Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Hinch lines up starters for first 5 spring games

McHugh, Oberholtzer, Keuchel, Feldman and Straily set to start

Hinch lines up starters for first 5 spring games

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch set up his starting pitching for the upcoming week of Grapefruit League games, confirming that right-hander Collin McHugh will pitch the opener on Thursday against the Phillies at Osceola County Stadium.

McHugh will be followed by left-hander Brett Oberholtzer against the Cardinals at Jupiter, Fla., on Friday, and left-hander Dallas Keuchel is slated to go back at home against the Yankees on Saturday. In Sunday's split-squad, it's Scott Feldman at Osceola against the Braves and Dan Straily against the Tigers in Lakeland.

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Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

McHugh, Keuchel proving building blocks of success

McHugh, Keuchel proving building blocks of success

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Houston Astros say it started with the two pitchers, Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel. They're the ones who deserve the credit for their success, because they were the ones who embraced change and executed every single pitch.

But it was more than that. It was a confirmation of how the Astros are doing business these days. It was the power of analytics identifying two pitchers with special gifts, and then offering a blueprint for success. It was also the work of a couple of really smart and innovative pitching gurus.

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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.

Astros keeping Gattis away from behind the plate

With Houston set at catcher, slugger focusing spring work on outfield, first base

Astros keeping Gattis away from behind the plate

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Evan Gattis has been sitting in on catchers meetings this spring, but don't expect to see the new Astros slugger behind the plate this season.

Gattis, acquired in a trade with the Braves on Jan. 14, has been working out exclusively in left field this spring, though he could wind up getting some reps at first base later. Gattis has ordered a first baseman's glove in preparation.

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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.

Pair of Matt Duffys creates double trouble

Fans, card makers among those to confuse Astros prospect with Giants infielder of same name

Pair of Matt Duffys creates double trouble

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- When Matt Duffy made his Major League debut for the Giants last Aug. 1, a certain Astros prospect started receiving congratulatory messages from a couple of his distant relatives. There was no confusion on his part, though. He knew exactly what was up.

Matthew Michael Duffy -- Matt Duffy -- was set to make his debut for the Giants, which meant Astros prospect Matthew Edward Duffy -- also known as Matt Duffy -- was hearing about it. It wasn't the first time the two baseball players had been confused, and it won't be the last.

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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.

Astros' prospects report for mini-camp duty

Astros' prospects report for mini-camp duty

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- About 30 of the Astros' most promising prospects, including several members of the 2014 Draft class, reported to the Minor League complex at Osceola County Stadium on Sunday morning in advance of a mini-camp that begins Monday.

The majority of the players are pitchers, which gives them a month to get innings under their belts before the start of the Minor League seasons. Pitchers who have been invited include right-handers Brock Dykxhorn, Adrian Houser, Lance McCullers and Daniel Mengden and left-handers Kent Emanuel, Josh Hader and Tommy Shirley. Other players invited are catcher Brian Holberton, infielders J.D. Davis and A.J. Reed and outfielder Derek Fisher.

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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.

Wojciechowski pumped up to be healthy, competing

After missing all of last year's camp, young hurler one of several Astros fifth-starter hopefuls

Wojciechowski pumped up to be healthy, competing

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Right-hander Asher Wojciechowski may have been one of the most excited players to hit Astros camp this year, for no other reason than he was finally healthy after missing all of last year's camp with a strained right lat muscle.

Wojciechowski, 26, suffered the injury throwing in the bullpen prior to Spring Training, and he wound up opening the season on the disabled list. He started for Triple-A Oklahoma City on May 21 and strained a forearm flexor and missed nearly a month.

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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.

Singleton confident despite last season's disappointment

Young slugger focused on consistent contact, slowing game down

Singleton confident despite last season's disappointment

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Each at-bat weighed heavily on his mind, and each failure only led to more disappointment and doubt. Nothing seemed to come easy last year for Jon Singleton, whose long-awaited Major League debut didn't come close to the big numbers he'd posted in the Minors.

The Astros thought enough of Singleton as a prospect to sign him to a five-year, $10 million deal before he even stepped foot on a Major League field, and then watched the first baseman hit .168 with 13 homers, 44 RBIs and 134 strikeouts in 310 at-bats in his first 95 games in 2014.

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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.

Chapman learning to use changeup effectively

Astros lefty utilizing third pitch to fool hitters

Chapman learning to use changeup effectively

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Lefty Kevin Chapman understands the importance of having a third pitch, which is why he plans to incorporate his changeup more this year. He started throwing the pitch when he was called back to the big leagues last year and saw good results.

Chapman, a fastball-slider pitcher, pitched in 21 games over three stints in Houston last year, posting a 2.30 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP in his final 15 2/3 innings following his Aug. 15 callup to the Majors. In 5 2/3 innings with the Astros over his first two stints, he had an 11.12 ERA.

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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.

Prospects appreciate opportunity to join big league camp

Young talent taking advantage of experience

Prospects appreciate opportunity to join big league camp

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Andrew Aplin dresses at a locker inside the clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium that's nearly in the shower. Joe Sclafani's locker is in a corner right next to fellow prospect Matt Duffy, making it hard for either player to get comfortable.

Despite the less-than-favorable locker assignments, none of the prospects who are in Major League camp for the first time are complaining. They're keeping their heads down, staying quiet and watching and learning as much as they can without getting in the way.

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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.

Rain dampens Astros' workout

Hitters forced inside; Hinch instructs on signs

Rain dampens Astros' workout

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Steady morning rains soaked the back fields at Osceola County Stadium on Saturday and forced the Astros to work inside the batting cages.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch said the rain day wasn't necessarily a bad thing, considering no pitchers were scheduled to throw live batting practice. The hitters were able to take swings in the cage, and the pitchers were able to play catch under a roof as well.

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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.

Pettis teaching young Astros basics of baserunning, outfield

Pettis teaching young Astros basics of baserunning, outfield

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros manager A.J. Hinch has made it a point to focus on the team's coach-to-player ratio during drills this Spring Training, trying to establish the norm of one coach to two players at a time.

Third-base coach Gary Pettis has been one of the leading teachers on the staff, spending time with both the outfielders and on baserunning drills.

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

Hernandez's delay in reporting may leave him behind

Astros unsure when Dominican rotation candidate will be in camp

Hernandez's delay in reporting may leave him behind

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Two large brown boxes sit on the chair in front of Roberto Hernandez's locker. Three envelopes have been placed on top of the boxes, along with a memo to the players from Thursday morning.

A bag of golf clubs sits in front of two jerseys and four pairs of pants -- two gray, two white -- still neatly draped from a hanger -- and all appear to be untouched. Another day at Astros camp passed and Hernandez, delayed because of issues acquiring a work visa, still has not reported to camp.

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

Hinch planning for Astros' three spring off-days

Hinch planning for Astros' three spring off-days

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Once the Astros start playing Spring Training games on March 5, they have three off-days built into their schedule.

It is a bit unusual to have so much time off, but manager A.J. Hinch is already thinking about how to utilize those dates.

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

Astros want more than power from lineup

Hinch expects complete offense not reliant on home runs

Astros want more than power from lineup

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- With the additions of Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena, the Astros appear poised to have their deepest lineup in years with nine bats that are capable of driving in at least 50 runs, including several with legit power potential.

One thing manager A.J. Hinch doesn't want, however, is a team that relies too much on the long ball, which has been the case in the last few years. Home runs are nice, but sustaining rallies and moving runners are important as well.

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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.

Huge snake pays visit to Astros clubhouse

Not everyone happy to see Sunshine, 11-foot Burmese python

Huge snake pays visit to Astros clubhouse

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros welcomed a guest into the clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium on Thursday morning that more than a few players hoped would have just stayed away.

Before taking the field for the morning work, some players posed for photos with Sunshine, an 11-foot albino Burmese python from nearby attraction Gatorland. Dallas Keuchel, Chad Qualls and Jed Lowrie were among those to pose with the reptile

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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.

Back to school: Appel tasked with teammate report

Prospect doing interviews, taking notes for presentation

Back to school: Appel tasked with teammate report

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Despite being a No. 1 overall pick, right-hander Mark Appel is participating in the same rituals the Astros' other young players are doing this spring. Young players are getting singled out each morning so the veterans can find out more about them.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch has given Appel the assignment of making a presentation about every player on the team, which means Appel has spent the past few mornings interviewing his teammates and taking notes in a small notebook.

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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.

Astros hitters get first look at live pitching

Astros hitters get first look at live pitching

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- One of the most challenging days of Spring Training for the hitters is when they step into the box for the first time against the pitchers, who have been in camp for nearly a week and had thrown two bullpen sessions prior to Thursday.

Some Astros hitters used the chance to face live pitching for the first time to simply track the pitches and not swing, while others couldn't wait to take some cuts. The first and second throwing groups threw live batting practice Thursday.

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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.