The battle for the starting job in right field is a three-man scrum between Luke Scott, Jason Lane and Richard Hidalgo that is expected to go down to the wire.
"We're not going to hand the job to Luke Scott even though he played very well the last couple months of the season," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "Jason Lane needs to have a good spring, and then Richard Hidalgo is having a good offseason, and he'll come in and compete as well."
Scott and Lane are already at the Osceola County Stadium complex working out. Hidalgo played well in winter ball and has more experience. Scott is a left-handed hitter, the other two bat right-handed.
"I would like to have a left-handed hitter in there, and I think it fits well after our big guys," Garner said. "But we will take the best player. It has to be the better player."
Garner confirmed the winner will more than likely hit low in the order.
"[Craig] Biggio, perhaps [Chris] Burke, then [Lance] Berkman, Carlos Lee, I think Morgan [Ensberg]'s going to come back strong, so I would anticipate Morgan in that (fifth) spot, and then whomever with Adam Everett hitting seventh and Brad [Ausmus] hitting eighth," Garner said.
Lane is apparently taking the challenge seriously. The outfielder was spotted Tuesday reading Sun Tzu's "On the Art of War." But this battle will be won on the diamond.
"I'm not going to make a decision until the end," Garner said. "No matter how they're doing, no matter who's hot or what."
Center stage: Burke, who replaced Willy Taveras as Houston's starting center fielder after Taveras was dealt to Colorado in the trade that brought Jason Jennings to Houston, is taking a crash course on the position after spending most of his career as a second baseman and occasional left fielder.
The Astros, however, aren't expecting Burke to steal bases as often or be as strong defensively as his predecessor. Taveras pilfered 67 bases during the last two years and had nine center-field assists last season, the second most in the National League.
"Stolen bases are overrated," Garner said. "Chris does not need to steal bases, but I'd like to see a better on-base percentage. This is not a competition against Willy for Chris, it's to compete on this ballclub to help us win. We're not comparing Willy to Chris. Willy did a fine job, Willy could have stolen more bases, and in another environment you would want him to steal more bases. We need Chris to do the things to make us a better offense, which is get on base a little better, move the runners a little better."
Garner conceded Burke will make mistakes, but he isn't concerned with the learning curve.
"He's an intelligent player," Garner said. "He'll figure it out."
Taveras' on-base percentage last season was .333. Burke's was .347, but it has risen each of the last two seasons. And while Burke can steal a base (he was successful on 11 of 12 attempts last season), Garner would rather he concentrate on just getting on base and setting the table for Berkman and Lee.
"What happened to us when Morgan wasn't as big a threat as Lance, then what my concern was that if you let Willy steal a base, they're going to just pitch right around Lance," Garner said. "I'd rather have Lance hitting with Willy at first base than somebody else hitting with Willy and Lance on first and second.
"Lance is your best hitter, you don't want to take the bat out of his hands by giving him a free base. What's interesting is, by stealing a base and putting a man in scoring position, managers are going to walk him or pitch around him, not giving him anything good to hit. So you're taking the bat out of your best hitter's hands."
Extra bases: Garner returned to the team after missing the previous two days to attend his daughter's wedding. Coaches Cecil Cooper and Doug Mansolino ran the workouts in Garner's absence. "[The] guys did a good job, things went really well," Garner said. "That's why we have good people. Good people get things done." ... Chad Qualls did not pitch Tuesday but his condition was improved, according to Garner. Qualls had experienced slight shoulder soreness. ... Catcher Ausmus had also been bothered by soreness but did all of the drills Tuesday without incident.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.