Coming off a season in which they lost a club-record 106 games, the Astros will have open auditions all over the diamond this spring, except for a handful of spots. Houston remains in a full-fledged rebuild mode, but seeing better results at the Major League level is tantamount.
The top three spots in the rotation are decided, with Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Bud Norris returning, and Carlos Lee (first base), J.D. Martinez (left field), Jose Altuve (second base) and newcomer Jed Lowrie (shortstop) are all but assured starting spots.
"One of the priorities for this offseason was to put ourselves in position where we had some depth, some flexibility and some choice," Luhnow said. "That's why the team, going into this spring, will have competition for every spot out there, and everybody on this team is going to have to earn their spot."
The Astros used 20 rookies last season while they continued to rebuild, and many of those young players will be battling for spots on the roster this spring. Luhnow also added veterans like pitchers Zach Duke and Livan Hernandez, outfielder Jack Cust and catcher Chris Snyder to spark competition.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Nationals, March 3 at 12:05 p.m. CT
Home vs. Rockies, April 6 at 6:05 p.m. CT
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. How much can be expected of Jason Castro?
The Astros hoped they would have had a pretty good idea by now whether Castro, their first-round Draft pick in 2008, was someone they could pencil in behind the plate for the next 10 years. Thanks to a serious knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 season, Castro will enter spring camp trying to prove that he's not only healthy, but also that he is capable of being the starter.
Castro, who made his Major League debut in 2010, sat out all of last season after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. His comeback was sidetracked when he broke a bone in his left foot last fall and underwent another surgery in January. He maintains that he's ahead of schedule and should be ready for action when Grapefruit League play starts.
The Astros have a lot invested in Castro and are eager to see what he's capable of doing in a full season behind the plate.
2. Are last year's rookies ready for a full season?
They seemingly came out of nowhere last year, exploding onto the scene while trying to take advantage of the opportunities that arose when the Astros traded away veterans Jeff Keppinger, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn last July. The team's 2011 rookie class was full of promise, led by pitcher Jordan Lyles, left fielder Martinez, third baseman Jimmy Paredes and second baseman Altuve.
The four former prospects were among 20 rookies who made their Major League debuts last year, many of whom will return this spring with hopes of solidifying themselves as everyday players. Lyles pitched all year at 20 years old and made a stint at Triple-A to limit his innings, while Martinez, Altuve and Paredes provided plenty of highlights after being promoted from Double-A Corpus Christi.
With the Astros continuing to rebuild and many positions on the field up for grabs, the young players will again be front and center.
3. Who will be the closer?
Mark Melancon, who nailed down 20 of 25 save chances last year, was traded to the Red Sox in December in exchange for Lowrie and Kyle Weiland, leaving Houston's closer situation up for grabs.
Houston does have a proven veteran with 78 career saves returning in Brandon Lyon, but he's coming off major shoulder surgery and has never been considered a hard thrower. The Astros have some hard throwers who could potentially compete for the closer spot, namely David Carpenter, Juan Abreu and Rhiner Cruz, who was taken by the club in the Rule 5 Draft.
Veteran Wilton Lopez, who's proven his worth as a strike-throwing setup man the last three years, may also get a chance, but Lyon is entering the final year of his contract and could handle the job while the front office tries to identify a closer of the future from among its young arms.
56-106, sixth in the National League Central
1. CF Jordan Schafer :
.242 BA, .309 OBP, .315 SLG, 2 HR, 13 RBIs in 2011
2. 2B Jose Altuve:
.276 BA, .297 OBP, .357 SLG, 2 HR, 12 RBIs in 2011
3. LF J.D. Martinez:
.274 BA, .319 OBP, .423 SLG, 6 HR, 35 RBIs in 2011
4. 1B Carlos Lee:
.275 BA, .342 OBP, .446 SLG, 18 HR, 94 RBIs in 2011
5. RF Brian Bogusevic:
.287 BA, .358 OBP, .457 SLG, 4 HR, 15 RBIs in 2011
6. 3B Jimmy Paredes:
.286 BA, .320 OBP, .393 SLG, 2 HR, 18 RBIs in 2011
7. SS Jed Lowrie:
.252 BA, .303 OBP, .382 SLG, 6 HR, 36 RBIs in 2011
8. C Jason Castro:
.205 BA, .286 OBP, .287 SLG, 2 HR, 8 RBIs in 2010 (He didn't play in 2011)
1. Wandy Rodriguez, 11-10, 4.39 ERA in 2011
2. Brett Myers, 7-14, 4.46 ERA in 2011
3. Bud Norris, 6-11, 3.77 ERA in 2011
4. J.A. Happ, 6-15, 5.35 ERA in 2011
5. Jordan Lyles, 2-8, 5.36 ERA in 2011
Closer: Brandon Lyon , 4/8 saves, 11.48 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Wilton Lopez , 2.79 ERA in 2011
LH setup man: Sergio Escalona , 2.93 ERA in 2011 The new guys
OF Jack Cust: The Astros signed Cust to a one-year, $600,000 deal with an option for 2013 to provide some punch to the lineup and create more competition. He strikes out and walks a lot, but he has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark. He hit 97 homers and drove in 281 runs for the A's from 2007-10 before being cut loose by the Mariners last July after batting .213 with three homers and 23 RBIs. He'll compete for time at first base and right field.
C Chris Snyder: With starting catcher Castro coming off a knee injury that cost him all of 2010 and a foot injury that set him back this winter, the Astros signed Snyder, a Houston native, to provide insurance and depth behind the plate. He had season-ending surgery last June to repair a herniated disk, but he says he's completely healthy. Snyder will give the Astros a catcher with the ability to hit 10-plus home runs, something they haven't had in a long time.
RHP Kyle Weiland: The Astros acquired Weiland from the Red Sox in December in the deal that brought Lowrie to Houston. Weiland, a third-round pick of the Red Sox in the 2008 Draft, will compete for a spot in Houston's rotation. He made his Major League debut in '11, but struggled in limited time as a spot starter and reliever. Weiland, who started five games in seven appearances, went 0-3 with a 7.66 ERA in 24 2/3 innings, striking out 13 and walking 12.
IF Jed Lowrie: Luhnow's first major player transaction as general manager came in December, when he acquired Lowrie and Weiland from the Red Sox in exchange for Melancon. Lowrie, a switch-hitter, will be the likely starter at shortstop, though he can play other positions on the infield. Lowrie is a career .252 hitter with 19 homers and 117 RBIs in 256 games with the Red Sox since 2008. He batted .252 with six homers and 36 RBIs last year.
IF Marwin Gonzalez: The Astros swung a trade during the Rule 5 Draft to get Gonzalez, who had been drafted by the Red Sox. Gonzalez, 23, has above-average defensive skills and is a switch-hitter who will compete for an infield spot this spring. He made an impression in winter ball, batting .321 (36-for-112) with 16 RBIs for Caracas in the Venezuelan League. He batted .288 with four home runs and 39 RBIs between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.
OF Fernando Martinez: Widely considered one of baseball's top prospects from 2006-10, Martinez was claimed off waivers from the Mets last month to compete for a spot in the outfield. Martinez was billed as a power-hitting outfielder expected to be a cornerstone of the Mets' lineup throughout this decade, but multiple injuries and an arthritic right knee have prevented Martinez from appearing in more than 82 games in any of the past three seasons. He has one option remaining, so if he doesn't make the Major League roster he could begin the season at Triple-A Oklahoma.
Prospects to watch
OF George Springer: An athletic outfielder who was drafted in the first round by the Astros last June out of the University of Connecticut, Springer has a chance to be the team's center fielder of the future, though the future isn't now. He barely got his feet wet in pro ball after signing at the deadline last year, and he'll begin the season in the Minor Leagues. That being said, he could move fast though the organization considering his age and advanced skills.
1B Jonathan Singleton: Singleton is one of the key pieces that the Astros received from the Phillies last July in the Pence trade, and he immediately became their top prospect. As a 20-year-old in 2011, he hit a combined .298 with a .392 on-base percentage and .441 slugging percentage between the Phillies' Class A affiliate and the Astros' affiliate in Lancaster. A left-handed hitter with power, he'll start the season in the Minors, but could be the anchor of the lineup when the Astros begin competing in the American League West.
2B Delino DeShields Jr.: The Astros' first-round Draft pick in 2010, DeShields played his first full season of professional baseball at 19 years old and had 17 doubles, nine home runs and 48 RBIs in 119 games at Class A Lexington. He also led the club in stolen bases (30) and runs scored (73) while batting .220. He's got as much athleticism as anyone in the system, but he is raw and will begin the season at one of the Astros' Class A affiliates.
SS Jonathan Villar: Considered the team's shortstop of the future, the switch-hitting Villar will play most of this season at 21 years old and doesn't appear to be quite ready for the Major Leagues. He's a terrific defensive shortstop whose offensive tools continue to improve. Villar played in a combined 130 games in 2011 at Class A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi, hitting .241 with 23 doubles, six triples, 14 home runs, 52 RBIs and 34 stolen bases. He was acquired by the Astros from the Phillies in July 2010 in the Roy Oswalt trade.
On the rebound
RHP Brett Myers: The veteran right-hander had trouble keeping the ball in the ballpark last year, which is largely why he slumped to a 7-14 mark with a 4.46 ERA after a terrific 2010 campaign in his first season in Houston. That being said, Myers pitched much better in the second half of the season and finished with a 4-1 record and a 2.62 ERA in his final five starts a year ago. The Astros will be hoping for more of that and less of the pitcher who was among the Major League leaders in homers allowed for much of the 2011 season.
1B Brett Wallace: Wallace began the season as the Astros' Opening Day first baseman last year and slowly declined after a strong start to the year. He wound up in the Minor Leagues in August and will come to camp with a chance to win a job at first base and third base. Wallace has yet to show the kind of pop he displayed consistently at every level of the Minor Leagues, and the team would love nothing more than to see his left-handed swing become a legitimate long-ball threat.
3B Chris Johnson: Johnson followed a similar path last year as teammate Brett Wallace, both of whom started the season in the Opening Day lineup and spent the month of August in the Minor Leagues. Johnson, who belted 11 homers in 94 games in a promising rookie debut in 2010, admittedly let too much get into his head and wound up struggling on the field. Now he finds himself competing for the starting job with switch-hitter Paredes.
RHP Brandon Lyon: The 2011 campaign was one to forget for Lyon, who had an awful start to the season before being shut down in May. He wound up undergoing surgery in June to repair the detachment of his right biceps tendon and to repair a tear in his labrum, and he should be healthy entering camp. But with a wealth of hard-throwing young arms in camp, the veteran Lyon is going to have to earn his closer's spot with a strong and healthy showing this spring.
LHP J.A. Happ: The best news for the Astros this spring, in addition to finding out that Castro is completely healthy, is that Happ picks up where he left off in the 2011 season. Happ pitched terribly for the Astros for much of the season, going 4-14 with a 6.26 ERA in his first 22 starts before the Astros finally had to send him to Triple-A to allow him to iron things out. He did just that, going 2-1 with a 2.43 ERA his final six starts with the Astros and giving himself and the team hope that he's righted the ship.
C Jason Castro: If Castro can prove that he's healthy and completely recovered from a pair of injuries, the Astros can breath easier about their catching situation. The team's first-round pick in 2008, he made his debut in 2010 but missed all of last year after undergoing surgery to repair his right ACL. He suffered a setback in the fall when he broke a bone in his right foot and had to have surgery. Castro insists that he'll be ready for game action in March, but the jury is very much still out on his Major League ability.
SS Clint Barmes: The Astros chose not to try to re-sign the veteran Barmes as they continue to rebuild. Barmes wound up staying in the NL Central and signed with the Pirates. Despite missing the first few weeks of the season with a broken hand suffered in Spring Training, Barmes was a steady hand for the Astros in his only year in Houston in 2011, especially on defense. The Astros will have to replace his 120 starts and 12 home runs.
RHP Mark Melancon: A year after being acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Berkman trade, Melancon had a breakout year with Houston and settled nicely into the closer role after Lyon went down with an injury early in the season, going 20-for-25 in save chances. Melancon figured to have a bright future with the Astros, but the team chose to deal him to the Red Sox and get two players -- Lowrie and Weiland -- in return.