HOUSTON - There is nowhere for the Astros to go but up.
The Astros certainly weren't expected to contend during their first season in the American League West, but losing a club-record 111 games wasn't exactly what anyone had in mind, either. As the calendar gets ready to turn to 2014, the Astros are setting themselves up to make the long climb to respectability on the field.
Even the most cynical observer doesn't have to squint to see the organization is moving in the right direction.
Houston has the best Minor League system in the game, and many of its top prospects should hit Minute Maid Park next season. Meanwhile, the Astros have already made some moves to add veteran players to plug holes and have shown a willingness to spend some money this winter.
The Astros probably weren't as bad as their record indicated, having lost their final 15 games against a steady diet of contenders who had everything on the line. The AL West, against which the Astros went 25-51, doesn't figure to get any easier, though, with Prince Fielder joining the rival Rangers and Robinson Cano among a handful of acquisitions made by the Mariners.
While the A's should contend for another division title and the Rangers and Angels have deep enough rosters to contend, the Astros want to start a steady climb in that direction. They plan to do it by building around their talented young corps of players and by adding veterans when needed.
Eventually, the Astros want to stand toe-to-toe with the A's and the Rangers, and they promise they won't be shy about spending serious money when it's time to compete. For now, Astros can hope that 2014 will serve as a window to an even brighter future.
The Astros, as expected, head into 2014 with many key questions.
10. Are Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock the real deal?
The three rookies were rock-solid in the rotation in the second half of last season, giving the Astros enough confidence in their abilities that Houston felt comfortable trading 23-year-old Jordan Lyles to the Rockies. They'll return to anchor a rotation that includes newcomer Scott Feldman and a bevy of other arms competing for a spot, including Dallas Keuchel and Alex White, among others.
9. Will this be the year Scott Feldman finally throws 200 innings?
Signed to a three-year deal in December to serve as the veteran presence in the Astros rotation, Feldman has never thrown more than 190 innings in his five years as a healthy starting pitcher. He topped out at 189 2/3 in 2009 with Texas, but the Astros brought him to Houston to eat innings and take some of the pressure off their younger arms in the rotation.
8. What can we expect out of Jose Altuve?
It was a hit-and-miss year for Altuve, who signed a contract extension midway through last season. His batting average and on-base percentage slumped in 2013, but he should benefit from the signing of Dexter Fowler, who will hit first in the lineup. That will allow Altuve to settle into the No. 2 hole in the order after being moved around the top three spots last season.
7. Where have you been, Chad Qualls?
Qualls, who was drafted and developed by the Astros and pitched for them in the 2005 World Series, made an unlikely return to Houston when he signed a two-year deal with an option for 2016 in December. Since leaving the Astros in 2007, Qualls has pitched for seven teams, so he finally has some stability. The Astros expect him, at 35 years old, to be a leader for their young bullpen.
6. Is Jonathan Villar the answer at shortstop?
We saw the best and worst of Villar in 2013. He made his Major League debut in July and dazzled with his speed -- including an amazing straight steal of home in Baltimore -- and befuddled with some of his baserunning gaffes. Villar's hands aren't the greatest, but he has enough tools to earn a full-season look at shortstop -- a position top prospects Nolan Fontana and Carlos Correa occupy in the Minor Leagues and could be knocking at the door soon.
5. Can Chris Carter cut down on his strikeouts?
Carter, whom the Astros acquired from the A's in February, has enough power to warrant giving him another look in 2014 despite his high whiff rate. He struck out a club-record 212 times last season, but he led the team in homers and RBIs. The Astros' lineup would benefit if Carter were able to put the ball in play more, and he's worked hard to try to become a complete hitter. He'll have a full 2014 season to try to get it done.
4. Who will close games?
The Astros left the Winter Meetings still in search of a veteran closer, so there is no answer just yet. The bottom line is they need someone with some closing experience at the back end of a bullpen that led the league in blown saves in 2013. Jose Veras, who was their closer for the first half of the season before being traded away, has been given a contract offer, and the team has looked at a handful of other relievers, including Houston resident Jesse Crain.
3. How will Dexter Fowler impact the lineup?
Astros manager Bo Porter said at the Winter Meetings that the newly acquired Fowler would hit leadoff next season. That will give the Astros a set leadoff hitter after seeing four players make at least 23 starts in the No. 1 hole in the order last season. Fowler has a career on-base percentage of .365 and has some pop, so he'll immediately become one of the team's best offensive weapons.
2. Can Jason Castro stay healthy and improve on 2013?
Castro, who missed all of the 2011 season following major knee surgery and battled some nagging knee and foot injuries in 2012, looked like a different player in 2013 because he was completely healthy. He did have a cyst drained and removed from his knee late in the season, but there's no reason to believe he won't show up to camp at 100 percent and primed to build off the strong numbers he posted last season.
1. When will George Springer make his debut?
Ah, the million-dollar question. You knew it was coming. Springer, one of the team's top prospects who put up huge numbers in Double-A last season and later Triple-A, should make his long-awaited Houston debut in 2014, but when? The chances of seeing him on Opening Day lessened when the club traded for Fowler to play center field, which is Springer's position. The club hasn't ruled out Springer in right, but since he hasn't done it much, it wouldn't be a shock to see him start in right field in Triple-A. Mark it down: He will make his debut in 2014, but exactly when remains anyone's guess.