The Astros, coming off a 111-loss season, are trying to claw their way toward the top of the standings in their second year in the American League West, and there are reasons for optimism. They have promising young starting pitchers Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer in the rotation, young stars like Jason Castro and Jose Altuve in the lineup, and they added newcomers Scott Feldman, Dexter Fowler, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers.
Sparks, who pitched in the Major Leagues for nine seasons, says the second time in the league will be a learning period for Cosart, Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock, who was also battling for a rotation spot late in the spring.
"They're going to have to make adjustments, and I don't think all of them will be able to make the adjustment right away," Sparks said. "Somebody's going to falter, at some point. Having a guy like Scott Feldman is going to be big, teaching those guys how to get through some of those tough times and dealing with some of that adversity.
"But for me, the biggest upgrade of the team this year was the back end of the bullpen. To get guys like Matt Albers and Chad Qualls, and Anthony Bass has been fantastic during the spring, guys you can count on to throw strikes and help guys like [young relievers] Josh Zeid and Josh Fields a little bit. I think the bullpen is going to be more solid."
That would be a good thing for the Astros, who had the highest bullpen ERA in baseball and led the AL in blown saves in 2013.
"When you're developing and building a team and trying to win, one of the first things you have to be able to do is win the games you're supposed to win, the games you're leading late," Ford said. "That was something the Astros struggled with a lot last year. … Overall, the bullpen should be one of the stronger points on this team, and then the Astros can win some of those games they're supposed to win."
The addition of Fowler, acquired in a trade with the Rockies, provides a solid option at the leadoff spot. He'll bat ahead of former All-Stars Altuve and Castro, giving the Astros a 1-2-3 combination at the top of the order with which they feel comfortable.
"If you just start with those top three, that makes a difference," Ford said. "Last year, Jose Altuve had to bat leadoff a lot, and he's not really a leadoff hitter. He's better in that two spot. He can hit behind runners, can handle the bat a little bit. I think, also, when Fowler gets on base, that may encourage Altuve to take a lot more pitches to give Fowler a chance to run. That will help him as well."
Of course, the lineup remains unsettled behind those top three, but third baseman Matt Dominguez and designated hitter Chris Carter have enough pop to bat in run-producing spots.
"It's something that's going to develop through the course of a season," Ford said.
Sparks believes younger players who got their first prolonged experience last season, including Dominguez and Carter, will need to make adjustments to cut down on strikeouts. He says because the Astros don't have much power from their outfielders that Carter is going to have to carry more of a load after hitting 29 homers last season.
"You have to teach guys that teams are going to pitch around him, because he's the only guy in the lineup that has big-time power," Sparks said. "You have guys like Jason Castro and Matt Dominguez that can hurt you from time to time. The one guy, when you're going over the pitchers' meeting as the other team, the one guy you don't want to hurt you is Chris Carter."
Both announcers were asked to pick the one player they believe will have a breakout season in 2014. Ford tabbed Cosart, who was 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts in his Major League debut last year.
"He put up good numbers in 10 starts last year," he said. "Was it a fluke? Can he do it again? I think if he's able to get ahead in the count more and be more consistent in the strike zone, he has a chance to have a really good year for the Houston Astros."
Sparks went with a position player -- Dominguez, who hit .241 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs in his first full season in the league last season, at 23 years old.
"He's always going to be able to catch and throw and be a really plus defender," Sparks said. "But I think he's got the potential to be a great Major League hitter. He's just learning the league a little bit. He's a smart guy, he wants to learn. He's always at the ballpark early and late.
"He's just a guy you can build around, kind of like those old-school guys like [Craig] Biggio and [Jeff] Bagwell. He's a guy you can count on to teach the younger guys as they get along, even though he's a little bit younger, but he's a lot more mature."