KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- There isn't anyone involved with the Astros who doesn't expect the club to take a substantial step forward in 2014. They hope the days of losing 100 games, which they've done in each of the previous three seasons, are behind them, and that better times are ahead.
The Astros seemingly have nowhere to go but up after losing a club-record 111 games last season in their first year in the American League, including 15 in a row to end the season. A young club learned some hard lessons along the way, and gained valuable experience it hopes will pay off this season.
While the Astros saw catcher Jason Castro, third baseman Matt Dominguez and outfielder Robbie Grossman come into their own in 2013, they spent the winter acquiring proven Major League players to fill in some gaps. They traded for outfielder Dexter Fowler, signed starting pitcher Scott Feldman, and added relievers Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers to bolster baseball's worst bullpen a season ago.
This spring, the Astros have preached patience at the plate and stressed to their pitchers to throw more strikes and work at a better pace. They acquired several ground-ball pitchers to take advantage of what they hope is an improved defense that relies heavily on statistical data for alignment.
How much improved the club will be remains to be seen, but after 324 losses the past three seasons, everyone in orange and blue says it's time to win.
"It's extremely important to finish better than we did last year," second-year Astros manager Bo Porter said. "As an organization, we went through what we went through last year in order to take steps forward this year. It's extremely important for us to improve on the win-loss record, and that's what I said to the group early in camp: 'We should set out to be the most-improved team in Major League Baseball, from a win-loss standpoint.'"
Still, the Astros will have their work cut out for them in a division that includes the improved Rangers and Mariners, the steady A's and the big-money Angels.
"I guess we're the underdogs," Fowler said. "People are going to take us lightly, but hopefully we'll show them pretty quickly that can't be the case."
Astros owner Jim Crane told reporters earlier this week he could see the club finishing .500, which would be a huge leap in a rugged division that got even tougher in the offseason. Though he won't give a number, general manager Jeff Luhnow's projection isn't quite that aggressive, but he's expecting more on the field.
"Our fans will know when they come to the ballpark or watch on TV and they recognize we're in games, and whether or not we win however many more, I think we're going to be a lot more competitive this year, and it should result in us winning quite a few more games," Luhnow said. "This is the time of year to be optimistic. I am, Bo is, everybody that plays on our team is. We should be."
The improved bullpen figures to account for more than a few wins this season. Last season, the Astros had difficulty closing out games. Houston blew 29 saves in 2013 -- tied with Arizona for the most in the Majors -- and its 52.5-percent save percentage was the lowest in baseball.
The veteran additions and the experienced gained last season by Kevin Chapman and Josh Fields should put the Astros in a much better position to close games. Houston has more rotation opens as well, with Feldman joining a young rotation that includes Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer.
"The pitching has taken great strides," said Castro, who blossomed into an All-Star last season. "The guys that were up last year -- some of the starters -- [got experience], and the bullpen seems to be really strong. We've seen some really good things. I'm excited to get the year started and see what a lot of these guys are going to bring to the table."
The Astros acquired Fowler, who was primed for a change of scenery from Colorado, and will plug him into the leadoff spot ahead of Grossman, Jose Altuve and Castro, giving Porter a good 1-2-3-4 combo. But how much better will the offense be? Houston ranked close to bottom in the league in runs scored, so it's going to need more from slugger Chris Carter and Dominguez in the run-production category.
"I think we put ourselves in a good position," Luhnow said. "Obviously, the games have to be played and we're in a tough division, but we really looked at what are the reasons we didn't win more games last year. Obviously, ending the year on a 15-game losing streak hurt our overall record quite a bit.
"It really came down to a lot of those close games that were hanging in the balance and not having the pitchers that were throwing strikes enough to give our guys a chance to stay in the game or maintain a lead. I think we have that this year. I really do. Whether that's a five-game difference or a 15-game difference, I think that's going to be meaningful."
Carter led the team with 29 homers and 82 RBIs in 2013, but he struck out 212 times. Dominguez bopped 21 homers and had 77 RBIs, but will have to get more disciplined, just like Carter. How much better will Marc Krauss, Carter, Dominguez, Grossman and shortstop Jonathan Villar be this year?
"If half of them are better, we're probably a better team," Luhnow said.
And don't forget the prospects expected to be in Houston later this season, specifically George Springer. The outfielder, who hit .303 with 37 homers, 108 RBIs and stole 45 bases between Double-A and Triple-A last season, will be called up at some point this season. So, too, could first-base prospect Jon Singleton.
There's no doubt the Astros have lots of question marks, but not as many as last spring.
"Going in, obviously everybody is optimistic before you've played the first game, but I genuinely believe the team will be vastly improved over last year, from a win-loss perspective," Luhnow said.