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What's in store for Astros under Mills?

What's in store for Astros under Mills?

Ten key questions about the upcoming Astros season:

What can we expect from Brad Mills in his first season as manager?

If Mills is anything like his mentor, Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona, the Astros have made a terrific hire. Mills will bring the "Red Sox way" to Houston, which means he's going to be a master communicator, organizer and motivator.

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Francona gave Mills lots of responsibility with the Red Sox, including running Spring Training and communicating with players. We've yet to see what kind of in-game strategist Mills will be, but he had plenty of success in the Minors. To help Mills' cause, the Astros have hired a top-notch pitching coach in Brad Arnsberg.

What's for certain is Mills' new, fresh approach can't be any worse than the toxic clubhouse atmosphere that was created for former Astros manager Cecil Cooper.

Can Roy Oswalt stay healthy?

Oswalt will turn 33 toward the end of next season and is far removed from his back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2004 and '05. He's been dealing with a bulging disk in his back since '07, an injury that has been causing pain in his left hip and numbness in his fingers.

Last season, the Astros shut him down in mid-September and doctors recommended he begin a swimming regimen to build core strength and back off on his running. The bottom line is the Astros need a healthy Oswalt to contend.

When Oswalt is healthy and throwing as he's capable, he's still one of the best pitchers in the game. The Astros' rotation isn't deep, and they can't afford to lose Oswalt. Considering Oswalt hasn't had surgery to repair the problem, the Astros can only hope his back problems don't return.

Can slugger Lance Berkman rebound from a subpar 2009?

At first glance, hitting .274 with 25 homers and 80 RBIs isn't a bad season. But not if you're Berkman, a career .299 hitter who's averaged 34 homers and 112 RBIs for his career. He struggled out of the gate in 2009 by hitting .162 in April and couldn't get his average higher than .281. He still walked 97 times and batted .310 after June 25.

Berkman was limited to 136 games in 2009 because of a stint on the disabled list with a strained calf, but he hasn't come close to putting up the kind of numbers he did in 2006 when he hit 45 homers and collected 136 RBIs. He'll be 34 when the season starts and likely has put his best years behind him, but he remains a key commodity.

How valuable is Berkman? Consider this: The Astros were one game out of first place when Berkman went on the disabled on July 23. When Berkman came back nearly three weeks later, the team was 7 1/2 games behind the Cardinals.

Who will be the closer?

The Astros cut ties with Jose Valverde, who saved 69 games in his two seasons in Houston, when he turned down the club's offer of arbitration in search of a multiyear deal. General manager Ed Wade was proactive and traded for hard-throwing Matt Lindstrom of the Florida Marlins and signed former D-backs closer Brandon Lyon to a three-year deal.

Both Lindstrom and Lyon have experience closing, but Lyon is the more experienced of the two. He saved 26 games for Arizona in 2008 and even allowed one hit in six innings in the playoffs that year. That could give him the nod over Lindstrom, whose stuff can be erratic at times.

Is Tommy Manzella ready for the Major Leagues?

We're apparently going to find out. No longer a youngster, Manzella will turn 27 in April and is likely going to get his chance to play shortstop on Opening Day. Everyone knows Manzella is a Major League-ready defensive player, but questions have surrounded his hitting (he's a career .268 hitter in the Minor Leagues) throughout his trek through the organization.

No one wants to prove he's ready to hit at the Major League level more than Manzella, who has great character and makeup. He's not going to approach the 199 hits Miguel Tejada gave the Astros last year at the position, but his defense could make up for plenty of his offensive shortcomings.

Can Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Wandy Rodriguez keep rising?

There's no reason to believe either Bourn, Pence or Rodriguez will take a step back next season as long as they're healthy.

Bourn hit .285, led the National League with 61 steals and won a Rawlings Gold Glove in his second season as a starter in Houston and figures only to get better with maturity. Pence made his first All-Star team in his third season with the Astros and is still only 26 years old.

Because Rodriguez, who will be 31 on Opening Day, is a little bit older and has more mediocrity under his belt than success, he's not as much of a given to improve. But he has slowly matured into what he did last season, going 14-12 with a 3.02 ERA. He finally learned to keep his emotions in check and trusted his pitches, which made him the Astros' best pitcher.

Is Bud Norris the real deal?

The Astros certainly hope so. At this point, Norris will likely begin the season as the No. 3 starter, which is no small job on a veteran team that thinks it can contend.

In his Major League debut last season, he went 3-0 in his first three starts before losing his next three. Norris worked through his problems, kept his emotions in check and went 3-0 with a 1.57 ERA in his final four starts of the season, giving the Astros hope they had finally developed a young, talented starting pitcher.

Norris appears to have the stuff and mental makeup to stick around for a while.

Who will occupy the final two spots in the starting rotation?

After Oswalt, Rodriguez and Norris, the fourth spot in the rotation is up for grabs from a handful of candidates: Felipe Paulino, Wesley Wright, Wilton Lopez and Yorman Bazardo. The Astros re-signed Brian Moehler with the plan to put him in the No. 5 spot as long as he doesn't prove to be washed up.

With that in mind, the fourth spot in the rotation is anybody's guess. Paulino has the best stuff and has been spending his offseason at Minute Maid Park, working hard to get in better shape. Wright is a former reliever who went to winter ball with hopes of coming to Spring Training as a starter.

The Astros like what they have seen from Lopez since they claimed him off waivers, even though he was 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA in eight games (two starts) in his Major League debut last year with the Astros. Bazardo had terrific numbers last year at Triple-A Round Rock, but couldn't duplicate that success in Houston.

The Astros have also invited Gustavo Chacin and Ryan Sadowski to Spring Training and could add another name to the mix before pitchers and catchers report to Kissimmee, Fla.

When will Jason Castro take over as catcher?

There are some in the organization that believe the former first-round pick will be ready on Opening Day, and others who believe it may be a few months later. No matter who you talk to, everyone believes Castro will be a franchise catcher for the Astros sooner rather than later.

A non-roster invitee to Spring Training for the Astros last season, Castro started the season in Class A Lancaster, where he hit .309 with seven home runs and 44 RBIs in 56 games before being promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi. While there, he batted .293 in 63 games and was named to Team USA for the XM Futures All-Star Game in St. Louis, where he hit a three-run homer.

In September, Castro played for the Team USA squad that went 14-1 and captured the gold medal in the International Baseball Federation World Cup. Then in October, Castro, the Astros' first-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, joined the Peoria Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League, where he went .143 (6-for-42) in 11 games.

What is left fielder Carlos Lee going to provide?

Based on his career averages over 11 seasons in the Majors, Lee will hit somewhere around .291 with 30 homers and 109 RBIs. Those aren't bad numbers, but Lee remains one of baseball's most overpaid players. He's entering the fourth year of a six-year, $100 million deal and makes more money than Albert Pujols. And he is a defensive liability in left field.

Lee remains a good run-producer and solid clutch hitter, but when you consider his contract and his inability to cover ground in left field, his impact on the club is diminished.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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