A long, harsh winter in many parts of the country, including Houston, will give way to Spring Training, with Astros pitchers and catchers working for the first time Saturday at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla. Mitts will be popping, faces will be hid behind sunglasses and batting practice caps and the daily grind will begin.
For the Astros, many of those faces will be new, meaning introductions will be the first order of business when camp begins. Players will begin trickling into the facility throughout the week in advance of Saturday's workout, and new manager Brad Mills arrived Friday to get the lay of the land.
Mills, who replaced Cecil Cooper as full-time manager, comes highly touted. The former bench coach for the Boston Red Sox, the 53-year-old California native gets his first shot to be a Major League manager and will be given the task of turning the 74-88 Astros into winners.
In addition to Mills, Houston has several new coaches this year: pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, first-base coach Bobby Meacham, bench coach Al Pedrique and bullpen coach Jamie Quirk. Then there's pitchers Brett Myers, Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon and third baseman Pedro Feliz, all brought in from other organizations to play key roles.
"It definitely adds some excitement," said Astros slugger Lance Berkman, who will work out for the first time Feb. 24 with the rest of the position players. "Not just the manager, but we've had a pretty big overhaul of the entire coaching staff. It's going to be a different atmosphere, no doubt. The first couple of days of camp are the most fun."
The atmosphere Mills is expected to create has already motivated some of the players who have spent time with him in the offseason. Right fielder Hunter Pence, the club's only returning All-Star from a year ago, plans to arrive Friday -- five days before the first full-squad workout.
"Obviously, I'm eager and excited to get back to Spring Training, but there's a question mark on what [Mills] is going to do and how it's going to be," Pence said. "I'm very excited to see what the difference is, and hopefully I'll learn more and be more prepared. Not necessarily because of the manager, but because of myself and what I've learned going about my business and getting ready and the work I've put in."
Lindstrom and Lyon, both acquired in December, will be the new faces of the back end of the bullpen, replacing Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins. They will compete for the closer's spot, with one bringing the heat (Lindstrom) and the other bringing the experience (Lyon).
There will also be a competition to see which player starts at catcher. Will it be former No. 1 prospect J.R. Towles or current No. 1 prospect Jason Castro, a first-round pick in 2008 considered the catcher of the future in the organization?
Perhaps the most interesting position battle will take place at the end of the rotation, with Bud Norris, Brian Moehler, Wesley Wright, Yorman Bazardo and Wilton Lopez among those in the hunt. And who knows? Somebody else could work his way into the picture.
Elsewhere, the Astros appear to be pretty much set. Berkman, Pence, Carlos Lee and Michael Bourn anchor the lineup, and Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and Myers at the top of the rotation give Houston a pretty good 1-2-3 punch.
It will be up to Mills to bring it all together, and general manager Ed Wade can't wait to see how he does.
"It always comes down to the talent on the field, but leadership plays a big part in it," he said. "I really do think the skill set Brad brings to the job is such that it should be a great experience for everybody. I'm anxious to get down there and get started."
Wade, Mills and the coaching staff will have planning meetings throughout the week while the players start to show up and work out on their own. Slowly but surely, the new players will mesh with the old and a baseball team will take shape.
"I'm excited about where we are at this point in time, and it's a chance for us to not only see a new manager in place, but also a different coaching staff and new players," Wade said. "That's what Spring Training represents. It's a chance to start over and see where the journey takes us."