Sports

Mar 27, 2014 6:47 PM by Associated Press

Astros Feeling Optimistic

HOUSTON (AP) - Coming off three straight 100-loss seasons, the Houston Astros are confident they'll be better this year.

How much? They aren't putting a number on that. But after setting a franchise record with a whopping 111 defeats, they have a simple target.

"It's our goal to be the most improved team in major league baseball (and) I believe ... we have the group together and we can actually accomplish that," second-year manager Bo Porter said.

There are several reasons why the Astros are certain they can improve. They brought in several established players this offseason to pair with the many young players who got their first significant playing time last season. They also could get some reinforcements soon from top prospects who are inching closer to being major league ready.

General manager Jeff Luhnow's rebuilding plan has already boosted Houston's minor league system from the worst in baseball to one of the best. He expects that work to start paying dividends this season in the majors.

"We have a young team. We're still going to make some mistakes," he said. "Our young players have improved but still need some development. We brought in some veterans to help stabilize the team this year. We're going to see a big improvement as a result of those two dynamics."

Five things to know about the Astros heading into a new season:

FOWLER FLOURISHING: The Astros added Dexter Fowler in a trade that sent last year's starting center fielder, rookie Brandon Barnes, to Colorado. Fowler is an improvement over Barnes on defense, and he gives Houston a true leadoff hitter for the first time since Michael Bourn was traded in 2011. He excelled in spring training after hitting .263 with 42 RBIs and 19 stolen bases last year, and his speed should play well in Houston's deep center field.

BETTER BULLPEN: The Astros made several upgrades in an attempt to improve their relief corps after it blew 29 save chances a year ago. The biggest signing was Jesse Crain, who was an All-Star last season and had an 0.74 ERA in 37 appearances for the White Sox. But he will likely start the season on the disabled list after biceps surgery. They also added Matt Albers, who went 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA with Indians last season, and Chad Qualls, who posted a 2.61 ERA with the Marlins.

CARTER'S POWER: Designated hitter Chris Carter led the Astros and was 11th in the American League with 29 home runs in his first full season in the majors last year. The Astros love his power, but are looking for ways to improve his sub-.230 average and cut down on strikeouts after he led the majors with 212 in 2013.

FELDMAN LEADS ROTATION: The Astros made their first sizable financial investment in years by signing right-hander Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract to lead the rotation. Feldman went 12-12 with a 3.86 ERA in 30 starts combined for the Cubs and Orioles last season and will be Houston's fifth different opening day starter in five years.

PREPARING FOR PROSPECTS: This should be the year that both outfielder George Springer and first baseman Jon Singleton make their major league debuts. The pair of prospects will start the season in Triple-A Oklahoma City, but don't expect either player to be there long. The 24-year-old Springer hit 37 homers and 108 RBIs with 45 stolen bases combined in Double-A and Triple-A last year, but hit just .161 this spring for the Astros before being reassigned to minor league camp. "I do fully expect that he'll spend a large portion, if not the vast majority of the year in Houston given what he accomplished last year at the two levels, which really was a historic minor league season," Luhnow said. "Even if he gives us 80 percent of that production or 70 percent in Houston, it will be really fun for our fans to watch. We're close and it's exciting." Singleton should be Houston's long-term solution at first base, but will have to prove himself in Triple-A before that can happen after he hit .154 this spring before also being sent to minor league camp. The left-handed slugger looks to bounce back from a tough 2013 when he dealt with an addiction to marijuana and spent time last season in a rehabilitation center during a 50-game suspension after testing positive for the drug.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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