We're two weeks away from pitchers and catchers hitting the field at Osceola County Stadium for the start of Spring Training. It's always a time of optimism, and that's especially true for the Astros, who are poised to have their best season in more than five years.
Still, it's not a team without some issues, and below we'll answer questions that linger for Astros fans:
Can you predict the Opening Day starting lineup? Will we start the season with a platoon at third base?
-- Evan K., Houston
Valbuena, who hit 16 homers last year with the Cubs, will get plenty of playing time at third. Whether it's a platoon situation with Matt Dominguez or Valbuena wins the job outright, the veteran infielder was brought here to get substantial playing time.
Beyond that, the other starters that are set are catcher (Jason Castro), second base (Jose Altuve) and shortstop (Lowrie). Jon Singleton will be given every shot to win the job at first base, and that will affect where players like Gattis and Chris Carter play (first, left or DH).
Rasmus will start in the outfield along with George Springer, while Jake Marisnick will be in the outfield starting mix. That will all shake out this spring, so it's hard to predict a lineup.
Who do you think will be the Opening Day pitcher? I think Dallas Keuchel has earned it. And why is there so much controversy over who is going to be our center fielder?
-- Becky B., Kingwood, Texas
Keuchel certainly deserves a chance to take the ball on Opening Day, but that honor typically goes to a veteran like Scott Feldman, who started on Opening Day last year. I would suspect Feldman would start on April 6 against 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber of the Indians. As far as center field, I wouldn't call it controversy as much as there is uncertainty. Rasmus is a center fielder, but so are Marisnick and Springer. They could all wind up starting in the outfield, but the team doesn't know who will start in center. Marisnick is the best defender of the bunch, which could make him the favorite.
I know we play in a tough division and a lot of things will have to go right for the Astros to make a Wild Card run. But this team has the talent to win 86 games. What do you think?
-- Matthew D., Friendswood, Texas
I think 86 wins is a little optimistic. The Rangers, who were ravaged by injuries last year, will be improved, and the Mariners made some additions to make a good team even better. And I see the Angels contending again. The A's aren't as strong, but I envision the Astros going from 70 wins to maybe 80-82, which is still a big step forward.
Appel is closer to the big leagues than Correa, but both could be in Houston at some point this season. Appel figures to start the season pitching at Triple-A, making him one of the first starters manager A.J. Hinch will call upon when there's a need. It's also important to remember the Astros have yet to add another starter via trade or free agency, which will make it more likely they'd reach into the Minors to fill a hole in the rotation.
Correa, who missed the second half of last season after breaking his ankle, is a prime candidate to be called up in September. He'll likely start the season at Double-A Corpus Christi, and if he keeps swinging the bat the way he's done his entire career, it would be hard to keep him out of Houston.
Is Jason Castro in the Astros' long-term plans? What is expected from him in 2015?
-- Bob P., Bethesda, Md.
It's no secret the Astros have had talks about trading Castro in recent years, but for now, he's their starting catcher. Castro struggled at the plate last year compared to his breakout season of 2013, and the club is counting on him to be a key contributor in what should be an improved lineup.
As for what the next few seasons could hold for Castro, if we've learned anything the past three years, it's that the Astros aren't afraid to shake up their roster. There's nobody in the lineup you could definitely say is in the team's long-term plans (meaning three years or more) other than Altuve and Springer.