Offseason moves bring hope to Houston as camp opens

Offseason moves bring hope to Houston as camp opens

HOUSTON -- After an offseason filled with moves to improve the bullpen, starting pitching rotation and lineup, as well as the hiring of a new manager in A.J. Hinch, the Astros are hoping 2015 is the season winning baseball returns to Minute Maid Park.

The Astros, who improved by 19 games last year en route to posting 70 wins in their second year in the American League West, are poised to make another surge this year, thanks to the new faces and an improving young core group of players, led by Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer.

"There's a lot of optimism, but we've got to see it all come together," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "There's a lot of new faces in the clubhouse, a new manager and a lot of new staff members. There's a component of putting all this together during the offseason, but how does it all jell once you start playing?"

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The Astros began the offseason with the goal of improving their bullpen and made a big impact by signing veteran relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson in December. When they're paired with Chad Qualls, the relief corps should be drastically improved.

Luhnow then turned his attention to the offense, signing shortstop Jed Lowrie, who played for the Astros in 2012. The team then pulled off trades to acquire slugger Evan Gattis from the Braves and third baseman Luis Valbuena from the Cubs and signed outfielder Colby Rasmus. Hank Conger was brought in to back up catcher Jason Castro.

The Astros also acquired starting pitcher Dan Straily from the Cubs in a deal that sent Dexter Fowler to the north side of Chicago, and signed veterans Roberto Hernandez (rotation) and Joe Thatcher (bullpen) to Minor League deals with invites to Spring Training.

Of course, the Astros return 2014 American League batting champion Altuve along with Castro and last year's rookie sensation Springer, who slugged 20 homers in just 79 games. The rotation features four solid choices at the top with Scott Feldman, Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Brett Oberholtzer.

Altuve is coming off a season in which he shattered the club record with 225 hits en route to leading the Majors with a .341 batting average and the AL with 56 steals. Keuchel and McHugh were among the best starters in baseball, and Keuchel took home the team's first Gold Glove for a pitcher.

"We think we have a really good group," Luhnow said. "There's optimism throughout. I can feel it, from the clubhouse to the fans. There's a general excitement about the Astros, and I have a feeling this team is going to be a really fun team to watch."

Hinch, hired in September, has had a huge hand in the moves the Astros made this winter and feels good about the chemistry and the potential on the field.

"We should have a great spring both in terms of all adapting to each other, but also playing a lot of baseball," Hinch said. "We have competition on the field for some roles on our team, but with the new additions, there's going to be a lot more talk about preparation and getting these guys ready. We'll fill in with the other competition spots around our team, but we're all excited to see this group of players together on the field at the same time."

Pitchers and catchers report
Saturday

Full squad reports
Feb. 24.

First Spring Training game
Home vs. Phillies, March 5, 12:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day
Home vs. Indians, April 6, 6:10 p.m. CT

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.