Astros looking to answer 3 key spring questions

Outfield lineup, fifth starter and closer's role will be determined in camp

Astros looking to answer 3 key spring questions

HOUSTON -- A new era in Astros baseball under first-year manager A.J. Hinch and a host of fresh faces in the clubhouse is poised to begin on Friday when pitchers and catchers report to Osceola County Stadium in advance of Saturday's first workout.

Hinch, who was hired the day after the regular season, inherits a club that expects to be improved over last year's 70-92 mark, which was a 19-game improvement from 2013. Hinch arrived at camp on Tuesday and more than a dozen players have trickled in so far. Position players report on Tuesday and work out for the first time on Wednesday.

The new-look Astros should have as many as four different players in a starting lineup that could boast eight who drove in at least 50 runs in 2014. The bullpen is much improved with the additions of Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, and everyone returns from a rotation that logged the best club ERA in nine seasons.

2015 Spring Training: Astros

"I think there's a general optimism and general excitement to get down and get the players on the field and get to baseball," Hinch said. "It's an ongoing process building a team behind the scenes, building a coaching staff this year, a lot of the changes that were made on and off the field. For me, it's just, 'Can we finally get down to baseball?'"

The optimism stems from the signings of Neshek and Gregerson, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielder Colby Rasmus, along with the trades that brought over catcher Hank Conger, third baseman Luis Valbuena, outfielder/designated hitter Evan Gattis and starting pitcher Dan Straily. Houston also returns AL batting champion Jose Altuve.

Outlook: Neshek, RP, HOU

The Astros will take all spring to figure out who plays where on defense, but they've added quality depth that gives them options they haven't had in recent years.

"It may mean there's a guy on the bench that should be starting, and if that's the worst thing that happens to us this year, that's OK," general manager Jeff Luhnow said.

1. How will the outfield be configured?
Make no mistake, there's an outfield glut. Newcomer Rasmus will start somewhere with up-and-coming star George Springer in the outfield, while athletic Jake Marisnick will be in the mix. Rasmus is a center fielder by trade, and Marisnick and Springer can play anywhere, though Springer saw most of his time in right field. Alex Presley, Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes are all versatile hands that can play all over the outfield, and Gattis figures to get some time in left field as the Astros find a way to get his bat in the lineup. Hinch will spend the spring trying to piece it all together.

Outlook: Marisnick, OF, HOU

2. Who's going to be the fifth starter?
The Astros, who appear set with Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Brett Oberholtzer at the top of the rotation, made a run at Ryan Vogelsong before settling for Roberto Hernandez. They also acquired Straily in a trade, and have other candidates for the fifth spot in Alex White, Jake Buchanan, Samuel Deduno and Asher Wojciechowski. Brad Peacock, who had hip surgery in the fall and is behind his teammates, will be in the picture when he's healthy.

Outlook: Qualls, RP, HOU

3. Who's going to be the closer?
The signings of Neshek and Gregerson were made to bolster a bullpen that's been among the league's worst the last few years, and Hinch will have to decide how the back end is configured. Look for Gregerson to get a shot to be a full-time closer for the first time, though Chad Qualls did a nice job in that role last year -- at least, when he wasn't facing the Oakland A's. The bottom line is the back end of the bullpen should be much improved.

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.