HOUSTON -- This time last year, Astros manager A.J. Hinch played the role of salesman as he tried to convince fans his team was worth watching in 2015. That was a difficult task considering the Astros had averaged 104 losses over the previous four seasons -- and apathy was high.
One year, 86 wins and a memorable October run later, Hinch manages an exciting club on the rise and now talks about expectations of another playoff run. Hinch joined players Jon Singleton and Marwin Gonzalez in an Astros question-and-answer session with dozens of employees at the ConocoPhillips world headquarters on Wednesday as part of the team's annual Caravan.
"There's a lot of excitement," Hinch said. "There's anticipation for our season. The city fell in love with our team, and a lot of the same players are coming back, which is nice. And we've made some additions. I think the optimism is real. It's exciting. We have a lot of work to do leading up to spring, but I don't think you could ask for a better reception."
Hinch, entering his second year in Houston, likes the fact most of his club returns from last year, with the addition of Ken Giles as closer to bolster the bullpen. The club lost, among others, slugger Chris Carter and starting pitcher Scott Kazmir in free agency, but the Astros re-signed outfielder Colby Rasmus and left-handed reliever Tony Sipp to fill two key needs.
Four weeks away from the start of Spring Training, Hinch said general manager Jeff Luhnow is still working to make the team better. The Astros have been reportedly interested in free-agent starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo, who would cost them a Draft pick if he signs in Houston.
"Jeff and his group are working really hard behind the scenes, and the good news for us is, provided we're healthy, we've got a group we feel good about right now," Hinch said. "I think it's always a hunt for getting ourselves a little bit better because I think what we saw last year is if we could have been a touch better, or played a touch better, anything could have happened."
"The health of all those guys is very critical," Hinch said. "I think the addition of Ken Giles is a big deal, the return of Tony Sipp and Colby Rasmus. Not a lot of the names have changed, but the outlook of what's possible has definitely been optimistic."
Hinch embraces the expectations the team will face in 2016. They've reached the point where a trip to the playoffs again is the only way to define a successful season. Yes, the Astros have come a long way in a year.
"I think the reality is there's a lot more talk than there was a year ago, but it doesn't really change the way we prepare, doesn't change the way we compete," Hinch said. "I'll let our players and our staff and our coaches reflect on 2015 until we get to camp, and then I think it's about 2016 and what's ahead. We've put ourselves in a position to be relevant and have a good team, but you've got to play every game in order to get there. There will be no looking too far forward or relishing in some of the attention we get because you've got to play the games."