After big '15, Astros to hit camp looking forward

Houston has key returning players, newcomers; could see battle for first base

After big '15, Astros to hit camp looking forward

HOUSTON -- A surprising 2015 season gave way to a winter filled with awards and recognition. With Spring Training set to begin later this week in Kissimmee, Fla., the Astros will have to put their past successes behind them and gear up for what many believe will be another run into the playoffs.

October is a long way from the fresh grass of spring, and the Astros have many questions to answer, though not as many as in years past. They're set at most defensive positions and have the deepest rotation and bullpen they've had in years, but like most teams, they're still banking on staying healthy and having their core players perform up to expectations.

Comeback candidates | Newcomers | Prospects to watch

It will be up to second-year manager A.J. Hinch to make sure the Astros put 2015 in the rearview mirror as they hit spring camp with high hopes.

"The game itself will humble you if you're not aware of your surroundings," Hinch said. "They're not going to give us anything. I've been in the game long enough to go through a lot of different teams who came to camp feeling good about themselves, and misfortune or injury or underperformance or something gets in their way. I'll be pretty direct with our guys to make sure we don't look back too far into last season because it doesn't count on this season's record."

Still, the 2015 season sets the stage for this year. Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh proved their '14 breakout seasons were no fluke and combined for 39 wins, with Keuchel taking home the American League Cy Young Award. Rookies Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers made their debuts and flashed star potential.

Meanwhile, Jose Altuve returns as one of the game's best hitters, and the Astros will also have key newcomers, such as relief pitcher Ken Giles and starting pitcher Doug Fister, in camp. The team is also banking on strong contributions from catcher Jason Castro, designated hitter Evan Gattis and outfielders Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and George Springer.

"You see the excitement around our team and what's possible," Hinch said.

The Astros will have 61 players in camp this year, though not many jobs are up for grabs. The biggest free-for-all will be at first base, where Jon Singleton, A.J. Reed, Tyler White and Matt Duffy will battle for the starting spot. An external candidate could still be brought in, as well.

"It's going to be a fierce competition throughout the spring, and when you have a team that has some expectations and feels good about it, someone's got to step up and take the at-bats," Hinch said. "They're all going to get an opportunity."

The remaining spot in the bullpen could be determined by who doesn't make the rotation from among Scott Feldman, Mike Fiers and Fister. Houston could use a second lefty to join Tony Sipp in the 'pen. Beyond that, the Astros will be hoping for good health along with a hunger to advance deeper into the playoffs.

Houston hits spring built to contend.

"Ultimately, our goal is to be able to look up every year and know we have a good shot at winning the division and a shot to go to the World Series and win a championship," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "I want a Houston Astros ring. I want that really badly, and I want it as soon as possible."

Pitchers and catchers report
Thursday

Full squad reports
Feb. 22

First Spring Training game
Away vs. Phillies, March 3, 12:05 p.m. CT

Opening Day
Away vs. Yankees, April 4, 12:05 p.m. CT

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