Astros counting down days to camp

Astros counting down days to camp

HOUSTON -- To baseball fans, New Year's Eve draws parallels to Groundhog Day -- once the clock strikes midnight, it's official: six weeks until Spring Training.

The Astros front office enjoyed a relatively quiet holiday season, with the week between Christmas and New Year's Day bringing little news while everyone enjoyed a little R&R with family. Now that it's Jan. 5, however, yuletide cheer is taking a back seat to another kind of cheer, as trade rumors and speculation that fill the Hot Stove season begin to fade in favor of pitchers and catchers heading to their respective training sites.

Astros pitchers and catchers, along with manager Cecil Cooper, general manager Ed Wade, and their staffs, will set up shop in Kissimmee, Fla., no later than Feb. 14, the day of the first workout. Position players will follow just a few days later on Feb. 17, when the entire full squad will work out together for the first time.

This offseason wasn't as busy as last year, when exactly half of the players who participated in Major League Spring Training were new to the franchise. However, Wade was still active. Most recently, he acquired third baseman Aaron Boone to create a platoon situation with Geoff Blum at third, a move deemed necessary after the club discerned it would not be able to afford Ty Wigginton, who's in for a hefty payday in arbitration. Wade also signed Mike Hampton, who despite years of injury issues finished last season strongly enough to merit a low-based, incentive-laden one-year deal to return to his old team.

Hampton replaces Randy Wolf, one of the more attractive pitchers on the market who likely doesn't fit into the Astros' payroll, which is already close to the $100 million mark and won't be stretched much higher.

Other newcomers include left-handed reliever Tyler Lumden, whom the Astros acquired from the Royals in November, outfielder Jason Michaels, who signed as a free agent in December, and right-hander Jeff Fulchino, plucked off waivers from Kansas City's roster. The club also acquired two players during the Rule 5 Draft -- catcher Lou Palmisano and left-hander Gilbert De La Vara.

Although most of the Astros' roster appears to be set, Wade will continue to monitor the free-agent market for the coveted bargain that could pop up between now and Spring Training. Plenty of free agents -- quality free agents at that -- have yet to sign, and though most appear to be out of the Astros' price range, there is always the possibility of Wade nabbing a player or two to create depth and competition for roster spots during Spring Training.

Before Spring Training begins, several activities will fill the Astros' calendar through January, including the annual baseball awards banquet and a multitude of caravan stops throughout the Houston region and outer lying areas in Texas and Louisiana.

Hot Stove

The baseball awards banquet will be held on Jan. 15 in the Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Americas Convention Center Hotel. This year's honorees include team MVP Lance Berkman, Pitcher of the Year Jose Valverde and Rookie of the Year Wesley Wright. Hunter Pence will receive the Darryl Kile Award, while Dodgers outfielder James Loney will be recognized as the Greater Houston Area's Major League Player of the Year.

First-base coach Jose Cruz will receive the Houston Athletic Committee's Allen Russell Distinguished Achievement Award, and Houston Chronicle baseball reporter Neil Hohlfeld, who passed away last summer, will be honored as the recipient of the Fred Hartman Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Baseball. Members of Hohlfeld's family will be on hand to accept the award.

A multitude of players, front-office members and broadcasters are scheduled to travel hundreds of miles this month with the Astros caravan, beginning Jan. 14 with a stop in Galveston. Before the end of January, the traveling crews will make their way to Katy, The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Pearland, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Temple, Lake Charles, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Victoria, College Station, Cypress, Waco, Round Rock, Austin, San Antonio, McAllen and Laredo.

A full schedule of dates, times and participants will be released shortly, as will a date for FanFest, which like last year is expected to be held in conjunction with the exhibition games at Minute Maid Park prior to Opening Day.

Baseball season lasts seven months including the playoffs, but the business side of the game is a year-round enterprise. Wintertime has never been devoid of baseball news, but the frenetic pace of the Hot Stove season -- with all of its rumors, rumblings and innuendos -- is approaching the finish line. That's good news for fans, because that can mean only one thing -- it's almost time to play ball.

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.