added 3/26/2012 by Bob Hulsey
If spring training is, indeed, the place where everyone has a chance to win a title and hope reigns, few camps have ever needed hope more than this year's Houston Astros.
Will they win their division? No. Will they reach .500 in September? No. Staying out of another 100-loss season may be their only viable goal during their Big Adios to the only league they've ever known.
But that doesn't mean there won't be stories to watch and players to root for. First of all, how will the team of owner Jim Crane and GM Jeff Luhnow differ than the way things were run under Drayton McLane and Ed Wade? Will Luhnow opt to liquidate the few remaining big salaries on the club or let them play out the end of their contracts in hopes that their presence will lend some stability and credibility to a team lacking in both?
Can young players like outfielder J.D. Martinez, infielder Jose Altuve, catcher Jason Castro and pitcher Jordan Lyles build on their early success and raise their game another level or will they hit the notorious "sophomore slump"? Can hitters like Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson take advantage of another chance to cement their status in the big leagues?
How will the pitchers respond to Castro and Chris Snyder behind the plate after Humberto Quintero held that job ever since Brad Ausmus' retirement? How will Brett Myers adjust to the closer role after four years in the starting rotation?
Will the defense improve or regress now that Jed Lowrie is at short, Carlos Lee is holding down first (I think) and right field is anyone's guess? How will the running game look now that Michael Bourn and Jason Bourgeois are gone?
There's more, of course, and the answers won't be clear for several months. The early inklings, though, are that the Astros will still struggle to score runs and will need to rely on solid pitching for most of the victories they get. As starting pitchers are working deeper into games, the hitters are finding it more difficult to dent front-line pitching.
Meanwhile, lefthanders Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ and Zach Duke are all struggling. Don't be too worried yet as each has to rely on sharp breaking pitches to be effective and Florida's March winds don't help that process.
Two names I didn't expect to see making the ballclub when camp started are Brian Bixler and J.B. Shuck but both are shining when the opportunities come up. They might still come up short but they've made a good run so far. Another player who has worked his way into the conversation is Kyle Weiland, the pitcher who came with Jed Lowrie when Luhnow traded Mark Melancon to the Red Sox.
Limited camp appearances by top prospects Jonathan Singleton, George Springer and Paul Clemens all looked positive.
The regular season will come soon enough to steal most of the hope that might still reside in the hopes of Astros fans but, about that time, you can get caught up in the debate over top draft prospects. Whoever is selected in the early rounds may also reveal some of Luhnow's draft philosophy.
It's too bad some of these spring wins won't carry over to the regular season but perhaps they will buoy fans with expectations of 2013 and beyond.