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Old 02-20-2015, 01:00 PM   #1
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New Astros manager Hinch eager for start of spring training

A.J. Hinch isn't promising a playoff run or predicting a lofty win total in 2015.

But the first-year manager of the Houston Astros is excited about his new team and can't wait to finally see it in action as spring training approaches.

"There's a general optimism and a general excitement to get down there and get the players on the field and get to the baseball," he said. "It's a long process building a team and building a coaching staff ... for me it's: 'Can we finally get to the baseball?'"

Houston's pitchers and catchers report to camp on Friday and the full squad will join them on Tuesday.

Hinch was hired in October to take over for Bo Porter, who was fired late last season in his second year in Houston. He inherited a team that made a 19-game improvement last year to win 70 games and snap a streak of three straight 100-loss seasons.

The Astros are confident they'll be better this season, but Hinch isn't in the business of making predictions about wins and losses.

"We feel like we're heading in the right direction," he said.

For the first time in a while there are plenty of positives on this young team led by second baseman Jose Altuve, who hit .341 last season to become the first Astro to win a batting title.

They also return slugger Chris Carter, who tied for second in the majors with 37 homers and added another power hitter in Evan Gattis, who has 43 home runs combined in two major league seasons. Another power threat in the lineup is George Springer, who hit 20 home runs in just 78 games as a rookie in 2014.

It's that combination of pop that has Hinch most excited about his team.

"We've got a chance to be a dangerous lineup," Hinch said. "We've got to find multiple ways to score. You can't just score via the home run. But when you start jotting down lineups — and yes I've been jotting down lineups for a little while — it starts to look like a long lineup when you feel comfortable with the guys hitting seventh, eighth, ninth as opposed to just the guys hitting in the middle of the order."

Their rotation should be improved, too, with Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh returning after breakout seasons and veteran Scott Feldman leading the group. They also addressed their biggest deficiency from a year ago by signing relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson to bolster a bullpen that blew 25 saves in 2014.

Porter was let go after reports surfaced that he and general manager Jeff Luhnow weren't getting along, leading to questions about whether Luhnow is open to varying viewpoints from his staff. Luhnow insists that he encourages healthy debate.

"It's important that we're all shooting for the same goal and working together, but we don't want everybody to be likeminded either," Luhnow said. "It's all about having the same goal, but having various ways to potentially reach that goal and really discussing them and debating them and picking the one that's best for the organization."

Houston's roster is much deeper than it has been in years and that depth will force Luhnow and Hinch to make some difficult decisions this spring. The Astros have catchers Jason Castro and Hank Conger, so they'll have to find another spot for Gattis, who has primarily played catcher in his career, but can also play left field and first base.

But they've got a glut of outfielders and will likely move new addition Colby Rasmus from center to one of the corners because they'd prefer to have Jake Marisnick in center field.

"One of the key things we tried to address this offseason was to give A.J. and his staff major league alternatives at every position," Luhnow said. "There's just a lot of options for A.J. and his staff to sort through and it may mean that 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 probably OK."

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