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Old 02-23-2016, 04:20 PM   #1
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Astros spring training start signals countdown to highly-anticipated regular season

The smell of the grass, the pop of a baseball into a glove and the crack of the bat signals that baseball is back. Spring training 2016 has arrived, and for the Houston Astros, the countdown to the season opener in New York against the Yankees April 4 has begun.

Fresh off of their magical playoff run, the early World Series chatter has started and the experts believe the Astros are a serious threat to win it all.

"It's great to be in the conversation and hear that stuff," said Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. "But all that really matters is putting in our work here and preparing for the 162 games we need to play. If we stay healthy then this season could be special."

The Astros' spring camp so far has been productive, KPRC Channel 2 Sports has found during its trip to the team's training facility. The players are young and focused on 2016.

"I really like what I am seeing from the guys already," manager A.J. Hinch said last weekend. "They have come in and put in the work and many position guys were here early, which is a great sign. I like the way they are moving around and the energy they are bringing."

All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve and Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa agree this team is built for a title run and the leadership is already in place.

"I am comfortable doing what I can do but this team has a lot of the guys ready to be leaders this season," Altuve said.

Correa added, "We like to have fun out here and keep it loose but really it's all about winning and bringing a championship to the city of Houston."

Most of the Astros lineup is already set. It begins with a deep pitching rotation led by Dallas Keuchel, Altuve and Correa in the middle infield, Jason Castro behind the plate, and an outfield that has depth with the likes of George Springer, Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and Jake Marisnick along with a few others who will compete for jobs this spring.

So what is the real question mark and potential battle this spring? In the opinion of Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, it looms squarely over first base. The job will be Jon Singleton's to lose, but he will be pushed by several others, including the Astros Minor League Player of the Year A.J. Reed. Singleton had a great offseason of work split between Houston and his home in Los Angeles. He has reported to camp in great shape and confident he can be the everyday guy.

Then there is the bullpen story to watch out for throughout the spring. That unit is deep as well, but the closer role is going to a fun competition to watch as the incumbent, Luke Gregerson, will have new arrival and hard-throwing Ken Giles to beat out. Gregerson, who is easing into camp, made it clear over the weekend he sees no reason why he should lose his job just because the Astros signed Giles over the winter. Keep an eye on this battle because it could go to the wire and perhaps into the early part of the season.

So the grind begins for the next six weeks before camp breaks. The Astros will play two exhibition games in Mexico City and then two more at Minute Maid Park before heading to New York's Yankee Stadium for the season opener April 4. A return to the scene of their Wild Card win over the Yankees in October.

Be sure to check out for more video and interviews from Kissimmee, Florida.

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