HOUSTON -- The Astros will enter 2013 preparing to play in a new environment in the American League, sporting sharp new blue-and-orange uniforms and with a new manager in Bo Porter. A little change is definitely in the air.
The fresh-look Astros will usher in a new era when they become the first team to switch to the AL, joining the AL West at a time when it's arguably the toughest division in baseball. And this is the year the Astros hope to see real strides in their rebuilding efforts.
Coming off a combined 213 losses the past two seasons, the Astros are enthusiastic about the talent they've amassed in the Minor League system the past couple of years, thanks to numerous trades and the First-Year Player Draft. They finally have some young talent to get excited about, but how quickly will they compete?
"You can't worry about the end result so much; you have to more so worry about the portion that you can control, which is the process," Porter said. "We will spend the entire spring, the entire season, each and every game, taking advantage of teachable moments, because we have a young ballclub and we want them to understand that this is the Major Leagues and you're in the Major Leagues because we believe you are a Major League player."
While some of the club's young talent -- led by slugger Jonathan Singleton and pitcher Jarred Cosart -- will get a chance to win a spot on the Major League club in 2013, the Astros have some core players they will try to build around in the AL.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow likes the way the middle of the infield shapes up with Jed Lowrie, who was having an All-Star-caliber season in 2012 before he was sidelined by injuries, and All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. Catcher Jason Castro appears ready to break out, and the top of the rotation contains promise in Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles.
Beyond that, the remaining roster spots appear to be up for grabs. The Astros are going to give third baseman Matt Dominguez and first baseman Brett Wallace chances to win jobs, and Justin Maxwell figures into the outfield mix. Then there's players like J.D. Martinez and Jimmy Paredes, both of whom will need to build on their gaudy Minor League numbers.
Porter says he'll bring energy and passion to the Astros next season, but his biggest job will be trying to find out which one of the team's young players is ready to stick around for the future.
When the club hits Kissimmee, Fla., in February for Spring Training, there figures to be no shortage of competition for jobs, but there are the many questions that need to be answered:
1. How will the Astros fare in the rugged AL West?
No one expects Houston to have much of an impact in the division in 2013, considering the Astros are still in the fairly early stages of their rebuilding process. A new brand of baseball -- hello designated hitter -- will take some adjustments, especially for the pitching staff. The A's will be motivated to repeat as division champs, the Rangers aren't set up for a step back any time soon and the Angels will mean dealing with Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Astros nemesis Albert Pujols. The Mariners are on the rise, too, so Houston has its work cut out.
2. Is Porter the right man for the job?
Porter, hired away from the Washington Nationals in September, promises the Astros will play hard and fundamentally solid, and he says he'll bring intensity to the dugout next season. He's surrounded himself with a diverse field staff and he knows there are going to be growing pains. He'll have an extremely young and inexperienced roster in one of the toughest divisions in baseball, so let's hope Bo knows patience.
3. Is Castro ready for a breakout season?
Castro, the Astros' first-round Draft pick in 2008, lost his entire 2011 season due to a devastating knee injury, but he came back last season. He was limited to 87 games due to his health and wound up hitting .257 with six homers and 29 RBIs, including a .281 average and five homers and 17 RBIs in his final 160 at-bats. It appears Castro might have what it takes offensively, but he'll have to shore up his defense in '13.
4. Will the DH mean more run production?
The Astros signed Carlos Pena on Dec. 17 to become their first full-time designated hitter, hoping he can help the team boost its poor run production from 2012. Pena has hit 191 home runs since 2007 and draws a lot of walks, but he belted only 19 homers last year and hit .197. The Astros can only hope his addition to the lineup will make it easier for the club to score runs.
5. Can Harrell do it again?
The right-hander came out of nowhere in 2012 and was the team's most consistent starting pitcher, going 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA as a rookie. He ranked second among all rookies in innings pitched with 193 2/3 and was second among National League rookies in wins. If the Astros can count on Harrell to put up similar numbers next season, they have one less thing to worry about in their rotation.
6. Which prospects will have the biggest impact on the Major League club?
Some of the Astros' up-and-coming Minor League talent is finally starting to reach the Majors, led next season by Singleton and Cosart. Both will be competing for jobs with the Astros in 2013. Outfielder George Springer, pitcher Mike Foltynewicz and second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. might be further away, but don't be surprised to see another youngster make his way to Houston by year's end.
7. Will Norris rebound?
Norris endured a difficult 2012 season, struggling with inconsistency when he wasn't dealing with a variety of health problems. The result was a 7-13 record in which Norris went 0-12 with a 6.17 ERA in 18 starts from May 26-Sept. 20. He's got the stuff to be a dominant starting pitcher at the Major League level and he's shown glimpses of what he can do, but can he put it all together as the team moves to the AL?
8. Is Altuve the real deal?
The diminutive 22-year-old made the NL All-Star team in a season in which he finished with a .290 batting average, seven homers, 37 RBIs and 33 stolen bases, which ranked seventh in the NL. He was about as steady as they come on both sides of the ball and could still develop even further. The Astros will have DeShields knocking at the door soon at second base, but it's Altuve's job for now.
9. Is this the year Lyles gets it all together?
Lyles pitched all season at 21 years old in 2012, which made him one of the youngest starting pitchers in the Majors. His youth and inexperience showed at times, as he went 5-12 with a 5.09 ERA in 25 starts, but he's got enough experience under his belt for fans to expect more. He finished the season strong, throwing a shutout in his final start and going 3-2 in his last seven starts. The Astros hope that was the beginning of something big for Lyles.
10. What is Lowrie capable of doing in a full season?
Lowrie was having one of the best offensive seasons by a shortstop in Astros history last season before injuries got in the way. Still, he set career highs in games (97) and at-bats (340) despite missing 52 games in the middle of the season because of a leg injury. He wound up hitting .244 with 16 homers and 42 RBIs and showed good pop for his position and stature. The challenge now will be trying to avoid those nagging injuries and getting 600-plus at-bats.