The Astros are about two weeks into spring training and they played their first game yesterday. I am sure no one wanted to start off the 2011 season like they did, falling to the Atlanta Braves 13-3.
However, after only nine innings of real baseball and a handful of practices, here are 10 things that we have already learned about this team.
For the first time in almost 10 years, the Houston Astros won't start the season with Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt on their roster. Actually, Wandy Rodriguez is the only player remaining from the 2005 World Series team.
To almost completely turn over a World Series team in five years is not seen very often, but that is what the Astros have done. The positive of the team doing this is that they have put together a young nucleus of players that includes Chris Johnson, Jason Castro, Brett Wallace and J.A. Happ who have a lot of potential and look ready to tap into that in 2011.
The Astros are completely committed to the youth movement and the rebuilding process. The team has already awarded the starting positions to catcher Jason Castro, third baseman Chris Johnson, first baseman Brett Wallace and starting pitchers J.A. Happ and Bud Norris.
I also think it won't be long into this season before we see top prospect Jordan Lyles pitching for the Astros in the rotation. The fact that the Astros are playing five players with a year or less of MLB experience leads me to the next thing that we have learned...
The Astros better hope that their regulars do not go down with any serious injuries because the Astros do not have many top quality reserves backing them up. This has become an issue because the Astros are playing so many young players in 2011.
Since they have decided to go all in with the youth movement, their farm system has become depleted and, outside of Jordan Lyles, there aren't many major league-ready prospects. The reason that has become an issue is because of poor drafting over the years.
I am sure Carlos Lee will have a bounce back year this year so he won't have to answer questions about if he lost it or hear people questioning his ability at the plate. According to this article, manager Brad Mills wanted to find out where Carlos Lee was mentally this offseason and took a trip to Panama to meet up with Lee and discuss last year and expectations for this season.
Mills walked away from that trip optimistic and he, along with Lee, are both convinced that he will be able to return to form. Lee is talking the good talk and saying all the right things early in spring training, but the question remains if he will be able to back it up when the games start counting for real.
Now that Lance Berkman is gone, many people have talked about who will take over as the leader in the clubhouse. Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle does a good job of detailing the transition and the type of player Pence is in this article.
The consensus pick has been Hunter Pence and I don't think there is a better player to lead this team because he will be able to lead by example. Pence has been a fan favorite since his first season and that is because he has always played hard, with energy and enthusiasm.
This is something we already knew before spring training but free-agent signing Bill Hall will be the starting second baseman this season and manager Brad Mills is committed to Hall, who came to camp late due to the birth of his daughter.
He was held out of the first spring training game, along with Clint Barmes, because he wants to have them work together to get comfortable playing the field together. Hopefully Hall will be able to produce at the second base position for the whole season and provide some much-needed power to the lineup.
I don't think there is anyone in the majors right now who has a tougher job than Mike Barnett. He was hired this offseason as hitting coach. He will have to take over an offense that has stayed intact from last season when it was last in home runs and second-to-last in runs scored in the majors. Not to mention that he has to replace an Astros legend in Jeff Bagwell.
However, this is not Mike Barnett's first time as hitting coach as he has had two previous stints with the Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals and he has spent the past two season in the Astros organization as the minor league hitting coordinator. So he has some familiarity with players like Jason Castro and Chris Johnson and this should make his job a little easier.
Chris Johnson played very well in 2010 and he was one of the reasons the Astros had a record above .500 in the second half of the year. If the Astros hope to have that same success as a team, Chris Johnson will most likely be one of the key reasons.
He has already been awarded the third base job and will most likely be batting in the middle of the order with Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. This is a lot of pressure to be put onto a player who still hasn't played a full season in the majors, but Johnson looks up to the challenge early on in spring training.
The Astros won't become a top offense overnight, so if the Astros are going to be competitive this season, the pitching will need to be a key component this season. The good news is that the Astros do have the pieces to be a top flight rotation.
Brett Myers had a bounce back year in 2010 that no one expected and Wandy Rodriguez started off slow but pitched very well down the stretch. J.A. Happ was the key piece the Astros got in the Roy Oswalt trade, and Bud Norris had an up-and-down year but showed flashes of being a good pitcher.
Nelson Figueroa, who is the favorite to win the final spot in the rotation, had an ERA under 3.50 in his final 10 starts. However, he will have to fight off top prospect Jordan Lyles for that final spot in the rotation.
The Astros have enough talent in the rotation, as well as the bullpen, to keep the Astros competitive in 2011.
The Astros are not lacking in confidence heading into 2011, but is this a bad thing? The Astros are a young team and don't have the same talent level as some teams, but they will win games based on their determination and this confidence.
If the Astros get off to a slow start, that confidence could go away very quickly because they are a young team. This is where veterans like Pence, Lee and Bill Hall will need to step up and keep this team playing hard and confidently.