Astros try to tune out expectations and focus on improvement
HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Astros aren't letting their status as a trendy pick to win the World Series affect their preparation for the season.
''We're not afraid of the expectations, but we're not going to prepare as if it's a foregone conclusion,'' manager A.J. Hinch said. ''We haven't done anything yet. We just have the foundation built to have high standards and to have high expectations and now we have to go prove it.''
The Astros are looking to take the next step after a season where they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. They beat the Yankees in a wild-card game before falling to eventual champion Kansas City in the American League Division Series.
They return most everybody from that 86-76 team.
''It's a good feeling,'' catcher Jason Castro said. ''Obviously we have most of the guys back that were on the team last year and I think that really kind of adds to the enthusiasm and optimism for the 2016 season. So you can definitely feel it. Guys expect to win now and it's a nice atmosphere change around here.''
It's a major turnaround from the recent history of this team that had three straight 100-loss season from 2011-13 as they shipped all their established players out to rebuild from within.
Houston turned things around last year with exceptional seasons by left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who won the AL Cy Young Award, and shortstop Carlos Correa, the AL Rookie of the Year.
Hinch is proud of his team's accomplishments, but is careful to make sure that his players know that what happened a year ago doesn't count for anything now.
''We have every opportunity to have a fun season,'' Hinch said. ''But it doesn't really get you anywhere until you get the wins, until you play the six month schedule.''
Some things to know about the 2016 Astros.
Keuchel will make his second straight opening-day start when he takes the mound on Monday against the Yankees. The Astros brought him along a bit slower than their other pitchers this spring after he threw an MLB-leading 232 innings and 14 more in the playoffs in 2015. He isn't worried about the innings piling up and hopes to pitch even more this season because ''that means we get deeper into the playoffs.''
Keuchel became Houston's first Cy Young winner since Rogers Clemens won it in the National League in 2004 with a season where he had a career-high 20 wins with a 2.48 ERA in 33 starts.
WHO'S ON FIRST?
The Astros will most likely have a rookie playing his first major league game at first base on opening day in Tyler White. A 33rd-round draft pick in 2013, White earned the job left vacant when the Astros didn't offer a contract to Chris Carter with a solid spring - he entered Wednesday hitting .348 with two homers and 10 RBIs. Jon Singleton was the favorite to get the job entering camp, but he struggled, hitting just .151 and was optioned to minor league camp earlier this week. Singleton signed a five-year, $10 million contract in 2014 and the Astros hope he can figure things out in Triple-A and make his way back to Houston at some point this season.
STATUS OF GATTIS
Designated hitter Evan Gattis is unlikely to be ready for opening day because he hasn't recovered from surgery to repair a sports hernia on Feb. 9. He's taken minor league at-bats and has been running at about 70 percent, but has yet to appear in a spring training game. The 29-year-old hit .246 with 27 homers and 88 RBIs - both career highs - last year in his first season in Houston.
Correa set a franchise record for home runs by a rookie with 22 despite spending the first third of the season in the minors. He hit .279 with 68 RBIs, 45 extra-base hits - 22 doubles - to give the Astros their first rookie of the year since Jeff Bagwell won the NL award in 1991. Houston's success last season made him more determined to improve this year and help the Astros pick up their first championship.
''I'm focused on the team and helping my team,'' Correa said. ''My top goal is winning a championship. To me that's the most important thing ... when we show up to spring training like we did this year we were like: `Man, we were so close, but still we can improve and get better.'''