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Spring postcard: Icons gone so Astros start over from ground up


KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Three thoughts on the Astros after spending a couple days in camp:

1. The loss of two icons wasn't a bad thing.

Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt combined for 21 years of service to the Astros and played starring roles on its one and only National League pennant-winner in 2005. They had, in the words of general manager Ed Wade, "reached iconic stature" in Houston. But the reality of 2010 was that the Astros weren't going to win, they needed to shear some payroll and they had to re-stock the deck with talent. Two days apart in late July, Wade traded both.

It could be argued that the moves were a year or two overdue -- trading the stars when they were younger would have saved more money and netted a better haul of players in return -- but it was better late than never. Houston was 44-59 before the trading deadline and 32-27 after it.

"It is different," centerfielder Michael Bourn said of starting spring training without Berkman or Oswalt. "But I don't think it's different in a bad way. I like the team that we've got, the community that we've got, the energy we have. That was a decision made by the organization. It was a weight lifted off our shoulders one way or the other. They both were big, high-profile players. Everybody knew it throughout the whole first three months of the season -- it was like, 'Man, which way is it going to happen?'

"It's like what happened with Carmelo [Anthony] just now. After a while, it just lingers on the team. Which way is it going to go? Are they going to leave or are they going to stay?"

Wade lamented the loss of talent but received some helpful players: starter J.A. Happ, shortstop Jonathan Villar and outfielder Anthony Gose, who was then flipped to Toronto for first baseman Brett Wallace, from Philadelphia in the Oswalt trade and reliever Mark Melancon and infielder Jimmy Paredes from the Yankees for Berkman.

"It was very tough to see them go," starter Bud Norris said of Berkman and Oswalt. "But by the same token we knew we needed to have a fresh start. We needed a new face of the Astros. We've got such a young core, and I think that's what the core is now: young faces. Hopefully we're going to come up together and build a winning tradition from the ground up. They had done it themselves. Now it's time to start fresh."

2. Could the team that works out together win together?

Dr. Gene Coleman, the Astros' strength and conditioning coach since 1978, has to think back to the early 1990s to recall a time when as many players worked out together with him in the offseason as they did this winter. Those were the days when young major leaguers like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez would file into the Astrodome to prepare for the upcoming season together, as a team.

While it'd be foolhardy to project the same type of future success upon the current core -- the aforementioned group accounted for two likely Hall of Famers, two MVPs, 21 All-Star appearances and 13 Gold Gloves -- the Astros have the makings of a nucleus that should contend in the NL Central in a couple years.

Much of that group -- largely at the urging of All-Star rightfielder Hunter Pence -- worked out together at Minute Maid Park four days per week in November and December and five days per week starting in January. Among the young players working out regularly alongside Pence, 27, were third baseman Chris Johnson, 26; Norris, 25; catcher Jason Castro, 23; Wallace, 24; and outfielder Brian Bogusevic, 26.

In all, about a dozen major leaguers and the rest minor leaguers gathered to have their butts collectively kicked by Coleman.

"When they went to walk out the door," Coleman said, "they could barely walk to the door."

After workouts, the guys would get lunch together and often dinner, too. Movies and trips to Rockets game were also in the regular rotation. But the recreation was secondary to the central tenet of the program: the workouts. Coleman said Pence was the ringleader in recruiting players to Houston -- Johnson, for one, moved away from his family's home in Fort Myers, Fla., for the first time this winter -- and it would be Pence sending a text or making a call if a guy missed a session.

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Pence was, perhaps, working toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wade recalled a conversation he had with the rightfielder at the ballpark during a similar offseason workout from the previous year in which Pence recognized that he would one day succeed Berkman and Oswalt as a team leader. "I know my time is coming," Pence said that day.

This week Pence reflected on the change in tenor in the clubhouse after the team that started 0-8 and 17-34 finished the season with a 40-33 record after the All-Star break, good for fourth in the NL.

"From how bad the first half was, and we had nothing to play for, to go out there and play as well as we did, it shows the type of character we have," said Pence.

3. Step aside, Panama Jack; Here Comes Panama . . . Brad?

In the first week of November manager Brad Mills called Carlos Lee and told the slugger he'd like to visit him in his native Panama. "Yeah, sure," Mills recalled Lee saying, as if it would never happen. But Lee said the first week of January would be a good time for him, and sure enough Mills -- despite being less than two months removed from knee-replacement surgery -- made the nearly six-hour flight south to Panama City.

"[My knee] was pretty swollen when I landed," Mills recalled with a chuckle belying the discomfort he was probably in.

The genesis of the trip came a year earlier when ownership and management raised the possibility shortly after Mills was hired, but it took this long to arrange. Once on the ground, Mills spent every waking minute together, touring Lee's ranches and the Panama Canal and "talking about everything -- last year, hitting, defense, the team, spring training, the next season coming up," said Mills.

Though Lee hit 24 home runs last year, his 11th straight season with at least that many, he had a wretched start to 2010. He didn't homer until his 26th game, during which time he batted .198 with just six RBIs despite batting third, fourth or fifth each game. The Astros need better early-season production from their highest-paid player; Lee is set to make $18.5 million in 2011 and '12, the final two years on a six-year, $100 million contract.

Lee told USA Today that Mills "was there for 50 hours [and] we talked baseball for 52," an accounting that Mills didn't correct.

"That's kind of how it was," said Mills, who raved about how the enrichment gleaned from the trip. "The Latin guys come to our country on our turf and often we don't get to know them that well. He was on the team last year and we talked every day, but I thought it'd be fun to see him on his turf."

Bill Hall, 2B; Clint Barmes, SS

With the likely Opening Day lineup of Wallace at first, Hall at second, Barmes at short, Johnson at third and Castro behind the plate, Houston will have replaced its entire slate of guys who play on the dirt -- three positions with young prospects and two with the veterans Barmes and Hall.

"After making the moves we made at the trading deadline and infusing more young players into the mix," Wade said, "we felt that we needed to improve our run production but not at the expense of blocking some young guys we think are ready to compete at this level. That left us with the middle infield."

Hall wasn't a second baseman last year and Barmes wasn't a shortstop -- each played those positions for roughly 50 games, mostly during injuries to Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki -- but they'll comprise Houston's middle infield this season mostly for their bats.

Though Barmes has a career .300 on-base percentage, he hit 23 home runs in 2009; Hall hit 18 homers last year and as many as 35 in 2006. The run-starved Astros received very little pop from those spots last year: their second basemen hit seven home runs and their shortstops hit only two.

Despite the lack of recent experience at their positions, Barmes has logged 333 career games at shortstop and Hall has 155 at second.

"Our [scouts] saw a lot of Barmes when Tulowitzki went down and were really enthused with the way he played shortstop," Wade said. "We think that he's more than capable of playing good shortstop for us. Bill Hall is an athletic guy and we think he'll be fine there."

Castro, a 2008 first-round pick out of Stanford, returned to school this fall to take three classes toward his degree in business sociology. (He still needs two more to graduate.) One class this fall was archaeology of design. For a class project he was paired with two other students who happen to be pro ballplayers -- Nationals reliever Drew Storen and Astros minor-league pitcher Brandt Walker. The assignment was to describe an object's importance and role in culture as if speaking to someone from 5,000 years in the future. Their object? A baseball bat. . . . When a few Houston Rockets took batting practice at Minute Maid Park last year, Wallace said forward Chuck Hayes had the best swing. . . . After Oswalt played leftfield for the Phillies and grounded out to end a 16-inning loss to Houston last August, he was leaving Citizens Bank Park a few steps ahead of Wade, who stopped his former ace and joked, "That's why we traded you -- we knew you couldn't hit."