|Jason Castro is having a good spring after missing 2011 following surgery. (Getty Images)|
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- What I like, and don't like, about the Astros:
• Lots of energy in camp. Granted, there's a whole lot of energy -- and not many wins -- in your local Day Care Center, too. But give the stripped-down Astros an A for guts. Stuck in a bad situation with nothing in the farm system, they started a total gutting last summer under deposed general manager Ed Wade and have continued it under new GM Jeff Luhnow. This is no half-hearted rebuild -- there are kids everywhere. Thus, the energy level. "We're playing games as if it they mean something," Luhnow says of the way the Astros are attacking the Grapefruit League. "We want that attitude from the players, that we're good enough to compete in this league." And? Trying to win, they were 9-8 in Grapefruit League play through midweek. It's something.
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• Improving farm system. Not that there's another Roy Oswalt or Lance Berkman on the horizon, but the haul from dealing Hunter Pence to Philadelphia and Michael Bourn to Atlanta last summer netted the Astros five of their current top 10 prospects according to Baseball America: First baseman-outfielder Jonathan Singleton (No. 1), right-hander Jared Cosart (2), right-hander Paul Clemens (5), outfielder Domingo Santana (6) and lefty Brett Oberholtzer (7). Which tells you how fallow the system was before last summer.
• Catcher Jason Castro is having a good spring, and that's no small statement considering he missed all of 2011 after having surgery on his right knee and then had a surgery on his left foot over the winter. "He's a talented player, a really talented player," manager Brad Mills says. He still hasn't started consecutive games in Grapefruit League action, but the Astros expect him to do so soon. They're confident enough in his talent and in his physical condition that, with veteran backup Chris Snyder on hand, they dealt Humberto Quintero to the Royals earlier this week.
• Look, it's another chapter in the career of Livan Hernandez. Right now, the Astros won't even admit he'll be in their rotation. The fixtures: Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ. Mark Hernandez down -- I'll say it even if the Astros won't. Kyle Weiland is the clubhouse leader for the final spot, though Jordan Lyles and former Pirate Zach Duke are in the mix, too. Hernandez fits because the Astros need a veteran who can throw lots of innings, and who knows, Rodriguez could be gone by the July trade deadline. "I was with Livan in 2003 in Montreal, and he's a big competitor," manager Brad Mills says. "He's going to give you an opportunity to win ballgames. It might not be pretty all the time, but that's what he does."
• You can pick out a few positives here and there, but for a team that lost 106 games last year and is seriously lacking talent, that's like putting lipstick on a pig, as a certain somebody once said. You cannot look around this franchise without seeing bulldozers, hard hats and construction cones right now. Last year was a nightmare, a season Mills hopes was the low point. "We were in a situation where we had to do something," Mills says. "You can't stay with the status quo. To rebuild, you've got to tear down. You can't remodel all the time. Remodeling is not working."
• This is not the program Mills signed up for in 2010. But what are you going to do? Things change and very few promises are made in this game. "You're talking to a guy who managed for 11 years in the minors, and coached for another 11 years at the major-league level," Mills says. "Where we're at with this ballclub, this is very energizing for a guy like me, and for the whole coaching staff. I'm very excited, and the players are very excited."
• Key to whether the Astros will exceed their club-record 106 losses from 2011? "If they stay the course with Livan and Wandy, they won't lose 106 games again," says one National League scout. Translation: If they trade those two, Carlos Lee and maybe even Brett Myers in a continuing effort to re-stock the farm system, look out.
• On deck: The American League. Figures. Here comes Carlos Lee, chugging into the final year of his contract ... and all along, there's been no place for him to DH. Most Astros fans seem to hate the impending move, and given the organization's dearth of talent, it seems like it'll be decades before they're ready to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Angels, Tigers and other AL monsters. But as new owner Jim Crane notes, there's a new TV deal coming next year, Houston should soon be the third-largest city in the United States (behind New York and Los Angeles) and he expects the Astros to become one of the top five or six clubs in the game in terms of revenue. Which means a much larger player payroll. And as new GM Jeff Luhnow says, "We don't have to share our market with another team, which should accelerate our growth."