HOUSTON (AP) Five things to know about the Houston Astros as they start spring training:
SPENDING MONEY: The Astros put some money into the major league team after several years of focusing on restocking their once-barren farm system. They had the lowest payroll in the majors last season at less than $30 million and it lost a franchise-worst 111 games. Houston signed Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract to lead the rotation, will pay new center fielder Dexter Fowler $7.35 million this year and will shell out a combined $8.2 to Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers in 2014 to improve the bullpen.
PITCHING UPGRADES: Feldman joins the Astros after going 12-12 with a 3.86 ERA in 30 starts combined for the Cubs and Orioles last season. Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow called Feldman an ”experienced starter to anchor our pitching staff.” He should be a good influence on the Astros’ young pitchers, including Jarred Cosart and last year’s top overall draft pick Mark Appel. One of the biggest problems for the Astros last season was a bullpen that blew 29 saves. They addressed the issue with the signing of Crain, who was an All-Star last season and had a 0.74 ERA in 37 appearances for the White Sox.
SPRINGER LEADS PROSPECTS: While the Astros might still be two or three years away from being competitive, the improvement of Houston’s minor league system is cause for optimism. It was consistently ranked among the best in baseball by various publications this offseason. The player most likely to make it to the majors this season is outfielder George Springer. The 24-year-old hit 37 homers and 108 RBIs with 45 stolen bases combined in Double-A and Triple-A last year. First baseman Jonathan Singleton has the potential to be on the big league club at some point this season if he rebounds from a tough 2013 when he served a 50-game drug suspension. This could also be the year that Appel and right-hander Mike Foltynewicz join the Astros. The polished Appel made 10 starts between Tri-City and Low-A Quad-Cities last season after he was drafted and should start the year in Double-A Corpus Christi. The flame-throwing Foltynewicz, who has been clocked at 102 mph, had a 2.87 ERA in 23 games, 16 starts for Corpus last year. Astros fans will certainly also keep an eye on 2012 top overall pick shortstop Carlos Correa. The 19-year-old top prospect spent 2013 with Quad Cities, where he hit .320 with 33 doubles and 86 RBIs.
WILL FOWLER FLOURISH IN HOUSTON?: Fowler joined the Astros in a trade that sent last year’s starting center fielder, rookie Brandon Barnes, to Colorado. Fowler is an improvement over Barnes on defense, and he gives Houston a true leadoff hitter for the first time since Michael Bourn was traded in 2011. Fowler hit .263 with 42 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 2013, and his speed should play well in Houston’s deep center field.
CAN CARTER CUT DOWN ON Ks?: In his first full season in the majors, Chris Carter’s team-leading 29 homers were the most by an Astro since Lance Berkman also hit 29 in 2008. His power is undeniable, but he became just the fourth player in major league history to record 200 strikeouts by leading the majors with 212 Ks. The Astros hope he can cut down on strikeouts this year to be more productive offensively and up his average, which was just .220 in 2013.