Hoping to stay on the move, Astros look to take next step

HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Astros moved out of the major league basement last season.

Now the question is whether Jose Altuve and his teammates are ready to contend this year or if they still need a couple of seasons to complete their rebuild and get back to the postseason.

Owner Jim Crane is confident the time is now.

”This is our year,” he said, adding that their goal is to make the playoffs.

The Astros made a 19-game improvement in 2014 to win 70 games and snap a streak of three straight 100-loss seasons. They beefed up a bullpen that struggled last year and added more pop to a lineup that was fourth in the majors with 163 homers in 2014 in an attempt to take another step in 2015.

”These guys are all professional baseball players and they all want to win,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said. ”We’re not going to set any limitations on them. It’s up to them at this point. We’ve done our work for the offseason.”

The Astros blew 25 saves last season, a statistic that troubled Crane more than any other number associated with his team. His first order of business this offseason was to bring in players to get that number down this year.

To that end, Houston added relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Gregerson appeared in 72 games for the Athletics last season and posted a 2.12 ERA and Neshek saw action in 71 games for St. Louis in 2014 with a 1.87 ERA.

A lineup that already had power aplenty with Chris Carter, whose 37 homers tied for second in the majors last season, and George Springer, who hit 20 in just 78 games, now has more sluggers with the addition of Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus. Gattis has hit 43 homers combined in his first two major league seasons and Rasmus has hit at least 22 home runs in two of the last three years.

That power is what excites first-year manager A.J. Hinch most about his team.

”We have a chance to be a dangerous lineup,” Hinch said with a smile.

Some things to know about the 2015 Astros:

EXPECTATIONS FOR ALTUVE: Altuve became the first Astros player to win a batting title by hitting .341 last season. He set a team record with 225 hits, was third in the majors with 47 doubles, had 59 RBIs and tied for second in the league with 56 stolen bases.

So what does Luhnow expect the 24-year-old second baseman to do for an encore?

”He’s going to be a .300 career hitter, which are few and far between,” Luhnow said. ”So there’s going to be years like with most of these great hitters where they hit .340 and years that they hit .305. In my mind Altuve is an elite major league hitter and we’re going to see it year in and year out.”

SPRINGER’S SECOND YEAR: Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft, hit .231 with 20 homers and 51 RBIs in 78 games as a rookie. He injured his left quadriceps on July 20 and he didn’t play again. The Astros are eager to see what the right fielder can do in a full season.

”He’s got a ton of potential,” Hinch said. ”He’s a dynamic player. He can do a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. Everybody sort of sits up in their seats when he comes up to bat. I think there’s a chance for him to have impact in all (areas) of the game, which is hard to come by.”

CAN ROTATION BE CONSISTENT?: Dallas Keuchel (12-9, 2.93 ERA) and Collin McHugh (11-9, 2.73) had breakout seasons in 2014, but can they perform at that level in a second year to lead the rotation? Keuchel posted ERAs of over 5.00 in both of his first two seasons before being chosen this year’s opening day starter with his work last year, and McHugh had ERAs of 7.59 and 10.04 in his first two years before his success in 2014.

ANOTHER NEW SKIPPER: Counting interim managers, Hinch is the seventh manager the Astros have had since 2009. He was hired just after last season following the firing of Bo Porter, who was let go near the end of his second season.

This is the second time the 40-year-old Hinch has led a team after he managed Arizona from May 2009 until July 2010, when he was fired after 31-48 start. He was the vice president of professional scouting for San Diego from 2010 until August.