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Astros eager to improve club this offseason

With free agency set to start early next week, the Astros are already doing their homework in preparation of being active in the market, general manager Jeff Luhnow said.

The Astros, coming off a season in which they improved by 19 wins, are seeking to upgrade their bullpen, corner infield and add some power to the outfield and are willing to increase their payroll by at least $20 million more to achieve those goals.

Luhnow said the Astros have already targeted a list of players they want to go after and will be soon reaching out to their agents to express interest.

“It’s just a matter of how much interest they’re going to get and what kind of timetable they want to run,” Luhnow said. “But we’ll be there, we’ll be involved.”

Luhnow has already reached out to about a dozen teams and had relatively in-depth conversations about offseason needs while starting to explore the trade market. By the time Luhnow gets to the General Mangers’ Meetings in Phoenix early next month, he’ll have talked to every team prior to getting a chance to sit face-to-face with some teams.

“There’s been some turn over in front offices,” Luhnow said. “We think we know what players might be available, but you never know until the season’s over and people are taking stock of their areas of improvement and where they have excess and you never know where there’s going to be a match. You’ve just go to talk to everybody.”

When asked if the Astros would be active this offseason, Luhnow didn’t hesitate.

“I think we will sign a free agents, and I think we’ll make a trade or two,” he said. “That’s status quo for us. I don’t have anything necessarily in the works or specifically in mind right now. You definitely think of ways you improve your team every conversation you have.”

Peacock could miss start of regular season

Astros right-hander Brad Peacock could miss the start of the 2015 regular season while he recovers from arthroscopic surgery performed earlier this month on his right hip to repair a torn labrum and remove bone spurs.

Peacock, whose surgery was performed by Dr. Thomas Byrd in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 6, said he will be on crutches for five more weeks before undergoing two months of rehab, but said Tuesday he’s already feeling better.

“I can already stretch my leg farther than I did before surgery,” he said.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said Peacock’s rehab will put him behind at the start of spring camp next year, which could impact his readiness for the beginning of the season.

“It looks like he’s going to be rehabbing and will not be ready for the start of Spring Training, and at this point is questionable for the start of the season,” he said. “But we’re hoping it won’t be too far into the season he’ll be ready to go 100 percent.”

Peacock started the season in the bullpen before making 24 starts in the rotation, setting career highs in appearances (28), starts (24), innings pitched (131 2/3) and strikeouts (119). He went 4-9 with a 4.72 ERA.

Peacock, who tenuously held down the No. 5 spot in the pitching rotation late in the year, dealt with back problems in September, which could have been a result of his hip injury.

“My hip has locked up the last couple of years, but it didn’t really hurt when I pitched,” he said. “When [assistant athletic trainer] Rex [Jones] was stretching me this year, it kind of worsened and I couldn’t stretch my leg out. He wanted to get it checked out, and we did and I had surgery.”

Peacock said an MRI at the end of the season showed some arthritis in the hip, and doctors weren’t sure what they would find until they performed surgery.

“He went in and I woke up and they told me what happened: torn labrum and a little piece of bone lodged in my hip,” he said. “They did some clean up.”

Luhnow said doctors believed surgery would be the best option.

“He felt it during the season, but it was kind of off and on,” he said. “We had the doctors look at it and they decided they wanted to take care of it. I think it will be beneficial for him in the long term, but it does mean he’s going to get off to a late start in the spring.”

Because the procedure was microfracture surgery, Peacock said it doubled the amount of time he’ll have to wear crutches and rehab.

“They said it could be causing my back problems and I was like, ‘Heck yeah, let’s do it,’” he said. “I’ve been having some back problems the past couple of years also. I wanted to go it as soon as possible.”

Fowler to join Altuve in Japan

Astros outfielder Dexter Fowler said Saturday he had accepted an invitation to play for the MLB All-Star team during the All-Star Series 2014, which is a five-game series against Japan’s national team next month in Japan.

Fowler was invited by the Major League Baseball Players Association to join the tour, which includes Astros teammate Jose Altuve. Fowler hit .276 with a .375 on-base percentage and eight homers and 35 RBIs in his first season with the Astros.

“It’s an honor to be accepted to represent MLB in Japan for the Japanese tour,” Fowler said. “I’m very excited and humbled at the opportunity.”

The team, which will be managed by John Farrell, includes MLB All-Stars Robinson Cano of the Seattle Mariners, Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The first game will be held on Nov. 12 at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka, with games two through five at the Tokyo Dome Nov. 14-16. The fifth and final game will be No. 18 at the Sapporo Dome in Sapporo. Two exhibition games will complement the five-game series, with one game in Osaka (Koshien Stadium) and the other in Okinawa (Okinawa Cellular Stadium).

Keuchel a Gold Glove finalist in AL

Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel is one of three finalists at his position selected Thursday as a finalist for a Rawlings Gold Glove Award, joining Mark Buehrle of the Blue Jays and Felix Hernandez of the Mariners.

Keuchel, a left-hander, is vying to become the first Astros pitcher to win a Gold Glove and the first Astros player in the American League to receive the honor. Houston hasn’t had a Gold Glove winner since outfielder Michael Bourn won his second in a row in the National League in 2010.

According to FanGraphs, Keuchel led Major League pitchers with 10 defensive runs saved compared to the average player at his position.

The winners will be revealed at 6 p.m. CT Nov. 4 on ESPN2.

The award is based 75 percent on input from AL managers and coaches and 25 percent on defensive metrics. As many as seven personnel per team may vote for the award, but voters are prohibited from selecting someone from their own team.

Buehrle is a four-time Gold Glove winner (2009-11 in AL, ’12 in the NL).

Astros, Nats get funding approved for new spring site

The Astros cleared a major hurdle in relocating their Spring Training operations to Palm Beach County, Florida, on Tuesday when county commissioners voted to approve a financing plan for a new facility the club will share with the Nationals. The teams have 90 days to find a location for the complex.

County commissioners voted, 5-2, to allocate $108 million in hotel tax revenue for the facility, which will cost $135 million to build. The Astros have two years remaining on their lease at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., and are aiming to hold their first Spring Training in south Florida by 2017.

“We still have a little bit of work to do to find the right location, but the funding for it has been approved,” Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe said.

Kibbe said the Astros are considering a list of four or five potential sites, one of which will not be a 160-acre spot in West Palm Beach where the teams were hoping to build. The county compiled a list of potential sites earlier this year.

“We have several locations that we’re looking at,” Kibbe said. “We just need to figure out which one is the best location for everyone involved, the teams, the county and the communities. But there are multiples sites to look at and I’ll get to work on that evaluation and hopefully get this moving forward was quickly as possible. Today was important in that the financing has been approved and we’re ready to go.”

By moving to south Florida, the Astros and Nationals would give the area five teams during Spring Training. The Cardinals and Marlins share a site in Jupiter, which is in northern Palm Beach County, and the Mets are in Port St. Lucie, which is 33 miles north of Jupiter.

The Astros have held Spring Training at Osceola County Stadium since 1985 and will likely have only two years remaining there before moving south. The Nationals have held Spring Training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., since they moved from Montreal in 2005.

“The timing of it depends on what happens as far as how quickly we move forward with the location and when the construction will start,” Kibbe said. “It’s a little up in the air as to when the facility would open. If we find a suitable location we’ll start moving as quick as we can. I’m just not sure when construction will start. Our plan is to try to get the new facility open in January of 2017.”

Mallee takes job with the Cubs

Astros hitting coach John Mallee has accepted the position as the Cubs’ Major League hitting coach.

Mallee just finished his second season with the Astros and helped Jose Altuve win the American League batting title while the club made offensive strides as a whole.

Mallee could have returned to the Astros under new manager A.J. Hinch, but he’s from Chicago and couldn’t pass up the chance to return home where his family lives.

“Dream come true,” Mallee said in a statement. “I have been in professional baseball as a player or coach for over 20 years and have never had an opportunity to see my family during the season until now. I grew up a Cub fan and always dreamed of standing on the field and representing this amazing franchise.

“Leaving the Houston Astros is the toughest decision I’ve  ever had to make. Amazing owner, general manager, front office and beyond talented players. I wish my Houston family the best of luck and their future successes and hope they can understand and respect that I had to make the best decision for my family.”

Ryan family readies for ALCS full of friends

When the American League Championship Series gets underway Friday, Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan and executive advisor Nolan Ryan will be keeping a close eye on the battle between the Orioles and Royals.

Both teams feature familiar faces for the Ryans in the dugout, front office and coaching staff from their years in baseball. There are some former Rangers playing for the Orioles, including Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz, as well as a handful of players who came through the Ryan-owned Minor Leagues clubs in Corpus Christi and Round Rock, including Bud Norris and Jimmy Paredes.

Nolan Ryan, former president of the Rangers, is also friends with Royals legend George Brett, who was inducted in to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999 alongside Ryan.

“I’ve kind of pulled for Kansas City for a while now because of the fact that I know a lot of people over there, and I’ve been watching them progress the last few years,” Nolan Ryan said.

The Ryans know plenty of people with the Royals considering the two clubs share the same Spring Training facility in Surprise, Ariz.

“The Orioles and Royals are my sentimental favorites,” Reid Ryan said. “I know a lot of guys over there, as well as John Russell, who was instrumental in my dad’s career.”

Russell, the Orioles bench coach under former Rangers manager Buck Showalter, caught Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter on June 11, 1990.

“He played at [the University of Oklahoma] and so we’ve had fun over the years keeping up with him and his wife, who’s a good friend who I knew at TCU,” Reid Ryan said. “We watched him go through his Minor League managing career and Major League coaching ranks. He’s one of those guys you’re going to hear his name in the next few years as a manager candidate.”

Hinch has productive first day with Astros

A.J. Hinch went right to work in his first day as manager of the Astros on Tuesday, a day that included a series of meetings, a tour of Minute Maid Park and a get-to-know-you session with All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve.

The work’s only beginning for Hinch, who was hired Monday as the Astros’ 18th manager. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, speaking Tuesday night at a reception for Altuve at Union Station, said the 40-year-old Hinch certainly isn’t without stamina.

“He wore me out,” he said. “We talked about a lot of things. He met a lot of people, and he’s coming back tomorrow morning early and he’ll be here all day. I think one of the best meetings we had was when I took him down, and he spent about 15, 20 minutes with Jose in the clubhouse and there was an instant connection there.”

Altuve, who coming off a season in which he won the Major League batting title by hitting .341 and set a club record with 225 hits, made a solid first impression on Hinch.

“There’s such an energy about him and it looks like it’s infectious,” he said. “Watching him play, getting the chance to meet him, they match. What he does on the field and how he plays on the field, it’s exactly what I expected in his personality.

“He’s a player that wants to win, he definitely feels like an Astro. It’s exciting to have him as a league-leading hitter, but also just the style and the makeup of the type of player that’s fun to be around and fun to have on the team.”

Hinch spent some time bouncing around the office with the baseball operations group and going through the typical first-day routine with human resources. He’s going to return to his home in San Diego on Thursday before returning next week.

“I had some long meetings talking about staff, talking about the first 40 to 50 days, what we’re going to try to accomplish, what I’m going to try to accomplish,” Hinch said. “I met with the entire company in an all-employee meeting and just chipping away at returning texts and phone calls and getting my feet back on the ground after a great day.”

Much of Hinch’s focus in the coming days will be about the coaching staff, which Hinch and Luhnow will assemble. The Astros have said pitching coach Brent Strom is returning, but no other decisions have been made.

Hinch would like to announce a coaching staff sooner than later, and one of the priorities will be having a former manager on his staff. The Astros have an opening for bench coach.

“Tomorrow I’m going to start to reach out to all of the coaches and the players and say hello and have those conversations with them, and I’m going to spend next week doing that,” Hinch said. “But I’m going to come back to Houston next week and try to set up some meetings.”

Luhnow said he and Hinch went over some information about other teams and started talking about the current roster.

“We don’t know when the staffing is going to come together because there may be people we want to speak to that are on playoff teams,” Luhnow said. “The work all happens simultaneously, but having A.J. on board for less than 48 years, the guy works really hard and he’s going to, maybe not burning it too much at both ends, but he’s obviously going to put a lot of time and effort into this.”

Astros to name Hinch as manager

The Astros have called a 5:30 p.m. CT news conference today to name A.J. Hinch as their next manager, according to a baseball source.

Hinch managed the Arizona D-backs from May 2009 until July 2010 and was the vice president of professional scouting for the Padres for four years after that, a run that ended in August. He played in the Major Leagues with the A’s, Royals, Tigers and Phillies.

Hinch, 40, graduated from Stanford, where he was a third-round pick after his junior year. He won a bronze medal with the United States at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In his Major League career, he hit .219 with 32 homers and 112 RBIs in 350 games.

Astros season by the numbers

Astros season by the numbers:

Record: 70-92

Home record: 38-43

Road record: 32-49

Series record: 19-28-5

Sweeps: 4-9

Shutouts: 3-14

One-run games: 17-28

Two-run games: 12-14

vs. LH starters: 21-26

vs. RH starters: 49-66

Day games: 21-26

Night games: 49-66

When scoring first: 46-29

Opponent scores first: 24-63

Outhit opponent: 50-11

Outhit by opponent: 16-76

Equal hits: 4-5

When hitting a HR: 53-38

No home runs: 17-54

Come-from-behind wins: 29

Largest comeback: 4 runs

Losses after leading: 37

Last at-bat wins: 17

Largest blown lead: 4 runs

Extra-inning games: 6-5

Different batting orders: 143

Batting average champion: Jose Altuve (.341)

Home run champion: Chris Carter (37)

RBI champion: Carter (88)

Stolen base champ: Altuve (56)

ERA champ: Collin McHugh (2.73)

Wins leader: Dallas Keuchel (12)

Strikeouts leader: McHugh (157)

Innings leader: Keuchel (200)

Saves leader: Chad Qualls (19)

Record in April: 9-19

May: 15-14

June: 12-15

July: 8-17

August: 15-14

September: 11-13

Longest winning streak: 7 games (May 24-30)

Longest losing streak: 7 (April 13-20)

Most games over .500: 2 (2-0 on April 2)

Most games under .500: 22 (59-79, Aug. 29)

Walkoff wins: 4

Walkoff losses: 9

Players used: 48

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