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Day 3: Intensity gets ramped up

It was another smooth day at Astros camp on Monday as the first and second pitching groups got on the mound for the second time, and for the final time before facing hitters later in the week. The only pitcher who didn’t throw was right-hander Josh Fields, who has slight tightness in his left hamstring and has been pushed back by one day.

“Guys are getting a little bit intensity, turning it up just a touch,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “The bullpens were a little crisper and guys are getting ready. They know their next outing they’ll face hitters when the full squad gets here. You can see a little bit of the dial being turned up a touch. These first four days are more about getting their legs underneath the pitchers and the catchers getting familiar with the pitchers. We’re accomplishing that slowly but surely.”

Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena were two of several position players who showed up at camp Monday, one day before the mandatory date to report. Some position players, such as Evan Gattis, George Springer, Jon Singleton and Robbie Grossman, have been in camp for a few days, and they were joined Monday by Gregorio Petit, Joe Sclafani, Nolan Fontana, Domingo Santana, Jake Marisnick and Andrew Aplin, among others.

“There’s been a number of guys who have been here the last couple of days,” Hinch said. “We’ve had voluntary workouts going on and they’ve been able to get on the field. You start implementing team fundamentals. The second day of full squads, they’ll have live batting practice to those guys. It gets up and running at a rapid pace.”

As far as Fields is concerned, he did participate in bunt defense and the other PFPs, but just won’t throw until Tuesday.

Quotes of the day

“I’ll have to rely on Super Cuts,” Manager A.J. Hinch on his need for a haircut while on the road.

Injury report: RHP Brad Peacock (hip surgery) threw 20 fastballs in the bullpen Sunday in his first action since having surgery and felt fine Monday. … RHP Vincent Velasquez (strained right lat) won’t throw for at least two-to-three weeks. … RHP Josh Fields (left hamstring tightness) had his bullpen session scheduled for Monday pushed back a day.

The day in photos can be found on my new Instagram page: https://instagram.com/brianmctaggartmlb/

Links:

Astros, MLB huddle to discuss pace-of-game procedures

Flores thrilled for opportunity with Astros

Lowrie, Valbuena find comfort in new surroundings

 

Day 2: More arms take the mound

With the exception of Roberto Hernandez, who’s not due in Kissimmee for a few more days because of visa issues, every pitcher in camp has thrown at least one bullpen after groups three and four got on the mound Sunday at Osceola County Stadium.

“I think their readiness is always a great sense of pride,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “These guys come in and they’ve already thrown a handful of bullpens. Some of them have simulated innings. But that said, that’s the moment you hold your breath to see what kind of shape their arms are in and their legs are in. You can’t simulate the PFP stuff that we’re doing, the bullpens, the amount of throwing. I’m pretty pleased with how in shape their arms are.”

For Hinch, Sunday’s mound sessions gave him a chance to see hard-throwing Michael Felix and Alex White up close for the first time. Of course, Brad Peacock also threw off the mound for the first time since his hip surgery in October.

“Obviously, you can’t tell these guys to sort of ease into the camp and expect them to be full throttle,” Hinch said. “Most of them don’t quite listen 100 percent to that message and they go out there and go pretty firm. It’s been a very productive couple of days and we have two more days of this before the full squad games here. We’re getting our work in.”

There will be two more days of bullpens before the pitchers and catchers are joined in the workouts by the hitters, many of whom are already in camp.

Quotes of the day

“If he’s tough to catch, he’s definitely going to be tough to hit,” C Jason Castro on RHP Pat Neshek.

Injury report: RHP Brad Peacock (hip surgery) threw 20 fastballs in the bullpen Sunday in his first action since having surgery. RHP Vincent Velasquez (strained right lat) won’t throw for at least two-to-three weeks.

The day in photos can be found on my new Instagram page: https://instagram.com/brianmctaggartmlb/

Links:

Qualls grateful for bullpen additions

Peacock feels ‘awesome’ after mound session

Castro seeks Neshek from different perspective

Astros taking advantage of “getting to know you” stage

Tweet of the day

Day 1: Pitchers and catchers hit the field

Astros pitchers and catchers hit the field Saturday morning at Osceola County Stadium for the first day of workouts. Twenty-seven pitchers (Roberto Hernandez isn’t here yet) and six catchers were in action, while several position players, who don’t have to be here until next week, got in some work on the back fields as well.

“Today’s like Christmas morning,” first-year manager A.J. Hinch said. “You get out here and you get the uniform on and get the players on the field and it truly is the start of the season. We’re excited.”221 017

Prior to hitting the field, Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow held a meeting in which Hinch introduced his entire coaching staff. Seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, who’s a special assistant to Luhnow, also spoke briefly to the group before observing the workout.

You can sense things are different in camp this year. Hinch has established a laid-back, communicative environment, and the added presence of accomplished veteran players like Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek have raised the expectations for a club that hasn’t had a winning record since 2008.

“We put a lot of work into this and now we get to see the beginnings of the end result,” Luhnow said. “Obviously, we’ve got six weeks and two days until Opening Day so we have some time and I told the guys this morning they need to pace themselves because the worst thing that can happens is they go too fast and hurt themselves. We’ve got some time – 30 Spring Training games between now and the end of the season, but we’re all anxious, champing at the bit, as they say, to see what the work they’ve put in all offseason and how it all paid off.”

Hinch cautioned the players to ease into workouts.

“We told them, ‘You’re not going to make the team this week and you’re not going to not make the team this week,'” he said. “There very much is a ramp into the spring. These guys are in such great shape and we’ve got a couple of guys that pitched in winter ball that were competing a couple of weeks ago. You do caution them to try to not make the team on the first day. If you’re not available, you can’t help us.”

Pitching groups one and two threw bullpens on Saturday, and groups three and four will do the same Sunday. Groups one and two will throw again Monday, and groups three and four will throw again Tuesday — the last day before facing live hitters.

Pitching group one: Scott Feldman, Dan Straily, Jake Buchanan, Tony Sipp, Luke Gregerson, Jordan Jankowski and Joe Thatcher.

Pitching group two: Dallas Keuchel, Mark Appel, Asher Wojciechowski, Luis Cruz, Josh Fields, James Hoyt.

Pitching group three: Collin McHugh, Alex White, Brady Rodgers, Chad Qualls, Kevin Chapman, Jason Stoffel, Roberto Hernandez (absent).

Pitching group four: Brett Oberholtzer, Sam Deduno, Michael Feliz, Pat Neshek, Darin Downs, Will Harris, Brad Peacock.

Quotes of the day

“He’s also part crazy,”Hinch on Double-A pitching coach Doug Brocail stepping in the batter’s box against Mark Appel.

“I think our fans expect more this year and rightly so. We’re on our way and we hope to deliver,” –– GM Jeff Luhnow.

“I tell people the only disappointment is I never got to throw to Yogi Berra, to Johnny Bench, that would have been a treat for me as a starting pitcher,”Roger Clemens.

Injury report: RHP Brad Peacock (hip surgery) is scheduled to throw in the bullpen Sunday. RHP Vincent Velasquez (strained right lat) won’t throw for at least two-to-three weeks.

The day in photos can be found on my new Instagram page: https://instagram.com/brianmctaggartmlb/

Links:

—  Astros have plenty of options to fill the close’s role.

Visa issues delay Hernandez’s arrival at camp.

Roger Clemens pays a visit to Astros camp.

Hinch stresses communication between pitchers and catchers.

Velasquez sidelined with a lat injury.

Tweets of the day

Astros make their Super Bowl picks

For the second year in a row, we asked some of the Astros to give us their Super Bowl predictions. Here they are:

President of business operations Reid Ryan: Seahawks 31, Patriots 30. “Seahawks battle back to take the lead late in the fourth. Patriots miss a 54-yard field goal as time expires.”

Manager A.J. Hinch: Seahawks 27, Patriots 24. “Great match up on both sides of the ball, and I think we have a chance for a great game. Dual threat QB in Russell Wilson is the difference maker for me.”

LHP Dallas Keuchel: Patriots 31, Seahawks 17. “Vince Wilfork wrecks shop on Seattle’s O-line.”

C Jason Castro: Seahawks 24, Patriots 17. “I have to say even though I’m a 49ers fan, I still have to stay with my Stanford allegiance.”

RHP Chad Qualls: Patriots 27, Seahawks 24: “Would rather see Gronk dance than Marshawn grab his junk.”

1B Jon Singleton: Seahawks 30, Patriots 10. “Only because my girlfriend is a Russell Wilson fan.”

RHP Scott Feldman: “Rooting for Patriots because Brady is from San Mateo. But I think beast mode will be too much. Seahawks 24-17. But go pats!”

C Max Stassi: Seahawks 27, Patriots 24.

DH Chris Carter: Patriots 24, Seahawks 17.

SS Jed Lowrie: Seahawks, 27, Patriots 21.

LHP Brett Oberholtzer: “I’m taking Brady and the Pats. If they can stop the run…28-27.”

LHP Kevin Chapman: Patriots 24, Seahawks 16. “Gisele, Tom and Bill.”

OF Jake Marisnick: “I’m going with the Pats, 27-17. Brady and Gronk can’t be stopped! Patriots are going to get up early and it’s all over.”

OF Alex Presley: Patriots 24, Seahawks 21. “I think both defenses will play well but Brady will be the difference in the end.”

RHP Mark Appel: Seahawks 31, Patriots 24.

Radio announcer Robert Ford: Seahawks 35, Patriots 31. “I think Seattle is the better team, and they’re coming together at the right time.”

Radio announcer Steve Sparks: Patriots 11, Seahawks 4. “I predict four safeties in this game. And the score is low because of deflation.”

TV announcer Geoff Blum: “20-17, Sea Chickens win! Beast mode runs 140 & 1 TD, wins MVP & blows off post presser for a Skittles shower.”

Sideline reporter Julia Morales: Seahawks 31, Patriots 21. “Seattle’s defense wasn’t rattled by Manning last year, same story, different QB today.”

MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart: Patriots 31, Seahawks 27. “Brady and bunch won’t be denied fourth Super Bowl win.”

Craig Biggio tours the Hall of Fame

Here are some photos of Craig Biggio’s tour of the Hall of Fame:

BiggioHOF 029

The Biggios were accompanied by Erik M. Strohl, VP of exhibitions of collections for the Hall of Fame

BiggioHOF 042 BiggioHOF 054 BiggioHOF 055 BiggioHOF 059 BiggioHOF 062 BiggioHOF 065 BiggioHOF 066 BiggioHOF 073 BiggioHOF 078 BiggioHOF 088 BiggioHOF 095 BiggioHOF 099 BiggioHOF 101 IMG_0806[1] IMG_0807[1] IMG_0811[1] IMG_0817[1] IMG_0823[1] IMG_0828[1] IMG_0829[1] IMG_0830[1] IMG_0837[1] IMG_0845[1] IMG_0851[1] IMG_0855[1] IMG_0864[1] IMG_0867[1] IMG_0874[1] IMG_0881[1] IMG_0884[1] IMG_0890[1] IMG_0894[1]

A look at Astros 2015 payroll

As promised, the Astros opened up their wallet this offseason by spending (so far) $27.5 million in free agency for 2015 with the additions to Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. They shed Dexter Fowler’s contract, but picked the up contracts of Luis Valbuena ($4.2 million), Evan Gattis, Hank Conger and Dan Straily in trades.

With the newcomers and the raises several players received in arbitration, the Astros’ 2015 payroll should come in around $70 million on Opening Day.

“Those are some pretty significant investments we made we are expecting to pay off in 2015,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “I do think it’s been a nice position to be in, and the fact we have a TV deal in place, our fans are starting to get excited and want to come check out what we’ve done. It all should build what I call a cycle where we increase our revenues and are able to increase our payroll next year and beyond that as this team continues to progress and become a playoff team as soon as possible.”

Here’s a look at the team’s 2015 salaries:

Scott Feldman                   $10,000,000

Colby Rasmus                    $8,000,000

Jed Lowrie                          $8,000,000

Luke Gregerson                   $6,000,000

Pat Neshek                         $5,500,000

Luis Valbuena                    $4,200,000

Chris Carter                        $4,175,000

Jason Castro                       $4,000,000

Chad Qualls                        $3,000,000

Jose Altuve                         $2,687,500

Tony Sipp                            $2,400,000

Jon Singleton                     $2,000,000

Hank Conger                      $1,075,000

Marwin Gonzalez              $1,062,500

Alex Presley                       $1,000,000

TOTAL                                $63,100,00

If the final 10 players on the 25-man roster, all of which will be players with 0-3 years of service time and not yet eligible for arbitration (assuming they don’t sign another player), make an average of $550,000, that’s roughly another $5.5 million in salary on the books.

Thus, the total is roughly $68,600,000.

Rasmus says Astros are enticing

Free agent outfielder Colby Rasmus took a physical in Houston on Tuesday in attempts to reach a deal with the Astros.

Rasmus, 28, spent the last four seasons with the Blue Jays after coming up with the Cardinals, where he was drafted by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow when he was scouting director in St. Louis. Rasmus is a career .246 hitter with 116 homers and 352 RBIs in six seasons, hitting .225 with 18 homers and 40 RBIs last year.

“He was the scouting director in St. Louis and I’ve always been pretty tight with him,” Rasmus told MLB.com. “He was always good to me. I think he’s been good through this process.”

Rasmus said no deal is in place with the Astros, but a physical is typically the last step towards a deal being reached. Free agent pitcher Ryan Vogelsong was also in Houston on Tuesday to take a physical amid reports he’s in serious discussions with the Astros.

“I’ve always liked playing against the Astros and the way they’ve handled themselves,” Rasmus said. “I played with Lance Berkman, who was loyal to his time here. That was something that was on my mind, hearing him talk about it. Obviously, Jeff being the scouting director that drafted me, it looks pretty enticing.”

If the Astros are able to sign Rasmus they’d have another outfielder to put into the mix just one day after trading away starting center fielder Dexter Fowler to the Cubs in exchange for pitcher Dan Straily and infielder Luis Valbuena. Rasmus would give the Astros another left-handed bat.

Rasmus, who is from Alabama, said playing for a team in the south appeals to him, as well as being in the same division as his brother, Cory, who’s a pitcher with the Angels.

“I play hard and I would like to get back on some grass,” Rasmus said. “The turf in Toronto was pretty rough playing up there. Being in this division to be able to stay in some [warmer] climates and my brother is playing with the Angels and to be able to see him on some trips is pretty cool.

“To be in Texas and in the south– some people think that’s crazy – but it would be a beautiful thing to be close to home. I live nine hours away and all those things would help me be a better ballplayer and be relaxed and comfortable, and some of the guys on the team I know are great guys who I’ve played against.”

Vogelsong went 8-13 with a 4.00 ERA in 32 starts for the World Series champion Giants last year. He has a career 49-57 record with a 4.42 ERA in 10 Major League seasons with the Pirates and two stints with the Giants. His best year was in 2011 when he made the All-Star team in a season in which he finished 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA with the Giants.

Castro, Sipp, Conger avoid arbitration

The Astros reached one-year deals with catchers Jason Castro ($4 million) and Hank Conger ($1.075 million) and left-handed pitcher Tony Sipp ($2.4 million) prior to Friday’s deadline for arbitration eligible players to exchange numbers with their teams.

The club had previously reached deals with designated hitter Chris Carter ($4.175 million) and backup catcher Carlos Corporan ($975,000) this week, leaving them with two players still unsigned: outfielder Dexter Fowler and infielder Marwin Gonzalez.

Castro, who made $2.45 million last year, was arbitration eligible for the second time.

“It was right where we thought we wanted to be, where we kind of fit in with the market and all that,” Castro said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of conversations with the team prior to today, not as much as last year. The gap we were looking last year just wasn’t there this year and we had a more clear picture where’d end up.”

After making the All-Star team in 2013, Castro hit just .222 last year with 14 homers and 56 RBIs in a career-high 126 games. Sipp flourished after signing with the Astros in May, posting a 3.38 ERA in 56 games (50 2/3 innings).

Conger, traded to the Astros from the Angels in November, has played in 251 games with the Angels in the past five years in a backup role and will serve in a similar capacity behind Castro. Conger is a career .224 hitter who last season batted .221 with four homers and 25 RBIs in 80 games.

After the players and the teams exchange desired salary figures for 2015, they can continue to negotiate contracts. If no agreements are reached, the players and the teams will next month present their cases before an arbitration panel, which will choose either the team’s figure of the player’s desired salary. Most deals are reached prior to that, however.

Gattis excited about opportunity with Astros

Evan Gattis, traded by the Braves to the Astros on Wednesday, will hold a conference call with members of the media on Thursday afternoon. But not before he took a few minutes to visit with MLB.com about the trade and what it means to him.

The Astros traded three prospects – pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman and third baseman Rio Ruiz – to the Braves in exchange for Gattis, who hit 43 homers in 211 games in his first two seasons in the Major Leagues with the Braves. He’s battled injury problems during his career, but he passed a physical Wednesday and gives the Astros another 30-homer threat at Minute Maid Park with Chris Carter and George Springer.

Gattis was primarily a catcher with the Braves, but the Astros will him in left field, first base and designated hitter as well.

Here’s part of his talk with MLB.com:

Q: What is your reaction to the trade?

A: “I’m excited. We’re going to have a good power lineup and a good young team. I’m just excited.”

Q: The lineup could have some thumpers with Chris Carter and George Springer and yourself. How enticing is that?

A: “And it kind of feeds off each, too. It’s contagious, especially in the lineup. We’ve got back-to-back-to-back-to-back guys that can hit, hit for power. It could be scary, especially when you mix in guys like [Jose] Altuve and Dexter Fowler. They’re getting on base all the time and there’s going to be a lot of RBI potential, a lot of run-scoring potential.”

Q: What are your thoughts on playing left field?

A: “It’s really too early. We’ll see how it shakes out and see where our pieces end up at the end of spring. I think it’s too early to say what I’ll be playing more of. I’m not really worried about positioning and stuff like that right now. I’m just ready to get after it, you know? I was prepared to go play left field with the Braves situation, too, so it’s not like anything will really change on my end.”

Q: How do you feel about hitting at Minute Maid Park?

A: “It’s a good hitter’s park.”

Q: What do you think of the future of the Astros considering the pieces they’re adding?

A: “I think the Astros could have a better year next year than we did last year.”

Q: You were born in Dallas and still live in that area. What does it mean to come home to Texas?

A: “Everybody’s already texted me and made me well aware how many times we go to Arlington and everything else. I’ll have tons of people.”

Foltynewicz, Ruiz and Thurman react to trade

Mike Foltynewicz saw his name in trade rumors for most of Wednesday, but it wasn’t until general manager Jeff Luhnow called him later in the evening did the rumors become a reality. Foltynewicz, one of the Astros’ top pitching prospects, was heading to the Braves.

The Astros traded Foltynewicz, pitcher Andrew Thurman and third baseman Rio Ruiz in exchange for slugger Evan Gattis and right-hander James Hoyt. The hard-throwing Foltynewicz, who made his Major League debut last year, was expected to compete for a spot in the Astros’ rotation.

“You wake up in the morning and all of a sudden your name has been tossed around in some trade rumors and you’re shocked and waiting around all day and not getting back until 9 o’clock at night to find out you’ve been traded is a little shocking,” he said. “The Astros made my dreams come true. They gave me an opportunity to be in the big leagues, and they need something else right now, so they had to do what they had to do.”

Foltynewicz, the No. 19 overall pick in the ’10 First-Year Player Draft, made his Major League debut at the end of last season after going 7-7 with a 5.08 ERA in 21 games (18 starts) at Triple-A Oklahoma City. He’s looking forward to a new start in Atlanta.

“They gave me a call and said they’re happy to have me in the organization and they’ve got some high expectations and they’re real excited to have me,” he said. “They thought I was a big part of the deal to get traded. That’s my main goal is try to be a starter. That’s what I’ve been molded into my Minor League career, but whatever they want me to do I’ll do it.”

Ruiz was taken in the fourth round of the ’12 Draft after being offered a hefty bonus by the Astros, who signed No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa for less money than some other potential top picks so they could sign Ruiz and Lance McCullers Jr. away from college commits.

Ruiz hit .294 with 11 homers and 77 RBIs last year at Class A Advanced Lancaster, but found himself behind Colin Moran on the depth chart after the Astros acquired the former No. 6 overall pick from the Marlins in July. Moran is coming to spring camp and could be in the lineup at some point this year.

“Today was a little overwhelming, but I’m looking at it as another opportunity to showcase my talents and make my way to the big leagues,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said he wasn’t sure if he would come to Major League camp.

“I’m sure they’re going to have me go in early and become acclimated with everybody, hopefully a little quicker than going into regular Spring Training,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll go in there early, whether in big league camp or showing up early and seeing faces and getting to know names.”

Thurman, a second-round pick out of UC-Irvine in 2013, was 11-11 with a 4.99 ERA in 38 games (25 starts) in his pro career. He spent last season at Class A Quad Cities, going 7-9 with a 5.38 ERA.

“I don’t know too much about trades and what goes into it,” Thurman said. “I know Evan Gattis is a good player, and I know the Astros are looking to do well at the big league level. And I know they had to give away some stuff to get a good player like him.”

Still, the trade caught him a little off guard.

“But I’m excited to get the opportunity to play for the Braves,” he said

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