By Brett Dolan

West Palm Beach, FL

Three storylines have permeated the Astros spring training camp in West Palm Beach. Yes, the beautiful new facility is a tremendous upgrade over Kissimmee, even if work will continue on the stadium until the final hours before games begin and maybe beyond.

Two, the clubhouse looks older. Experienced veterans like Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki should add valuable production, especially in the outfield and behind the plate. Clubhouse leadership and presence will be an added bonus to a team that has a young core of talent.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the health and production of the pitching staff will be coaxed towards opening day with the hopes that a healthy Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers can be ready for the long grind of 2017.

The Astros team ERA was 4.06 last year, good for 11th best in Major League Baseball, but almost a full run a game behind the eventual World Series champion Cubs and a half a run a game worse than 2015 (3.57) when the club was sixth best.

Keuchel went from 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA to 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA. Shoulder soreness ended his season in late August. McCullers made 22 starts on the playoff team, posting a 3.22 ERA while last year he made just 14.

“It is very important for both of us to be healthy,” Keuchel said before spring training. “Not just for ourselves but the team and that is every team, key players go down and that hinders your possibility to make a good playoff run and everybody saw what we did in 2015 which was awesome. We are trying to get back there so I think the key ingredients, we are going to score some runs in the regular season.”

Collin McHugh, who dropped from 19 wins two years ago to 13 last year, fully understands the need for better production.

“At the end of the day, pitching and defense, you’ve seen it, it really does win championships,” he said. “That being said, I think we have a great offense and I’d love to be able to put it in their court most of the time and see what they could do. But we (pitchers) have a job to do and we are going to go out and take care of business.”

Will Harris provided a calming influence on the bullpen in the first half of the season and claimed the closer role for a period of time while earning a berth on the All Star team. He thinks last year can provide some extra motivation.

“We know what we have in here and we know what we are capable of,” he said. “Pitchers and catchers are here and I don’t think as a whole, we maybe didn’t hold up our end of the bargain last year. I think you give us that little extra chip on our shoulders and give us something to prove. It could be something that could push us.”

The club added Charlie Morton for the starting rotation mix after Doug Fister departed. Morton made just four starts with the Phillies last year after 23 in 2015 so spring training will be important for him to compete and probably win a berth in the rotation.

But there is also a stable of young arms that the team auditioned last year and will have the benefit of an extra long World Baseball Classic spring training to watch in game action. McHugh believes in the overall depth of pitching talent in the organization, singling out McCullers, Joe Musgrove and Chris Devenski among others.

“I know there is another crop of guys coming up right behind them and hopefully behind them,” he explained. “So I feel confident with the people we have in the rotation. I feel confident with the ability and talent we have. It’s just about staying healthy, going out and competing.”



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