Results tagged ‘ Jason Castro ’

Players and their pooches to gather at Minute Maid Park. Life is ruff.

Rollie Castro

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about ballplayers over the years, it’s they’re unwaveringly loyal to two groups: their moms, and their dogs.

Dog Day at Minute Maid Park is this Sunday, May 6, and you can bet you’ll see Bailey Brutus Norris, Rollie Castro, Harley Johnson and Sophia May Buck in attendance. They might linger around the Astros dugout a while, but for good reason: their owners (fathers?) play for your Astros, and they’re more than a little excited for this doggone fun promotion.

Rollie Castro, named after the Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, is a rambunctious little guy who covered a lot of territory in the outfield at Minute Maid Park once the leash came off. Bailey Norris is still learning how to fetch — he’s got the running-after-the-ball part down pat, but once he gets to the ball, he just keeps running. They’re working on it.

As for Harley Johnson and Sophia May Buck, drooling and snorting appear to be their top two favorite activities, followed by drinking water, finding shade and fighting over a pink frisbee.

What a week.

Dog Day on Sunday will begin with the Pooch Parade around the field, which gives owners and their dogs an opportunity to flaunt their Sunday best while being captured on the giant scoreboard. (Pooch poopie picker-uppers will follow in the back, just in case.)

Dog Day offers two price packages. The $40 Dog Day Bullpen Box Package includes two Bullpen Box tickets — one for the owner, one for the pup, with access into the “Barking ROom Only” section in Conoco Alley. The tickets also include entrance to the Dog Zone at KBR Plaza and the Pooch Parade.

The $20 dog Standing Room Only ticket includes SRO tickets for you and your dog, plus access to the “Barking Room Only” area in Conoco Alley, the Dog Zone in KBR Plaza and the Pooch Parade.

To order tickets, click here. And when you’re parading around the warning track, be sure to look for your Astros players and their pups. Woof!

Jason Castro and his dog, Rollie, during a calm moment (there weren’t a lot of those).

Bailey Brutus Norris and his pal, Bud.

Chris Johnson, Travis Buck and their snortin’ bulldogs.

Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! for your Astros

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Snapshots from Spring Training, Day Three.

A month ago, it looked as if catcher Jason Castro, who had two injury setbacks over the course of one calendar year, might not be ready to start the season when Opening Day rolls around on April 6.

Today, the level of optimism is much higher. It’s more likely than not that Castro, who had season-ending knee surgery last Spring Training and foot surgery this past December, is on track to start the season on time.

This isn’t to say that he’s maintaining the same workout pace as the other catches in camp. He’s not. He’s participating in drills and catching bullpens, but on a slightly lesser scale than the rest. The goal is for him to build stamina without overextending himself, even if it means not being quite ready to play when the Grapefruit season gets underway in another 10 days.

Regardless of when Castro appears in his first spring game, the catching situation this year, so far, is light years ahead of where the team was a year ago. There is no stat line that can truly describe how valuable a catcher is to a team. He’s top lieutenant on the field and can provide a huge sense of security to pitchers. On the flip side, if a catcher is inadequate in his ability to call games and block pitches in the dirt, it can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s psyche.

Castro’s return will be a big lift for the team, and the addition of Chris Snyder, a veteran catcher, should not be overlooked. The Astros now have three catchers in a pool that also includes veteran Humberto Quintero, giving them experience, depth and a plan B. They pretty much had none of those things  a year ago.

A couple of housekeeping notes:

* The final Houston-based Astroline will air on Thursday at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown. Former outfielder Kevin Bass will join Milo Hamilton for the hour-long show, which can be heard on 740 KTRH and Astros.com.

Astroline will resume the following week on Feb. 29 at the Disney Boardwalk in Orlando. Keeping with tradition, the first Florida-based show will feature manager Brad Mills.

* The first full-squad workout will be held Feb. 26, and as always, workouts are free and open to the public. Gates open around 9:30 a.m. The first Grapefruit League game will take place at Osceola County Stadium on March 3 vs. the Nationals. Workouts on home game days are closed.

* Two spring games will be televised this year: March 20 vs. the Cardinals and April 3 vs. the White Sox (at Minute Maid Park).

And we conclude with images from Day 3 on a cloudy but rain-free morning at the spring complex:

Brian Bogusevic, Jed Lowrie

Practicing fielding comebackers: Brad Mills and Kyle Weiland.

Having some between-drills laughs: Jose Altuve, roving minor league baserunning coordinator Milt Thompson, Jimmy Paredes, Jose Cruz.

PFP: Bud Norris.

Two former first-rounders: Delino DeShields (2010) and George Springer (2011).

Batting practice: J.D. Martinez, Jose Altuve.

Jimmy Paredes waves to a fan.

Brandon Lyon and Jason Castro discuss Lyon's bullpen session when it ended.

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Day One of Winter Meetings: gathering the troops, sizing up the market, and catching up with Brad Mills.

Ed Wade gathered his staff of about 15 in his suite at 2 p.m. ET on Monday to go over the very basic items every GM discusses this time of year: club needs, free agents that might be a fit, and teams that might work well as a potential trade partner.

A dry erase board sits in the middle of the room, with lists: of teams, of players that might interest them, of Astros players that might be considered trade bait. You’d be surprised how many names float out there. One thing I learned 10 years ago when I sat in on one of Gerry Hunsicker’s meetings with his scouts: few, if any, players on the roster get through the week without being mentioned at least once.

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(Dry erase board in Ed’s suite – the safe-for-public-consumption model)

The Winter Meetings are certainly a time to wheel and deal, but it’s also a time for evaluation and exploration. It also should be noted that 95 percent — and sometimes 99 or 100 percent — of things discussed never come to fruition. It’s how the business of baseball works. When you narrow the field down to two categories: a) free agents you can afford and b) teams that have someone you want, and you in turn have someone they want, well, it should come as no surprise that most of the time, nothing happens.

Obviously, I can’t get into specifics as to who and what was discussed during Wade’s meeting with his staff. But one thing did stand out to me: the Astros truly do not know who will get the majority of the playing time at first base in 2011. They hope Brett Wallace flat-out wins the job during Spring Training, but they also realize Carlos Lee may end up over there for much of the season. It will probably be the most interesting story line when we get to Kissimmee in February.

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Each member of Wade’s staff is assigned a few teams, with the directive to communicate with those front offices to see if there is a match. Most of that information-gathering takes place in the hotel lobby, where they talk with their counterparts, feel out the situation and bring back to the suite for more discussions with Wade.

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Although they garner the most attention, trades and free agent signings are not the only activities at the Winter Meetings. Athletic trainers from all 30 clubs gather for their own meetings, as do public relations staffs and traveling secretaries. Every manager also attends the Winter Meetings and meets with the media for 30 minute sessions, scattered over the first two days.

Brad Mills, walking well after undergoing knee replacement surgery in early November (and becoming a grandfather for the second time), met with reporters in the middle of the afternoon on Monday. It’s not that we need a reminder of how respected he is in baseball, but walking through the hotel with him was sort of like walking with a rock star. He was stopped every five minutes by managers, GMs, reporters…all wanting to shake his hand, wish him well, and most significantly, congratulate him on the Astros’ second-half turnaround in 2010. Even though Mills was a “rookie” manager this year, events like the Winter Meetings serve as a nice reminder that he’s been around the game a long, long time — three decades, in fact.

Here are some tidbits from his back-and-forth with reporters:

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Q. How do you view the first base situation between Carlos and Brett?  Seems like it’s Brett’s job but Carlos will be there in the ready if he can’t do it.

MILLS:  Yeah, that’s probably a pretty good way to say it, but at the same time, here in December, to say that this guy is going to be at this position and this guy is going to be at that position, where we might have a few question marks, might be a little bit difficult.  And whether we are going to say, Carlos is going to play first base or Brett is going to play base or whatever; let’s let these guys go play a little bit, and let’s continue to work both places for Carlos and Brett to be ready.

Q. What do you think the biggest challenge will be for (Jason) Castro?  Probably be your Opening Day catcher, but he struggled offensively last year.  What would you like to see him doing to stay in the lineup?

MILLS:  I mentioned Brett Wallace, the at bats he was able to get and I think they were crucial, and the same thing with Jason, the at bats that he was able to get last year can do nothing but help him moving forward to get better. He knows he has to make some adjustments.  He worked on making some adjustments last year. Some adjustments worked. Some didn’t. And so that experience moving forward are going to be a situation to where now he has something to fall back and some reference as well.

(Mills also said Jordan Lyles will be in the mix for the fifth starter job, but he’ll have to win it outright. They like his demeanor and makeup and they want to see how he fares against Major League hitters during Spring Training.)

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Brian McTaggart has the full rundown of the first day of the Winter Meetings here. The story also includes video from Mills’ visit with MLB Network. 

And enjoy the rest of the images…

Across the room from Mills, World Series champ Giants manager Bruce Bochy conducted his media session. Understandably, Bochy is a popular interview target this week.  

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Mills on the set with the MLB Network crew.

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Kevin Millar, now a member of the MLB Network staff, and Mills were together with the Red Sox when Boston won the World Series in 2004. So this interview was also a reunion of sorts.

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The media workroom includes a stage and a seating area in case teams have major announcements to make. Here we have the Padres announcing the Adrian Gonzalez trade.

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GMs meet with the media at the end of each business day of the Winter Meetings. Here Wade sits with the mighty Houston media contingent (Zachary Levine and Brian McTaggart).

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Totally unrelated, but other than the one by Rockefeller Center, this is the largest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen. It’s located in the lobby of the Dophin Hotel at the Walt Disney Resort.

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Learning on the job requires hard work from players and patience from us.

The Astros took on a dramatic new look after they peppered the field with rookies following the trade deadline, and when they started winning a few games as the calendar flipped to August, the Astros — though not contenders — became interesting to watch again.

But young players require patience, and as you can see, waiting out the growing pains can be a frustrating and arduous process.

Rookies are fast, enthusiastic and full of energy. They also can, at times, look lost at the plate, confused on the basepaths and overmatched at their positions defensively. It’s tough to watch, sure. But it’s part of the process. One great game might be followed by two bad ones. The remainder of this season is about learning on the job, and some of the blunders and mental errors that so frustrate the average fan will serve as great teaching tools for manager Brad Mills and his coaching staff.

Mills was a little more agitated than normal after the Astros dropped the opener in Florida on Friday. The final score — 9-0 — suggests this game was a blowout, but for six innings, it wasn’t, and Mills saw many key plays that, had they been properly executed, could have resulted in a much different outcome.

Instead, all the Astros mounted was a pile of missed opportunities, and Mills spent a portion of the pregame period on Saturday talking with various players about how things could have been done differently.

For example: Jason Castro was on second with one out in the sixth inning, and it was J.A. Happ’s job to bunt him over. The only problem was Happ’s bunt rolled toward first base, and Castro was out on a 3-5 fielder’s choice. The bunt should have been toward third.

In the second inning, Brett Wallace’s task was to simply make contact, which would advance Chris Johnson, who had doubled with one out in the inning. Instead, Wallace struck out.

Mills doesn’t use these teaching opportunities to point fingers. This isn’t about calling someone out or needlessly embarrassing a player. But if there are missed chances — missing the cutoff man, throwing to the wrong base, etc. — that are preventing the Astros from getting over that proverbial hump, it’s Mills’ job to address it, talk about it, and plan for a different outcome next time.

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Here and there:

Brian Moehler, in his second attempt to return to the field after a lengthy groin injury, is scheduled to fly to Houston on Sunday and throw a bullpen session on Monday. If that goes well, he will begin a rehab assignment with Round Rock on Tuesday. He’ll have a 60-pitch limit in that start.He’ll then rejoin the Astros in Philadelphia on Thursday and throw another bullpen session in anticipation of a start for the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks on Sunday in San Antonio.

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Congratulations to Mills and his wife, Ronda, who celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary on Saturday. We were wondering how Mills, who went into coaching and managing almost as soon as his playing career ended and has been working in baseball for more than 30 years, could have possibly found time to get married in the middle of a season. Most baseball weddings occur in November.

Turns out, Mills got married before the baseball career started — he and Ronda wed right before his senior year of college at the University of Arizona.

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Life can be pretty routine for those running the home and visiting clubhouses at big league ballparks, but the Marlins’ visiting clubhouse staff has found a way to keep things interesting as teams roll in and out of Sun Life Stadium throughout the season.

Hanging on the wall near the entrance are five pictures of the visiting team — “action” shots they take the first day the team is in town, which are then hung up the next day.

I found some of the Astros’ shots mildly amusing, like this one of Wandy Rodriguez and Anderson Hernandez (I guess it was a good thing Wandy wasn’t pitching this game).

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If you’re familiar with Rex Jones, the mustachioed half of the intrepid Astros’ athletic training staff, then you’ll probably like this extreme close up:

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Postgame notes from the Astros’ 6-3 loss to the Marlins Saturday night;

Johnson is hitting .319 in August and .361 against right-handed pitching this month.

Rodriguez tied his season high with 10 strikeouts. It was his sixth career 10-plus strikeout game.

Astros starting pitchers have posted a 2.54 ERA over the last 12 games.

The loss was the Astros 11th in their last 12 games played at the Marlins’ ballpark. They haven’t won a series here since May 9-11 in 2005.   

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And finally, we end with some candid images taken during the few afternoon hours it didn’t rain:

Geoff Blum, pointing out that former pop princess Tiffany indeed performed “I Think We’re Alone Now” (which was playing when this picture was taken) at a mall in the 1980s.  

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Michael Bourn in the cage.

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Carlos Lee grooving to aforementioned Tiffany tune.

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Blum, Mills, Bagwell

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Coach Bagwell.

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Castro, Wallace warm up.

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Bagwell’s been on the job one day, and already Berkman has a new batting stance.

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I kid, I kid.

But this image of Lance Berkman imitating Jeff Bagwell while taking batting practice on Thursday did make me laugh, for two reasons: 1) it was pretty much a spot-on imitation; and 2) It was good comic relief for me after sifting through a few dozen messages from fans who were concerned that Bagwell couldn’t possibly be a good hitting coach because all he was going to do is make everyone adopt that bizarre, unconventional squatty stance that worked for him many moons ago.

The Bagwell squat isn’t making a resurgence, thankfully, but it’s good to see the old first baseman back in uniform. Bagwell stood behind the cage on Thursday and watched batting practice, chatted with the players and pulled a few to the side for one-on-one talks. In other words, it was a pretty typical day in the life of a hitting coach, but one that drew a bit more attention considering where Bags fits into the history of this franchise.

Watch video of the Astros’ workout and Bagwell’s first day on the job here.

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A quick note on retired numbers: A former player whose number is retired but who comes back to the organization as uniformed personnel is permitted to wear his number. Jose Cruz wore No. 25 when he returned to coach, and Bagwell will wear his No. 5.

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It was a pretty lively, loose group that worked out at PNC Park on Thursday. About half the players met the team in Pittsburgh from wherever they spent their All-Star break, and everyone made it on time — except for Carlos Lee. Citing flight problems out of Panama, Lee missed the workout. Michael Bourn was also not in attendance, but that was arranged by the club. Bourn spent three days at the All-Star Game and was given Thursday off to rest.

Lee’s absence is considered “unexcused,” although the workout was not mandatory. As Chronicle beat writer Bernardo Fallas tweeted Thursday night, “GM Ed Wade said he was disappointed…Needless to say, the absence, which we’ll deem unexcused, threatens Carlos Lee’s role as starter for Fri.’s series opener vs. Bucs.”

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From the workout:

Bagwell, Pence 

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Jason Castro.

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Chris Johnson.

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Geoff Blum, Tommy Manzella.

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Hunter Pence.

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Warm-ups can often look like dancing when captured with a still camera.

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Castro passes first test with a good night behind, and at, the plate.

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A lot of emphasis is placed on what happens during Spring Training, because with five months of nothingness leading up to report day, it’s the only thing available to us to make observations and judgments.

There’s always anticipation to see who makes the coveted Opening Day roster, but while only 25 players can make that first team, inevitably, as the season progresses, many, many players who are cut during the spring show up in the big leagues at some point.

Three months ago, J.R. Towles beat out Jason Castro for the front-line catching job. But today, Towles is with the Double-A team and Castro is an Astro. As far as debuts go, Castro gets an A-plus.

Castro singled in his very first Major League at-bat and threw out two would-be base stealers, but it’s not just his basic stats that were impressive. It’s how he handled himself amid the hoopla that is unavoidable when a former No. 1 Draft picks shows up in the big leagues for the first time.

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The Astros called up three from Round Rock, but taking nothing away from Chris Johnson and Jason Bourgeois, the lion’s share of the media attention was directed toward Castro, the Stanford-educated catcher whom the Astros are hoping can fill a void that has remained empty since the departure of the defensively-savvy Brad Ausmus.

Castro handled the media crush with the ease of a veteran. He spoke with an even tone, answered the questions concisely and calmly and seemed completely comfortable with the attention. He also appeared to be focused when he took the field, and while I’m sure he had quite the adrenaline rush going, he didn’t lose focus.

No one knows how Castro will fare over the long haul and we have to be careful not to put too much emphasis on one game. But singling off one of the best pitchers in the game and throwing two lasers to second base is a pretty good way to start a career.

Images from Tuesday at Minute Maid Park:

Jason Bourgeois will serve as a backup outfielder, in the same capacity as Cory Sullivan. Bourgeois was Round Rock’s most consistent hitter this year.

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The good thing about the young prospects being in big league camp during Spring Training is the familiarity they have with the Major League coaching staff. Castro was reunited with bullpen coach Jamie Quirk, who worked with the catchers all spring.

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Before Tuesday’s game, manager Brad Mills told Pedro Feliz that Chris Johnson, seen below, will take over the main starting duties at third base.

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Hunter Pence chats with Michael Bourn around the cage during batting practice.

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A familiar sight: Pence signing autographs.

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Bourn and Berkman during BP.

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More reasons why baseball is not like football.

Through the first two days of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, I’ve heard from a lot of you regarding the Astros’ picks. A lot of you have raised questions as to why they’re drafting certain positions and what that might mean for some of the Astros players on the current Major League roster.

I’ve also heard of some questionable commentary on local radio shows that I find to be somewhat disconcerting. These comments seems to be fueling public confusion about how the team views its current big league players.

Baseball is unique from the other major sports in that it takes, typically, a few years before the draftees can make an impact on the Major League level (Stephen Strasburg, obviously, is the exception). In football and basketball, the returns are immediate. Baseball is a longer process.

The players who the Astros draft this week simply have absolutely nothing to do with the job security of the players currently playing at the big league level.

One talk show host insinuated that the Astros’ decision to draft Delino DeShields Jr. as their first pick somehow indicates Michael Bourn has a limited future with the Astros. This line of thinking is just absurd. First of all, the Astros envision DeShields as a second baseman (although he will play center this year), and even if he was honed as a center fielder, that has absolutely nothing to do with Bourn. DeShields has a lot of development ahead of him before he can think about the big leagues. Bourn is a star whom the Astros are not interested in dealing.

Healthy Major League organizations have deep, deep farm systems. They have several players at each position who could potentially impact the team on the big league level. They go into Spring Training with a log jam all over the field, and several players who are good enough to be on the team aren’t, simply because there are more capable and experienced players ahead of them on the depth chart.

When the Astros’ farm system was rated No. 1 by just about everyone several years ago, they had too many pitchers qualified to make the rotation coming out of Spring Training. There were times I’d look at the spring roster and think, “where are they going to put everyone?” Then, inevitably, there would be injuries, or players who slumped terribly, or supposed up-and-comers who flamed out halfway through the season. And there was usually a stud prospect who was given a shot, and performed well. I remember in 1998, Richard Hidalgo was by far the best outfielder in the organization. And he was shipped to Triple-A before Spring Training ended.

That’s where the Astros are trying to get back to. They appear to be on the right track, but I encourage you to not put too much stock into what positions these young players are being drafted as. Think about it: Lance Berkman was drafted as a first baseman. Even Puma thought he didn’t have much of a chance to be drafted by the Astros because they obviously had a mainstay in Jeff Bagwell at first, and in 1997 he was hands down one of the best first basemen in baseball and in the prime of his career.

So what if the Astros had decided to pass on Puma, because of Bagwell? Instead, they converted Berkman into an outfielder, and he performed a lot better than the club had envisioned. Then he took over at first when Bagwell’s shoulder gave out five years after Berkman was drafted.

In ’97, the Astros drafted the best player available, and that player was Berkman. I think we can agree the returns have been off the charts.

Prospects can change positions. Some of you have noticed the Astros selected several catchers on Tuesday. Those catchers can easily become third basemen, or first basemen, or some other position down the road. They can also become catchers. While we’re all very optimistic about Jason Castro, we don’t know for sure what he’ll be. There are also no guarantees that he won’t get hurt.

Depth. Its importance cannot be underestimated.

And also, keep in mind prospects are extremely valuable to an organization when it needs trade chips to get that one player who can make a difference in a contending season. It’s all about stockpiling, and if the Astros have too many good players at one position, that’s a great problem to have. It’s what got them to the postseason six times in 10 years, and it’s what will get them there again.  

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Photo albums, videos, and you.

“Social media” is a relatively new term, but it’s quickly changing the way companies do business. In sports, social media is opening up all kinds of new avenues for teams to directly communicate with their fans. With Spring Training upon us, there is no better time for Major League Baseball — and more specifically, your Houston Astros — to bring you every nugget of what is going on, through articles, pictures, videos, blogs and Twitter updates.

If you haven’t joined the Astros Facebook page, I invite you to do so. We’re posting daily photo albums from camp in an effort to give you the fly-on-the-wall perspective that is now available with a simple click of the mouse. All blogs, as well as Brian McTaggart’s outstanding mlb.com coverage, can be found there.

We’re also posting daily videos, which live on both the homepage of astros.com and a special video section which you can find here. Those videos are also linked to my Footnotes page, which is a landing page that includes blogs, videos and links to my Twitter account.

So far, we’ve posted a Roy Oswalt interview, two workout videos, a Brad Mills segment and footage from Drayton McLane’s announcement of Ed Wade’s contract extension. You’ll also find archived segments from the Astros’ recent offseason caravans.

Our goal is to bring you close to the action, even if you can’t be there in person. We have a ton of new faces in camp this year, so there’s no better time to start getting to know the new Astros, as well as say hello to old friends.

Enjoy!

Tim Byrdak, Jeff Fulchino

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Roy Oswalt

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Oswalt practices fielding grounders back to the mound. That’s Jose Cruuuuz at first base. 

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Bud Norris, Brian Moehler throw bullpens.

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Felipe Paulino throws a bullpen (with the Astros braintrust watching from behind). 

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Catchers Humberto Quintero and Jason Castro.

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Let the Castro watch begin.

Jason Castro reported to his first big league Spring Training camp last year relatively unnoticed, all things considered.

The club’s No. 1 Draft pick in ’08, Castro received the big league invite in ’09 not because he had a remote chance to make the club (he didn’t), but because the team told him if he handled his first professional season as well as expected, he would be welcomed to big league camp the following spring. Castro held up his end of the bargain, so the Astros held up theirs.

The stakes are different — higher, even — this year as Castro prepares for his second Major League Spring Training. Castro’s chances to make the club when camp breaks vary, depending on who you talk to. The cautious approach, which obviously protects the player, is to say simply that Castro will have a very real chance to make the club, but it’s more likely he’ll start the season at Triple-A and then work his way onto the big league roster at some point in 2010.

That’s all well and good and I do take that at face value, to a point. But we also see that the projected catchers this season are Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles, and while they have value and merits in their own right, these are the same two catchers the Astros had last year when they scoured the free agent market for a stop-gap and landed on Pudge Rodriguez.

So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to speculate that the Astros might outwardly feel that Castro will ease his way into the starting job eventually, but inwardly have every finger and toe crossed that Castro might just hit well, handle the pitching staff with ease and give the Astros no choice but to start him behind the plate on Opening Day.

It’ll be an interesting storyline come Feb. 20, when pitchers and catchers step onto those backfields at Osceola County Stadium for the first time (side note — morning workouts are open to the public and free. Gates will open about five minutes after the players hit the fields for stretching, which Brad Mills says will begin at 9:30 a.m.) I’ve been calling Castro the “future Astro,” but you have to wonder if that future just might arrive sooner than later (like, say, April 5 vs. the Giants).

Castro’s clearly ready for that line of questioning. He wore a hint of a grin when asked about it before the luncheon hosted by the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks, and it’s nice to see him take the speculation in stride.

“It’s definitely something I’ve thought about, obviously,” he said. “I’m very excited about it. But when I do get there and the time comes, it’s about producing on the field. I’ll get my work in, prepare myself to do that and hopefully I’ll be ready. That’s the main thing I’ll have my mind on — just playing.”

In the meantime, it was nice catching up with Castro on the very last day of the nine-day, 15-city, umpteen-mile caravan jaunt that has now drawn to a close. The traveling party — Larry Dierker, Milo Hamilton, Castro and Hunter Pence – visited southeastern Texas, where they visited Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, greeted fans associated with the Double-A Hooks and mingled with kids from the Boys & Girls Club in Victoria. 

Enjoy the images, including a few from Wednesday’s trip to the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

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Driscoll Children’s Hospital

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Castro chats with Milo Hamilton during the Corpus Christi luncheon presentation.

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Castro, Pence sign autographs in Corpus.

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Pence took the young fans a bit off guard with his constant barrage of questions: “Did you have a good day at school today? Did you learn anything? How was recess?” This whole visit was a surprise for the kids at the Boys & Girls Club, so needless to say, most answers were in the form of wide-eyed, gaping nods.  

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Most of the kids loosened up by the end of the visit, however.

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One day earlier, another caravan traveling party wrapped up its three-day jaunt through Central Texas with a visit with soldiers at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. Most of the patients there have lost limbs — mostly legs. Our guys didn’t know what to expect when they entered the facility, but it took no time at all before the conversations flowed freely. It was one of the few stops we made that when it was time to leave, no one wanted to.

Below: Matt Lindstrom 

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Bud Norris

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Lindstrom

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Group shot with Bagwell

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I love this one…Bagwell was asking so many questions that finally the young man just took off the prosthetic leg and handed it to him.

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One last group shot before we left.

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Day 2 in Corpus Christi. Catching up with Castro the (future) Astro.

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It’s not unusual for a twenty-something to tour Europe as a post-college graduation adventure, but Jason Castro never had that opportunity.

Castro went directly from the College World Series to the New York-Penn League, where he began his professional career with the Tri-City Valley Cats after being selected as the Astros’ No. 1 Draft pick in 2008. Traveling to exotic far-away places was not an option at the time, but it turns out, Castro is indeed going to get that tour trhough Europe.

Even before his season as the starting catcher for the Double-A Hooks concludes in early September, Castro will head to Cary, NC, to report to Team USA. That club will participate in the IBAF World Cup, a 22-team tournament that begins play on Sept. 9 in Spain, Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Croatia.

“When I found out that I was selected to play on the team, it was definitely an honor,” Castro said before the Hooks game against the Arkansas Travelers on Wednesday. “I’ve never been to Europe before. To represent Team USA is something I’ve never been able to do, so this is pretty special.”

Once that tournament is complete, Castro will likely continue to play offseason baseball in the Arizona Fall League. He’ll have a couple of months of down time before reporting to Spring Training in February, but where he lands on the Astros depth chart between now and then is anyone’s guess. Few have doubts about Castro’s certain future as the Astros’ No. 1 catcher. The only question is, how soon will the future arrive?

From a public standpoint, there is pressure to push Castro into that role coming out of Spring Training. The Astros are hesitant to do that, fearing pushing him too soon could be detrimental to the big picture. They anointed J.R. Towles “the guy” entering Spring Training in 2008, and that all but backfired. They don’t want to repeat history.

So will the Astros need to find another stop-gap, a la Pudge Rodriguez, next spring, until Castro is ready? Will there even be a stop-gap available? Or, do they hand Castro the job, step away, and cross their fingers?

Those are discussions the front office will probably have a hundred times this offseason. Castro will simply do what’s asked of him, and while he is aware of the hype surrounding him — he follows the Astros pretty regularly, when his schedule allows — he doesn’t intend to preoccupy himself with worrying about whether he’ll have a legitimate chance to win a job in the big leagues next March.

“It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of doing, and now that I’m kind of on the cusp of getting that opportunity, it’s exciting,” he said. “There is some pressure. But I’ve tried to keep it in the back of my mind and not let it really come into play when I’m on the field. I can’t really worry about it. Hopefully, the things I do on the field will speak for themselves.”

Castro began the 2009 season at Class A Lancaster and was promoted to Corpus in early June. Over 48 games with the Hooks, he’s hitting .304 with nine doubles, two homers and 21 RBIs.

Hooks manager Luis Pujols, the ex-catcher who played for two Astros playoff teams during his seven-year tenure in Houston (1977-83), said of Castro’s first-round pick status, “He’s No. 1, and he’s backing it up here.” Asked about Castro possibly being the Astros No. 1 catcher Opening Day next year, however, Pujols was more reserved.

“I like him. I wish I could say he’ll be the guy next year, but he’s still a long way away,” Pujols said. “I’d like to see him finish the season here, go to World Cup games, the Arizona Fall League, Spring Training, and then who knows?”

Castro is a quick study, Pujols noted, which definitely helps to accelerate the learning process.

“Everything we tell him, he’s able to put in place during the game right away,” Pujols said. “I see him hitting and it seems like he’s hitting the ball hard everywhere. He doesn’t hit a lot of home runs. He’s a gapper. He hits the ball hard to right field and left field. He doesn’t strike out much. I haven’t seen a young guy like that in a while.”

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Chia-Jen Lo is another one to keep an eye on. He was also promoted mid-season from Lancaster to Corpus Christi, and although he’s had some fatigue issues with his shoulder, the 23-year-old right-handed reliever appears to be adjusting well in his first year of professional baseball in America.

Lo has never experienced this kind of workload, a lesson the team learned the hard way when it lost him to tendinitis for a few weeks. Now, he’s restricted to throwing no more than two innings, and through 23 appearances, he has a 3.75 ERA and is averaging a strikeout per inning.

“The hardest thing to adjust to is the long season,” Lo said through his interpreter, Justin Wei. “I’ve never been through this many games. It’s my first full season, and it’s been an adjustment.”

Lo is also in the process of learning English. A tutor comes to the ballpark regularly to work with him, and he admits picking up the language is definitely a work in progress.

“It’s hard,” he laughed. “It’ll be at least a year.”

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