HOUSTON -- Unlike a year ago, when the Astros were arriving at camp with a new manager in Brad Mills and having undergone a major overhaul on the coaching staff, there will be more familiarity when camp opens Wednesday with pitchers and catchers hitting the field in Kissimmee, Fla.
The players have a clear understanding what Mills wants and expects, and general manager Ed Wade is banking on the increased level of comfort paying dividends on the field. Mills guided the Astros to a 76-86 finish in his first season in 2010 and was given a contract extension shortly after the season for the way he handled the turmoil.
The Astros went 40-33 in the second half of the season despite trading away Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt and commencing a substantial youth movement. Wade said a big reason why the team flourished in the second half was the man who was pushing the buttons in the dugout.
The Astros, like everyone else in the Grapefruit League, will hit the fields in Florida this week oozing with optimism. Sure, they'll need things to go right. They'll need the pitching to pick up where it left off and for the young players to make huge strides. And they'll need the veterans to carry the offense.
That's all stuff Wade will worry about when the season begins April 1 at Philadelphia. For now, he wants nothing more than the trainers to have too much time on their hands at Spring Training. Health will be a huge key considering the Astros lack of Major League-caliber depth in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues.
"It would be great if you had three layers of depth and could cover yourself if you had major breakdowns, but we need to stay healthy," he said. "We're pressing some kids right now to step up and fill some roles that are challenging. If we have to go beyond some of those kids and dip down even further, it might get a little bit tough.
"I think every general manager, every organization going into Spring Training hopes that the offseason plan survives long enough to at least be implemented Opening Day.
"Sometimes you don't even get to Opening Day. We saw that a year ago when Lance Berkman had the knee issue and opened on the disabled list. There's no guarantees those things aren't going to happen, but health plays a big part of it."
Spring Training is about more than position battles, though the Astros will have their share of those, too. The first few weeks are for the young prospects -- those with no chance of making the team -- to soak up the environment and watch how seasoned pros go about their business. Houston will have its share of those among the 63 players in the clubhouse when the full squad reports Sunday.
"A lot of the younger players who we're bringing in are coming in knowing they're not going to make the club," Wade said. "At least we're going to tell them they're not going to make the club and we ask them to get used to the surroundings, put their foot in the water a little bit and let the staff become familiar with them. I think everybody benefits in the process of having them there, but there's enough of those guys, so we'll be able to shuffle them around a little bit and make sure the ones we're counting on to break with the club in April are ready to go."
Once the Grapefruit League games start and prospects like J.D. Martinez and Jiovanni Mier have been sent back to Minor League camp, the position battles will begin taking center stage. The long spring schedule and its endless bus rides to places like Jupiter, Port St. Lucie and Clearwater are a grind, but the Astros are young and eager.
"The enthusiasm of younger guys and wanting to put their best foot forward, sometimes you've got to ratchet it back a little bit," Wade said. "I don't think we're going to have as many guys griping about long bus rides. Those bus rides at Spring Training aren't nearly as long as the bus rides in the Pacific Coast League or the Southern League."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. = This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.