HOUSTON (AP) — Rookie manager Brad Mills has won over the Houston Astros with his energy and upbeat attitude. Whether that leads to more wins in 2010 is an open question.
The 53-year-old Mills, Terry Francona's bench coach in Boston for the past six seasons, was hired to take over the Astros after Cecil Cooper was fired and Houston finished 74-88 last year.
Mills delivered an impassioned speech at spring training, trying to set the tone for this season. He vowed to create a positive working environment and set no expectations beyond players simply reaching their potential.
"I just want to give these guys a freedom to be who they are," Mills said. "We have a lot of good players here, a lot of good talent, and I'm not just talking about position players, but pitchers and we've got some young guys with a lot of talent."
The message resonated with the players, who all seem re-energized after losing confidence in Cooper as last season unfolded.
"It's a little more exciting this year, new guys, new faces," said ace Roy Oswalt. "The manager brings a lot of fire to the team. It should be fun. This year should be a lot more exciting in the clubhouse."
That still may not be enough to propel the Astros into contention in the National League's Central Division. They ranked 14th in the NL in runs (3.97 per game) and 13th in runs allowed (4.75 per game), and they have plenty of questions lingering, starting with their two biggest stars.
Roy Oswalt and first baseman Lance Berkman, two of the last holdovers from Houston's only World Series appearance in 2005, endured injuries and put up some of the worst numbers of their career last year.
Oswalt went 8-6 in 2009 and finished with a career-high 4.16 ERA and a franchise-record 16 no-decisions. He strained his lower back in July, then sat out the last two weeks of the season with a bulging disk. Berkman missed a month with a strained calf and finishing with a .274 average, 25 homers and 80 RBIs, among the lowest numbers of his 11-year career.
And Berkman is already dealing with the team's first significant injury. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at spring training and could miss opening day.
Berkman and Oswalt must produce this season to give the Astros any chance at a playoff run.
"I know that, Lance knows that," Oswalt said, "it all goes back on me and him every time. He's third in the lineup. If he doesn't hit, we don't win. If I don't pitch, we don't win. We know that. That's what we get paid to do."
The Astros acquired Brett Myers to fill the No. 3 spot in the rotation behind Oswalt and left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who is coming off career highs in wins (14) and strikeouts (193) and a career-low ERA (3.02). Myers was Philadelphia's opening-day starter the previous three years and also started Game 2 of the 2008 World Series.
Bud Norris, a rookie last season, is the front-runner for the No. 4 spot, after going 6-3 in 10 starts with the Astros in 2009. Mills was going to choose between Brian Moehler and Felipe Paulino for the final spot.
The 37-year-old Moehler went 8-12 with a 5.47 ERA in 2009, though he ranked third with 29 starts. Paulino bounced between the minors and the Astros last year and the team brass expects improvement after he went 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA in 23 games.
"Felipe is 25, but everybody knows Felipe, he's been around," general manager Ed Wade said. "He's had these opportunities before. Brian Moehler has to go out and prove what he's capable of doing, and then let everybody involved make the right decision."
"I hope that is a hard decision," Mills said. "If it's a hard decision, that means we've got two guys who are really battling and making it tough on who we're going to choose."
The rest of Mills' decisions revolve around the offense. Miguel Tejada led the 2009 Astros with a .313 average, but he signed with Baltimore in the offseason.
Unproven rookie Tommy Manzella, a defensive whiz with only five career major-league at-bats, will replace Tejada. Mills also has to chose a new catcher, between light-hitting J.R. Towles and rookie Jason Castro.
The Astros also need production from second baseman Kaz Matsui, who hit .250 in 2009 and has missed chunks of his two seasons in Houston with injuries. Houston also is hoping that new third baseman Pedro Feliz can improve on his .266 average from last season.
Carlos Lee and Michael Bourn largely carried the offense last season. Lee topped 100 RBIs for the fifth straight season and Bourn led the NL with 61 steals.
Despite the apparent unknowns, Berkman thinks the Astros will improve as long as they avoid injuries.
"I like our club," Berkman said. "Health is a big factor for us. There are some older guys who are going to be counting on to play some key roles, so we've got to stay healthy. I've got stay on the field, Carlos has got to stay on the field, Roy's got to stay on the mound, Brett Myers has to come back and have a healthy season. If those things happen, we're going to be competitive. We have good personnel."