HOUSTON -- When right-hander Bud Norris earned his call-up on July 29, 2009, the Astros featured one of the oldest rosters in baseball.
Their everyday lineup featured six 30-year-olds, with Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Kaz Matsui the youngest of that group despite each playing in their age-33 seasons. Jason Michaels (33) and Darin Erstad (35) were relied upon as bench contributors. The starting rotation included Brian Moehler (37), Mike Hampton (36) and Russ Ortiz (35). The Astros finished fifth in the NL Central, 14 games under .500.
In a span of three seasons Norris, 27, has morphed into a cagey veteran. Among the projected starters in the rotation, only left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, 33, has compiled more innings (1,176) with the Astros. Of the 13 pitchers named to the Astros' 25-man roster, five will open a season with a major league club for the first time in their careers.
"It's definitely different, that's for sure," Norris said. "But at the same token I love the young guys. We're fighting together; we're going to figure this thing out together. We've got a real close unit, and when our glory days come we're going to be excited about it."
As they dive headlong into rebuilding, perhaps the most interesting exercise in studying the Astros is determining which youngsters will serve as the foundation for the franchise moving forward. Not every 20-something currently on the roster has long-term viability with the club, and predicting which players will remain on the periphery of the roster in the coming years requires equal parts examination and mind reading.
What is obvious is that Astros brass will ask their younger veterans to set the course for clubhouse behavior and on-field performance. What Norris gleaned from Roy Oswalt must be applied as right-handers Lucas Harrell and Kyle Weiland work to settle in with their second franchises.
"I have to worry about my work first," said Norris, who is 21-24 in 69 career appearances (68 starts). "I'm going to have to go out there and do my job and get better every day and take my strides. But by the same token if they need help I'm going to give every tidbit of knowledge I do have. I don't have a ton, but I have a little with my two and a half years in the bigs. (It's) anything I can do to help them and anything they can do to help me because it is a team and we need to get better together."
This transition will require a tandem approach. With Harrell and Weiland, along with right-handers David Carpenter, Rhiner Cruz and Fernando Rodriguez, making their opening-day active-roster debuts, the Astros need a catcher with savvy and experience to render aide.
First-year general manager Jeff Luhnow shipped one backstop fitting that description, respected veteran Humberto Quintero, to the Royals during spring training, a move that revealed the faith the franchise has in former first-rounder Jason Castro, 24.
Like Norris, Castro has been around despite what his compiled career statistics might suggest. He has just 217 plate appearances in 67 games since his call-up on June 22, 2010. But while sidelined last season due to a significant knee injury, Castro remained a fixture in the clubhouse. His presence, combined with the experienced he gained catching the likes of Oswalt, Moehler, Brett Myers and Tim Byrdak, has advanced his growth.
"Even though I am one of the younger guys on the roster, it's definitely something that I feel like will be even more of my game this year is to be a little bit more of the leader role, especially being a catcher," Castro said. "It's really important for me to take that on and help this pitching staff through this season. Help guide them and help lead them with directing the game.
"It's definitely a humbling thing to know that some of these key pieces are in place, and it's a special thing to be a part of for me personally. I know some of the other guys feel the same way, and we're really excited to get the ship going and head down that path that we're headed on."
When inevitable trials arise for infielders Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzales, third baseman Chris Johnson, 27, can offer the perspective of someone who has been in that position, as someone who can relate.
Johnson followed his late-season call-up in 2009 with a breakout 2010, producing a batting line of .308.337.481 with 11 home runs and 52 RBIs in 94 games. After being handed the starting job last season Johnson regressed so drastically (.251.291.378 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs in 107 games) he was demoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Johnson had to win the job again this spring, beating out Jimmy Paredes, who replaced him last season, and former first baseman Brett Wallace in the process. Even if his hold on third base is tenuous, Johnson has the wealth of experience to draw from on how to handle such adversities.
"It'll be big if those guys have something to lean on, and I can help them out," Johnson said. "I definitely went though the down period last year and I know how hard it is and I know now some of the things I wish I would have done back then. I should be able to help those guys out and make it a little smoother for them. It'll help the team out with all these young guys."
As the Astros continue their youth movement, and as they take the likely steps of jettisoning the remaining high-salaried veterans on their roster, what Castro, Norris and Johnson can prove becomes invaluable. They were the newcomers when the Astros were older and wiser, and while nary a gray hair appears on their heads, they now occupy the seats of wisdom and knowledge. And, if each reaches his potential, they will help carry the club into what they hope is a prosperous future.
The names and faces around them have changes, and in many ways so have the Astros' youngest veterans. Their duties have been expanded.
"I think they now see what leaders are," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "It's not exactly what they say or what comes out of their mouth, but how they play. That's what a leader does. It's how he plays the game and how he does between the white lines. How he supports his teammates.
"The younger guys that have been around here a couple years, I think that's what they see more than anything else. And that's probably the neatest thing about this group."
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