KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- A month ago, Hunter Pence assumed he'd be reporting to Minor League Spring Training camp, considering he's not yet on the Astros' 40-man roster and he has practically no chance to make the Opening Day squad this year.

But Pence received a nice surprise following his weeklong stay in Houston in early February, after participating in the annual Elite Camp at Minute Maid Park. General manager Tim Purpura invited the outfielder to Major League Spring Training, which unofficially began the Pence Watch, as fans and insiders watch the Astros' first pick of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft work toward his first big-league callup.

Pence, who turns 24 in April, is one of two top prospects generating plenty of buzz around Houston. Left-handed pitcher Troy Patton is also on the way, but it's likely Pence who will make it to Houston first. For now, both are mere prospects, following the old "keep your eyes open and mouth shut" mantra expected from rookies taking up temporary residence in a Major League Spring Training clubhouse.

But physically, Pence simply cannot sink into the background. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound center fielder is lanky but strong, and it's hard not to notice him when hitters are taking their rounds of batting practice during morning workouts on the fields of Osceola County Stadium.

Plus, Pence is considered the next big thing, whether that will apply to this season or 2008. It's widely assumed that eventually, Craig Biggio will retire and Chris Burke will move from center field to second base, creating a space for Pence in center.

And according to assistant general manager Ricky Bennett, Pence is cut from the same mold that has created many "Astro-type" players in the past. Fitting in shouldn't be an issue.

"He's a leader," Bennett said. "There were times in [Double-A] Corpus [Christi] last year where they struggled for two or three games, and guys didn't look like they were putting forth the effort. [Pence] said, 'This isn't how we play the game. We've got to kick it in gear.' He started to learn how to be a leader and get the guys to play. That's the type of guy he is."

Pence said he feels "lucky" to be in Major League camp, and he's been pleasantly surprised by the genuine guidance offered by some of the players who once were in his shoes.

"I was in the batting cage with [Lance] Berkman and Burke, and they were hitting off a tee," Pence said. "They called me over and said, 'Hey, Hunter, come here, we want to talk to you.' For about 30 minutes, they just sat there and explained to me what they do, what they work on, they showed me their routines, mixed me in.

"For them to do that, a guy like me, it was unbelievable. They taught me so much already. I learned that much in one day and they didn't have to do that."

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If Pence is looking for role models, he has plenty of choices in the Astros clubhouse. But he also draws from his own determination, which begins with carrying a basic sense of pride.

"I'll do anything I possibly can to find a way to win," Pence said. "I hate losing. I feel if you have some guys that have that fire, that actually care, you're going to find a way to win and figure some things out."

That means understanding that losses are part of the game, but not letting it get out of hand.

"The one thing you can always do is out-hustle the other team," Pence said. "You have your ability, you can work hard in the offseason. When you get on the field, if you focus and do the things right, you'll find yourself winning more ballgames."

Pence, a native of Arlington and the 64th pick overall in 2004, inched closer to the big leagues in 2006 with a stellar season in Corpus Christi. He batted .283 over 136 games, knocking 31 doubles, eight triples and 28 home runs while driving in 95 runs. He was handed just about every honor available, ranging from a Texas League All-Star selection to an All-Star Futures Game invitation.

He's likely headed for Triple-A Round Rock in 2007, but that stay could be brief, depending on what happens on the big-league level. Right now, the outfield appears to be stacked. Injuries and ineffectiveness, however, can change the makeup of a team overnight.

For now, Pence will work, and wait. He's learning a lot inside of the clubhouse, and he's getting quite the education outside, too. He's beginning to understand that from here on out, his every move will be subject to public scrutiny. He learned that part the hard way.

Pence was abruptly yanked from the Arizona Fall League last November, after he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. The trial is still pending, preventing Pence from being able to speak freely about an incident that appears to have another side few have heard about. For now, he'll simply acknowledge the mistakes he made, and use it as a valuable, and costly, learning experience.

Lesson No. 1: when you are a professional athlete, everything you do, good and bad, is public fodder.

"I've never really thought of myself as having an impact," Pence said. "I have to watch what I do. I represent a lot -- my family, the Astros ... I don't want to ever embarrass them again, myself included. As soon as it happened, I got phone calls from my school [University of Texas-Arlington], my friends, all my sponsors. It was an eye-opener."