2013 Preview: Houston Astros

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Houston Astros.

The Big Question: Will the Astros be historically bad?

Maybe this isn’t the biggest question facing the Astros this year, but it’s one that’s sort of been sticking with me for a couple of weeks as I’ve made the rounds on various radio shows previewing the 2013 season. Almost all of the hosts ask me how bad the Astros will be and almost all of them are assuming this is going to be some sort of 1962 Mets situation or something. I actually had one guy take the under on an over/under of 45 wins for them. Which seems kind of nuts.

Look, the Astros aren’t going to be good, I’ll agree with that. But we have to be realistic here and note that in the 162-game era, only two teams have failed to win 45 games: the 1962 Mets and the 2003 Tigers. Indeed, unless I’m overlooking someone, I do not believe any team has won fewer than 50 games in a full 162 game season apart from those two teams.  Every season brings us some bad teams, but teams that putrid are few and far between. And really, there is no reason to think that these Astros, as thin as they are, will be historically bad.

Part of this is a gut feeling, based on the usual composition of awful teams. They tend to be teams who have not yet begun the full rebuilding process yet — or expansion teams — which feature a lot of old guys and castoffs on the roster. The sorts of players who can fool a GM into thinking, “well, maybe we’ll be OK because I’ve heard of that guy,” and thus causes them to forego real substantive fixes. That was the 2012 Astros, right? Home of Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. A team which gave Armando Galarraga a shot because, hell, he almost had a perfect game once, right? A team which went on a 7-43 stretch at one point because, eh, just because?

The 2013 team is not a talented one, but the moves to make them better have begun. The Jed Lowrie trade, which brought back Chris Carter, Max Stassi and Brad Peacock is the sort of move I like: boring ones to most fans, but moves which constitute the dirty work of a rebuilding process. Getting depth and incremental improvement. That, along with a pretty substantial overhaul of the minor leagues, represents an all-in approach which is admirable and rare in rebuilding. Let’s just forget for a moment that Carlos Pena, currently slated to be the Astros’ DH, was on that 2003 Tigers team, OK?

Little upside at the moment, but fewer gaping holes and a lot of hungry young players who are happy to be anywhere make for a much better vibe than last year’s 107 loss team possessed and, I have a feeling, will help stave off some sort of historically bad showing.  Perhaps that doesn’t make Astros fans feel better at the moment, but merely believing that this team will not set records for futility is a compliment. One that, for some reason, a lot of people are unwilling to offer. I think that’s both ahistorical and kinda sad. Think positively, Houston!

What else is going on?

  • Positive thoughts and the avoidance of ignominy are one thing, but this lineup isn’t gonna scare anyone:

1. Tyler Greene, SS
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. Carlos Pena, DH
4. Chris Carter, LF
5. Brett Wallace, 1B
6. Justin Maxwell, CF
7. Jason Castro, C
8. Fernando Martinez, RF
9. Matt Dominguez, 3B

Jose Altuve is legit and will likely be the last dude left from this bunch when the Astros next win 90 games, but I don’t know where the runs are gonna come from. Maybe Carlos Pena has one last good year in him. Maybe he can check the pockets of the pants he wore back in 2009.

  • How’s about that rotation?

1. Bud Norris
2. Lucas Harrell
3. Jordan Lyles
4. Philip Humber
5. Erik Bedard

Hmm. Phil Humber. Let’s forget that comment I made about Armando Galarraga and signing someone just because they once did something interesting above too.

  • The Astros may play poorly, but they’ll look awesome doing it. They will be sporting what are easily the nicest new uniforms any team has switched to in years if not decades.
  • That’s pretty, but you know what’s ugly? Moving to the American League West. With the Angels and Rangers being two of the most talented teams around, the defending champ Oakland A’s always being solid and with an improved Mariners team, the Astros are gonna have way tougher competition this year than they’ve seen in the past.

So, how are they gonna do?  Not good!  I will refrain from predicting loss totals, but I’ll give a range of somewhere between 100 and 110. And if things break awesome in six different ways and they lose only, like, 97, well then they should be allowed to crack champagne. Because it’s not 2013 that matters for this franchise. It’s the future. And no matter how dark the present may be, they’re finally doing the heavy lifting they’ve long needed to do in order to make that future bright, so bully for them.

That said: Fifth Place, AL West.

Javier Baez: “This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it.”

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Infielder Javier Baez is back in camp with the Cubs after helping Puerto Rico to a second-place finish in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He was the focal point of what was, to many, the most memorable play of the entire tournament: Baez pointed at catcher Yadier Molina, who was attempting to throw out a would-be base-stealer, before applying the tag for the final out of the eighth inning.

While Baez didn’t receive much criticism for his theatrics, aside from an insignificant handful of spoilsports, he is one of the players who most exemplifies the emotional, celebratory culture that foreign players bring to Major League Baseball. U.S. (and Tigers) second baseman Ian Kinsler is on the other side of that spectrum, as he said prior to the WBC final that he hopes kids mimic the solemn way U.S. players play the game rather than the emotional, passionate way players from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic play the game.

Baez isn’t about to apologize for the way he and his teammates play the game. Via CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney, Baez said, “We do a great job playing and having fun out there. That’s what it’s all about. This is a game. It’s not as serious as a lot of people take it. but, you know, everybody’s got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.”

He continued, “It’s their choice to look at how we play, how excited we get. To us, it’s really huge what we did, even though we didn’t win. All of Puerto Rico got really together. We were going through a hard time over there and everything got fixed up for at least three weeks. Hopefully, they keep it like that.”

Mike Trout proposes change to spring training umpiring

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Angels outfielder Mike Trout came up with an idea that would allow less experienced umpires an opportunity to call some major league spring training action. As ESPN’s Buster Olney reports, Trout thinks the veteran umpires should only call five or six innings as they get back into regular season shape. The rest of the innings could be called by minor league umpires.

According to Olney, baseball officials loved Trout’s idea when they heard about it last week. One official said, “It makes a lot of sense for a lot of different reasons.” Another said, “That’s Trout — he’s always paying attention to stuff beyond what he’s doing.”

Of course, I have to agree that the suggestion is a great one. As Olney notes, the turnover rate for umpires every year is relatively low, so younger, less-experienced umpires have few opportunities to get a feel for what it’s like calling major league action. Even beyond the actual interpretation of the rules, interacting with big league personalities would also be helpful for minor league umpires.