Hope springs eternal on Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Great teams expect to win championships. Good teams aspire to be great. Average teams hope to surprise and even bad teams hope to take that next step, or if you dare to dream, (and why not, it’s Opening Day?) leap forward to respectability.
Hope and optimism have been in short supply in recent years for the Houston baseball fans who know all about bad teams.
Three hundred and twenty four- losses over the last three seasons have provided a painful and vivid example of what a major league train wreck looks and feels like. Like a bad cold that resurfaces just when you thought you were getting healthy, at times the beginning of the team’s rebuilding project has been even more frustrating than the original sickness.
Astros fans might be cautiously anticipating a season that begins Tuesday with a series against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros ever optimistic manager Bo Porter believes the worst is behind them and 2014 will mark the beginning of a new era, filled with more major league players, the emergence of talented prospects and yes, more wins.
“Progress is extremely important,” Porter said in a pre-Opening Day sit down with Sports Radio 610. “A lot of people may look at the record last year and they will see the losses. I actually think we were learning how to win.
“I am also a firm believer that a bright future starts with a well executed now. I think we are that point where we need to execute the now, not only for our fan base and for our organization but the psyche of the players as well.”
The Astros made two significant moves in the off-season, signing free agent pitcher Scott Feldman and trading for Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler. Porter will insert the centerfielder Fowler into his lead-off spot.
“Getting on base in front of (Jose) Altuve and Castro was a major challenge for us last year,” Porter admitted. “Now with Fowler and Robbie Grossman at the top of the lineup we feel like we have two guys who are going to get on base at a consistent clip.”
Castro and Altuve could hit third and fourth in the lineup and Porter calls Jonathan Villar almost a second lead off guy in the number nine position.
“Last year when we started spring training I said, ‘Jose Altuve will play second base.’” Porter explained. “You fast forward a year later, Matt Dominguez has established himself as an everyday third baseman. Jason Castro turned himself into an American League All Star. Jonathan Villar arrived in the majors last year and he is an everyday shortstop. The addition of Fowler, an everyday centerfielder who has played it at an elite level and Grossman who had an unbelievable second half when he came back helps. So when you look up and down the lineup you now see players who have established themselves as major league players and you see a few players like Altuve, Castro and Fowler that have been all stars.”
“The emergence of Matt Dominguez last year and Chris Carter hit 29 home runs, we feel like we have some thump in the middle as well,” Porter added.
“I think our overall team defense is going to be better,” Porter said. “Carter won’t play the outfield much. He will be more of a DH. Grossman, Fowler, L.J. Hoes and (Alex) Presley will man the outfield. All four of them can play centerfield. Having those type of guys in the outfield will definitely improve our outfield defense.”
The Astros signed Scott Feldman to three year, $30 million dollar contract in the off-season in addition to some more affordable but equally important bullpen moves.
“I believe our starting pitching is better with the addition of Scott Feldman and the emergence of the young guys, Cosart, Oberholtzer and Dallas Keuchel,” Porter said. “I believe Lucas Harrell is going to have a great bounce back season.
“The back end of our bullpen is much improved because we were able to add some veteran guys who have pitched some high leverage innings before and the young guys that were thrust into high leverage innings last year, I believe that experience will bode well for them in 2014.
Astros fans who followed the 2013 team even on a somewhat regular basis know about the late leads that slipped away and the inability to finish off more wins. Porter hopes the veteran additions of Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jermome Williams to the bullpen can provide some stability.
“When you add the guys we were able to add, not only did we add guys who have pitched high leverage innings, we also added guys who keep the ball in the ballpark. We lost a lot of games last year in two ways, one was too many walks late in the game and two, the home run ball. So you look at Qualls and Albers, their track record will tell you they are going to throw strikes and even when the ball is put in play, 55-60 percent of the time, the ball will be on the ground. We believe we have one of the best infield defenses in all of baseball and we believe that will amount to a lot more double plays. The outcome being, closing out more ballgames and giving us a better chance to win.”
2014 & THE FUTURE
The Astros will have the first pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, just as they did in 2013 and 2012. George Springer, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel and Mike Foltynewicz generate more attention and interest than several of the members of the current 25-man roster. While the aforementioned quartet begins the season in the minors, at least Springer and Foltynewicz have the potential to arrive soon and stay for a long time.
“I think the next wave will be much sooner than later,” the skipper predicted. “I think all of those guys that are top prospects, we believe have a chance to be impact players at the major league level. The players will tell you when they are ready. At the same time, when you look at the core group we have here and the players in which we have coming, we believe that combination will have our organization in a great place for a number of years to come.”