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June 7, 2012

On the Beat

Astros Find New Orbit

by John Perrotto

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So much about the Astros is new. In their case, new is good.

Houston businessman Jim Crane bough the team from Drayton McLane last December. Jeff Luhnow, the top aide to Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, was hired as GM. The Astros had only two players in their Opening Day lineup—first baseman Carlos Lee and third baseman Chris Johnson—who started in last year's opener. The Astros will be switching leagues next year, shifting to the American League West from the National League Central. They added plenty of talent to their farm system during the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft this week by selecting Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with the first pick, and a big arm in Lance McCullers Jr. in the supplemental first round.

Nine losses in Houston’s last 11 games have dulled some of the shine from a surprisingly good start and dropped the Astros' record to 24-32. However, these Astros are a far sight better than last year's club, which went 56-106, posting the first 100-loss season in the franchise's 50-year history.

The Astros job reportedly scared off some GM candidates. The deep fall of the franchise and the daunting move to the AL led more than one baseball person to say the task might be impossible. However, Luhnow didn't hesitate when offered the job, boldly saying the Astros would field a competitive club in 2012 and not be nearly as bad as many pundits predicted. So far, he has proven to be right.

"They're a totally different club," said a scout who regularly sees the Astros. "They play with a lot more fire, and they really care. They make some mistakes because they have a young club, but all in all, they play the game with a certain degree of sharpness. They definitely aren't pushovers. I like what they are doing there."

Said Luhnow, "It started in spring training. Obviously you can only learn so much from your workouts, but once we started playing games you could tell that these guys, as a group, were energized and competitive. After a successful spring, we were able to take that right into the season. We have the youngest team in the major leagues, but they're playing as a unit; they're playing hard and their mentality is that we have a chance to win every night. Once you start to believe you can win, it makes a big difference."

Led by ultra-positive manager Brad Mills, the good feeling has permeated the clubhouse even though—with Lee on the disabled list—Johnson and shortstop Jed Lowrie are the only starting position players who have ever played a full season in the major leagues. Despite the inexperience, the Astros are fifth in the NL in scoring with an average of 4.29 runs a game. Two players, Lowrie (.304 TAv), who was acquired in an off-season trade for closer Mark Melancon, and 5-foot-5 second baseman Jose Altuve (.291), lead the offense. The Astros were 13th in the 16-team NL in scoring last year with 3.80 runs a game.

The improved hitting has helped offset the ups and downs of the pitching staff. Bud Norris (3.85) is the only starter with a FIP under 4.00, and Wilton Lopez (2.88) is the only reliever under 3.00. Though pitching has been the problem during the Astros' current skid, the recent losing ways have not dampened the enthusiasm or killed the belief they have left last year's debacle far behind.

"We're a much better club," Mills said. "Our guys believe they can compete at this level now. They know they can go out and not only hold their own but win ballgames. They've gained a lot of confidence."

That confidence could be shattered next season when the Astros shift to the AL, where many of the franchises have more financial wherewithal, a majority of the game's superstars are clustered, and the lineups are much deeper with the designated hitter in play. Luhnow presented Crane with a 25-point plan on how to get the Astros to make the move as part of his job interview. He is confident his team will not be overwhelmed in a new league.

"I am a big believer in the defensive spectrum with the designated hitter far at the other end," Luhnow said. "I don't think you necessarily go out and look for a DH. A lot of them materialize. As a National League person for the last nine years, I think it's a good problem to have because now you have a spot for a below-average fielder with a good bat. While the American League game does have its differences, you to have to do the same basic things, and that's pitch the ball, catch the ball, and hit the ball to win."

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A few minutes with Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez

On the biggest adjustment in moving from the American League to the National League this season: "I want to say sliding. Seriously. The first time I tried to slide I came up short of the base and almost broke my leg. It had been a long time since I slid—probably high school. I'm not going to do that again anytime soon."

On the biggest adjustment as far pitching in a new league: "The main thing is learning the hitters I haven't faced before. With interleague and guys getting traded from one league to the other or moving as free agents, it's not like everyone is new, but it's also been great to have a pitching coach like Steve McCatty, who prepares us so well for each start, to lean on for information on the hitters I haven't seen."

On getting traded in the offseason after representing the Athletics at last year's All-Star Game: "I wouldn't have thought it would happen a year ago. I thought I was guy they were building the rotation around along with Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill. Things change, though. The A's are just trying to keep afloat financially, and there are no hard feelings. They gave me my first chance to pitch in the major leagues, and I'll always be thankful to the organization for that."

On signing a five-year, $42-million contract with two team/vesting options after coming to the Nationals: "Mike Rizzo is a great general manager, and it made me feel really good when he approached us about a long-term contract. It made me feel good that I was wanted. Once I got to spring training I got a chance to see how much talent is on this team and I knew I made the right decision. Beyond that, we all like each other, and we all have each other's backs. There's a real team feeling here that I like being part of. We've got something special going here. We're set up to be a good team for a long time."

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Scouts' views

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro: "He is so talented but also so immature. I can see why he can drive a manager nuts like he has Dale Sveum. You've got to remember, though, that he is still a kid. I wouldn't get too alarmed. He'll learn."

Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie: "I like the idea of hitting him leadoff. He gets on base, he can steal a base, and he's a high-energy guy. I think he is going to be really effective at the top of the order for them, and it's an inspired choice by John Farrell."

Dodgers first baseman James Loney: "Write this one down: His days as an everyday first baseman will be over after this season and he'll be looking to find a spot on someone's bench next spring. He's never had the type of power you prefer in a first baseman, and now his pop has almost completely disappeared. He has to make some changes to his game.

Athletics right-hander Jarrod Parker: "He has a great arm, but what I really like about the kid is that he doesn't always try to overpower hitters. He's learning how to pitch and he has really good mound presence. He stays really calm, and that's a great sign for the future."

Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips: "I know he's won Gold Gloves, but he's really not a great defensive second baseman. Watch him when he tries to turn a double play. He takes the ball at that back of the bag instead of coming across. He's gotten to the point where he's going way out of his way to avoid contact. Don't me wrong—he's still a good player and I'd take him on my team, but I do think he's getting by on his reputation defensively."

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Five observations

  • The NFL gets a lot of praise—too much praise—about having parity in its league. But consider this: The Dodgers are the only team in the major leagues with a winning percentage above .600, and the Twins, Cubs and Padres are the only clubs below .400. All the talk that only a handful of teams have a chance to win in baseball is just that—talk.
  • I'm starting to think Santa Claus will be coming down the chimney again before the Roger Clemens trial ends. It stopped being interesting weeks ago.
  • Journalists aren't supposed to cheer, but it is going to be hard not to pull for the Orioles' Triple-A Norfolk farm club after they signed 49-year-old left-hander Jamie Moyer, who is the hero of me and all middle-aged men, and outfielder Nate McLouth, one of the most fun people I've encountered in 25 years of covering baseball.
  • Speaking of being middle-aged, I'll probably lose my chance for an AARP card in two years for saying this, but I like MLB's idea of setting up computers outside both teams' clubhouses at the All-Star Game so players can tweet and post Facebook messages once they come out of the game. Give MLB credit for consistently being the forefront of all things internet in professional sports.
  • Every time I listen to an Angels' radio broadcast, I can't get the ‘714-TICKETS’ jingle out of my head for the next three days.

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This week's Must Read is Wayne Coffey's story for the New York Daily News about former Mets and Orioles general manager and current Sirius/XM Radio analyst Jim Duquette making a tremendous sacrifice for his ailing daughter. All reports are that father and daughter are doing well in their recuperation.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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