To say there is a good feeling surrounding the Astros this spring isn't really news. Even the worst of teams feels optimistic at this time of year before the realities of the regular season set in. There are reasons to believe the Astros could face some very hard realities this season. They have question marks on the pitching staff and in the lineup, and they're banking on a lot of players either having bounce-back or breakthrough seasons.
For now, though, smiles abound, and the reason for that is the presence of new manager Brad Mills. The fact that he is not Cecil Cooper, fired with 13 games left last season, is enough to make Mills a popular man with the players. The disconnect between Cooper and the players was quite profound, and the skipper did little to inspire faith from his troops by pulling such blunders as turning in the wrong lineup card to the umpires, causing the Astros to bat out of order to start a game.
Mills, though, has much more going for him than not being Cooper. He is a personable man who easily puts everyone around him at ease. He also has the pedigree of a winner after spending the past six seasons serving as Terry Francona's bench coach with the Red Sox.
"You can't help but be impressed by him," Astros first baseman Lance Berkman said. "He is one of those guys who, when you meet him the first time, you feel like you've known him forever. We needed a guy like Brad. I think his hiring is going to work out very well."
Mills gets a ringing endorsement from Francona, his old boss and former roommate at the University of Arizona.
"He knows the game and he's very organized," Francona said. "More importantly, he is just a great person. He relates to people so well. He really has the right personality to be a manager."
Mills inherits a team that fell to 74-88 last season after going 86-75 in 2008. This season's version of the Astros looks like it could go in either direction, following in the footsteps of the '08 club or being an also-ran like the 2009 version. The Astros have some good cornerstone players, starting with a middle of an order than includes Berkman (who could miss the first two weeks of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last week), left fielder Carlos Lee, and right fielder Hunter Pence. Center fielder and leadoff hitter Michael Bourn raised his TAv from .227 to .281 last year in his second full season in the major leagues. Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez give the Astros an effective right-left combo at the top of the rotation.
However, there are plenty of question marks. Can Brett Myers, signed as a free agent in the offseason, be an effective third starter? Can Bud Norris, who showed flashes as a rookie last year, settle in as a good fourth starter? Can off-season acquisitions Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon form an effective late-inning relief tandem? Can J.R. Towles finally take over the starting catcher's job that has been his for the taking the last two seasons? Can rookie shortstop Tommy Manzella, who has the reputation of being a plus defender, hit enough to stay in the lineup?
PECTOA thinks Myers and Norris will hold their own with ERAs of 4.06 and 4.13, respectively, and also expects a solid season from Lyon with a 3.59 ERA. However, it is not optimistic about Lindstrom (4.32), Towles (.242/.327/.383), or Manzella (.238/.292/.336).
Berkman thinks like PECOTA, at least in the case of Myers and Norris. He believes they could be difference makers for the Astros.
"What's held us back the last couple of years is our starting pitching depth," Berkman said. "Brett Myers is a good major-league pitcher and Bud Norris has some pretty nasty stuff. They can throw 200 innings each year. You put them with Roy and Wandy, all of a sudden you have four 200-inning guys and that takes a big load of the bullpen and the offense, too, because we don't have to score as many runs. If our rotation is as deep as I think it will be, we'll win a lot of games."
PECOTA again isn't so sure, as it is initially projecting the Astros to finish below 80 wins. Mills, for his part, isn't making any predictions about his first season as a major-league manager. However, like his players, he is feeling good.
"What's made this enjoyable is that there are so many good people in this organization from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff to the players," Mills said. "And we've got a lot of hard workers. When you have good people with good work ethics, good things usually happen."
Rangers club president and soon-to-be owner Nolan Ryan has great expectations for his club this season, predicting 92 victories. That would be another step forward for the Rangers, who went 87-75 last year to end a streak of four straight losing seasons. Now, Ryan wants the Rangers to end their streak of 10 years without a post-season appearance.
"I think we're positioned to win the American League West more than we have been in the last 10 years," Ryan told the Dallas Morning News. "Seattle did some things to help their team, and the Angels are still a factor. Oakland has a chance to be better, too, so I just think the division is going to be the tightest that it's been. You're looking at guys whose careers should be mostly ahead of them, not just a veteran guy trying to hang on a long little."
No one is older than 30 in the projected rotation of Scott Feldman, Rich Harden, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, and Tommy Hunter. That bodes well for the Rangers after posting a 4.38 ERA last season, their best since moving to The Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in 1994.
"I'd like to see us get our ERA down some more this year," Ryan said. "I think the reason was lowered it last year was we got our walks down, but we can do better."
Ryan has also been preaching the virtues of starting pitchers going deeper into games. The Rangers had just eight complete games last season; he would like to see that figure rise. After all, Ryan completed 26 games in back-to-back seasons for the Angels in 1973 and 1974.
"I think guaranteed contracts just got to the length—five years, seven years—that teams started protecting pitchers' arms too much," Ryan said. "You used to have pitchers completing 50 or 60 percent of their games. Now we've got to where it's less than 10 percent. I think we can get more out of pitchers than we're getting."
One of more remarkable aspects of the Rockies winning the NL wild card last season, beyond making an in-season managerial switch to Jim Tracy from Clint Hurdle, is that they did so after trading their best player during the previous offseason. Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd admits that dealing outfielder Matt Holliday to the Athletics was difficult, but he drew from a lesson that came early on in his 12-year tenure when he decided to make the trade.
“Ultimately, the money became more important than the team, and they knew that,” O’Dowd told the New York Times' Tyler Kepner. “So that was very much a defining decision for us.”
O'Dowd made the same mistake of putting money before all else following his second season in 2000, when he tried to find a successful a balance between hitting and pitching while playing 81 games a year in Denver. O'Dowd spent nearly $175 million on free-agent left-handers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle at that year's Winter Meetings. Both pitchers were busts, and the sunk costs set the Rockies back for years until they made a late-season charge to the NL wild card , and eventually the pennant in 2007.
“I searched so hard for the answers that I think I created bigger problems than might have even been there,” O’Dowd said. “I attempted to rely so much on my intellect that I ignored some of the basic principles of what makes good organizations successful. I gave all that up and stopped trying to reinvent the wheel."
O'Dowd has recovered from that mistake. He is now under contract through 2015, which would give him 16 seasons on a job where turnover is commonplace. O'Dowd couldn't be happier with his situation and how ownership stuck by him through such a costly mistake.
"A contract is nothing more than a piece of paper that guarantees you X amount of dollars for X amount of years," O'Dowd said. "It doesn't guarantee you'll stay on your job and it doesn't guarantee meaning in your job. A handshake from (owners) Charlie and Dick Monfort has more importance to me than a contract, because that's the essence of the type of trust we now have in the organization that I think is the most unique in all of professional sports."
The Diamondbacks' players were irate last May when manager Bob Melvin was fired. He was greatly respected and the players were skeptical of his replacement, A.J. Hinch, the Diamondbacks' 34-year-old farm director who had never managed at any level. Furthermore, there was suspicion that Hinch was hired to serve as a clubhouse spy for GM Josh Byrnes.
"There wasn't a rebellion period with A.J., but something similar to that," pitcher Brandon Webb told the Arizona Republic. "He had to earn our trust, and he did. I think he's going over real well. We really like playing for him, his philosophies and stuff."
Hinch also feels more comfortable after managing 133 games last season. He is optimistic the Diamondbacks are ready for a much better season after going 70-92 in 2009.
"People wouldn't respond to things that I tried to put in place for the first 10 days," Hinch said. "And as comfortable as I was in the dugout, I don't blame the players for having a little bit of curiosity. But they understand me now. They know me, and they know that I'm not an anomaly. Without question, there's been a culture change, an attitude change, a commitment change this spring. Whether it's the fresh start or the addition of some positive influences, the cloud of 2009 is gone."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs are looking for a veteran reliever, and have targeted the Blue Jays' Jason Frasor. … Blue Jays left-hander David Purcey could be prime trade bait late in spring training, as he could be squeezed out of the rotation and is also out of minor-league options. … The Marlins are considering trying to bring back the Red Sox' Mike Lowell in a trade with the idea of playing him at third base and moving Jorge Cantu from third base to first. … Adam Rosales is having such a good spring that the Athletics are considering making him their Opening Day shortstop over Cliff Pennington. … Joba Chamberlain's chances of winning the Yankees' fifth-starter's job appear slim, with club officials ready to concede the obvious that he is better suited to pitching in relief. … Todd Wellemeyer has moved in front of top prospect Madison Bumgarner in the battle to be the Giants' fifth starter.
Mariners rookie Adam Moore has showed enough this spring that he will likely be the Opening Day catcher if Rob Johnson isn't recovered from three off-season surgeries, including one on his hip. … Tigers left-hander Dontrelle Willis has been so sharp this spring after battling control problems the last two seasons that he has a chance to begin the season in the rotation. … Ben Zobrist will likely shuttle between second base and right field for the Rays to begin the season, splitting time with either Sean Rodriguez or Reid Brignac at second and Matt Joyce or Gabe Kapler in right. … Veteran outfielder Garret Anderson has been working out at first base in the Dodgers' camp to strengthen his chances of beating out Doug Mientkiewicz for a left-handed pinch hitter's job. … The Cardinals are considering using rookie left-hander Jaime Garica as a relief pitcher this season, then moving into the rotation in 2011.