Brad Mills might be the most optimistic man in baseball. That sense of optimism serves him well as the Astros' manager.
The Astros have the worst record in the major leagues at 29-58. Their trip to the World Series, the only one in the franchise's 50 seasons, seems a lot longer than six years ago.
In addition to the discouraging on-field results, Mills faces an ownership situation in flux. Drayton McLane has agreed to sell the club to Houston businessman Jim Crane for $680 million, and the deal is expected to be approved at the next owners’ meeting in Cooperstown later this month.
No one knows how Crane will proceed once he gains control of the team. Will Mills and general manager Ed Wade survive, or will Crane bring in a new management team and have it blow up the roster and start over again in 2012? No one associated with the Astros knows, and conflicting rumors keep popping up, with some claiming that Wade and Mills are gone and others speculating that Crane will give them a chance to dig out of the current mess.
Furthermore, there is the prospect of the Astros possibly being asked to switch leagues if Major League Baseball goes with a realignment plan that would balance each league with 15 teams. All indications are that either the Astros or the Diamondbacks would shift from the National League to the American League under such a plan. Again, the rumors conflict, with some indicating that Crane would like the Astros to move to the AL in order to play more games against the intrastate rival Rangers, and others claiming that Crane has no desire to end the franchise's half-century history in the NL.
Through it all, Mills still manages to smile and speak confidently of second-half improvement.
"What we need to do is play consistently solid baseball, and I think we can do that," Mills said. "We've played good baseball in a lot of games this season, but then we make an error or give up a walk at the wrong time, and it usually ends hurting us. If we can get back a couple of runs here or there that we've been giving away in too many games this year, we can definitely win more games."
If the Astros don’t start winning at a better clip, they will be headed toward some negative history. The franchise record for losses in a season is 97, set in 1965, then matched in 1975 and 1991. The 2011 Astros are on pace to lose more than 100.
"This is a season that's really going to bring out a lot of manhood in me and in all of us," right fielder Hunter Pence said. "We have to face the music of what's going on and find a way because we've got to do it. We put our heart and soul into every game, and it's not working out. But adversity is when you find out what you're made of. I say that time and time again: this is the ultimate adversity as far as far as a baseball player is concerned. We've got to challenge ourselves to get better each day."
It would be hard for the Astros to get much worse. They are last in the major leagues in runs allowed, giving up 5.06 per game, and also ninth in the NL and 19th in the majors in runs scored, with 3.97 per game. It hasn’t helped that they’re next-to-last in the NL and majors with a .696 defensive efficiency, trailing only the Cubs.
Pence has been one of the few bright spots on offense, contributing 2.8 WARP, and right-hander Bud Norris has led the staff with 2.6 WARP. Pence's .317 True Average is 36 points over his .281 career mark.
"Hunter is getting more and more experience, and it's starting to show," Mills said. "He works hard, and he prepares. Now those things are coming together as he gets more experience, and he's becoming a heckuva player. He's really maturing into an outstanding hitter and a team leader."
The Astros have already called up their best pitching prospect in right-hander Jordan Lyles, the youngest player in the major leagues at 20. He has pitched to a 4.16 Skill Interactive ERA and 4.73 Fair Run Average through his first 41 innings but has shown plenty of promise despite failing to notch a win in his first seven starts.
"He's put us in a position to win a couple times, and we haven't been able to finish it out," Mills said. "The way he's handled himself, the way he's met and pitched against major-league caliber hitters, has been absolutely outstanding. He hasn't disappointed anybody."
The Astros don't have any other prospects close to being ready to make an impact at the major-league level, though their system is improving at the lower levels. That lack of upper-level talent has fostered some sentiment within the organization to begin trading players such as Pence, center fielder Michael Bourn, left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, and right-hander Brett Myers in order to gain enough pieces to jumpstart a rebuilding program. The Astros have continued to try to ride the wave of the 2005 pennant, but they haven't been back to the postseason since and are on their way to a fourth losing season in the last six.
Everyone involved with the Astros is waiting to see if Crane decides to go in that direction. In the meantime, Mills says the unsettled future is not an issue with his woebegone club.
"If any of this has been a distraction, I haven't been aware of it," Mills said. "And it shouldn't be a distraction because it's something we have no control over. What we do control is how we play the game, and the ownership situation has nothing to do with that."
Rumors & Rumblings:
The firing of pitching coach Rick Knapp last weekend was a sure sign that Tigers manager Jim Leyland's job would be in jeopardy if Detroit has a bad second half. Leyland has long been fiercely loyal to his coaches, and it's hard to believe he was totally on board with axing Knapp. The Tigers have had a history of poor finishes since they won the American League pennant in 2006, and Leyland's contract is up at the end of the season… The Mariners should have a good idea about whether they will be buyers or sellers by the trading deadline, since they begin the second half with a four-game series at home against the Rangers, then head East for a nine-game road trip against the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees. If the Mariners sell, left-hander Erik Bedard is likely to be their most-sought after player, and they will listen on closer Brandon League.
The Phillies and Mariners reportedly have mild interest in outfielder Juan Rivera, who was designated for assignment by the Blue Jays… The Orioles will listen to offers for third baseman Mark Reynolds, and so will the Dodgers for shortstop Rafael Furcal and the Royals for right fielder Jeff Francoeur… The Angels are unlikely to make a major move before the deadline because they cannot afford to take on a big contract… Alexi Ogando will start tonight against the Orioles and then will get 12 days off as the Rangers look to monitor his workload. Ogando has pitched 97 2/3 innings in his first season as a starter after working 72 1/3 innings last season.
Rays right-hander Wade Davis: "His stuff has taken a step back this year. He's not throwing as hard, and he doesn't have a real feel for the changeup. He's having trouble putting hitters away because he doesn't have an out pitch to rely on."
Indians catcher/first baseman Carlos Santana: "It seems like everyone dwells on his low batting average, but he's having a good year. He's hitting for power, and he has one of the better eyes of any young hitter in the game. What worries me a little is that his throwing is not as good as it was last year. He's taken a step backward in that department. If he can't cut it as catcher, he loses value."
Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo: "This kid has big power, big, big power. He has a pretty short stroke for a big guy, but he can be pitched to at this stage of his career. You can get him out by busting him up and in with fastballs, then making him chase the breaking ball low and away. If he improves his plate discipline, he has a chance to have a really nice career."
Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton: "I'm sure Kevin Towers is glad he didn’t trade this kid now. He's starting to make adjustments with his swing. He's shortened it and is getting to the ball quicker. People forget that he's still very young. He's not a finished product. He's going to be a helluva player."
Braves left-handed reliever Jonny Venters: "I know he prides himself on being Everyday Johnny, but the Braves are going to have to back off on him. He's really looked tired lately. His stuff isn't as crisp. I realize how hard it has to be to lay off using him because he's so darned good, but they are going to have to ease up on the pedal."