The Houston Astros might be better than people think this season, which isn’t saying much because many believe they could become the first team since the 1962 Mets to lose 120 games.
As bad as the Twins have been the past two seasons, losing 99 and 96 games, Houston has been worse, dropping 107 and 106. Now the Astros have switched leagues, moving from the relatively forgiving National League Central to the richly talented American League West.
“We will outperform the expectations,” Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow told CBSSports.com this spring, knowing those expectations aren’t exactly huge.
The team’s projected payroll is about $25 million. The top returning player stands 5-5 — second baseman Jose Altuve. The expected cleanup hitter, Carlos Pena, batted .197 last year. The biggest offseason pitching acquisitions were claiming Philip Humber off waivers and signing Erik Bedard to a minor league deal.
It could get ugly fast. Of Houston’s first 41 games, 31 come against teams that finished above .500 last year, including two series apiece with the Rangers, Athletics, Angels and Tigers.
The Astros will take their lumps, knowing the team that finishes with the majors’ worst record gets the first pick in the following year’s draft, along with a higher draft spending limit.
Houston took advantage last year, signing two premium first-round talents in shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Lance McCullers. The Astros hold the first pick for this June’s draft, and they are a good bet to hold it again in 2014.
Through the draft and trades, Lunhow is 16 months into an unapologetic rebuilding project, and frankly, the Astros needed it. From 1997 through 2005, the Astros made six postseason appearances — a stretch much like the Twins had from 2002 through 2010.
But Houston’s veteran core got old, and expensive free-agent signings (see Carlos Lee) weren’t the answer. So after buying the team in November 2011, Jim Crane hired Lunhow away from the Cardinals and let him focus on long-term fixes.
“We want to develop the best young talent in baseball and get this organization to the point where we can consistently compete,” Lunhow told MLB.com. “It’s as simple as that. We want to do it as quickly as possible.”
There’s a price to pay for this, of course. The Astros drew 1.6 million fans last year, ranking last in the National League. Now, fans can either watch first-year manager Bo Porter mold talent against long odds in the majors, or they can turn their attention to an improving farm system.
Delino DeShields Jr., who stole 101 bases last year, will soon make his way to Class AA. Corea and McCullers could make their way to Class A Quad Cities. So cheer up, Astros fans, there’s always Iowa.