Alone among the other 29 teams, the Houston Astros could have kept Byron Buxton from someday becoming a Twin. But, just a hunch — the Astros probably are pretty happy with how that 2012 draft turned out.
Houston chose shortstop Carlos Correa over Buxton with the No. 1 pick, and Correa today is accomplishing exactly what Buxton has begun doing in Class AA: thrilling scouts and fans by meeting high expectations. While Buxton’s season gains momentum at Chattanooga, Correa is tearing up the Texas League at Corpus Christi, leading in all three Triple Crown stats by batting .390 with seven home runs and 31 RBI (not to mention a .467 on-base percentage and .743 slugging) entering Friday.
But Houston, like the Twins, has been promising a bright future for years. More startling for the Astros is what’s happening in the major leagues: They’re winning already.
Houston was enjoying the sensation of hanging around .500 for a few weeks, when things changed abruptly: The Astros reeled off 10 consecutive wins, their longest such streak since 2004, and 14 wins in 15 games. They occupy first place by the largest margin of any AL team.
“We’ve gotten off to the start that we wanted to,” General Manager Jeff Luhnow said during a broadcast of another Astros victory last month. “It really is jelling in a way that you get a sense they believe in themselves now. That’s a big difference from this team’s last couple of seasons.”
It is, and it’s happening with a roster largely built from within — while another crop of impressive young players works its way toward the majors. Already, Dallas Keuchel is pitching like the American League’s Clayton Kershaw, having given up just four runs in his first six starts for an 0.80 ERA. Righthander Collin McHugh, claimed off waivers by Ludnow two winters ago, is 4-0, while Luke Gregerson is 7-for-8 in save situations.
Offensively, the Astros lead the AL in both home runs and stolen bases; every regular in the lineup has homered at least twice, while Jose Altuve and George Springer entered Saturday a combined 21-for-24 in steal attempts (though Springer is on the concussion DL). And their defense has been among the league’s best.
After enduring a complete teardown far more extreme than the Twins’ — the Astros haven’t posted a winning record since 2008, and from 2011 to ’13 they lost more than 100 games every season — the Astros are beginning to show results, with hints of a coming championship contender. In addition to Correa, righthander Mark Appel, the overall No. 1 pick in 2013, figures to reach Houston this year.
“It’s nice to know we have that kind of depth,” Luhnow said. “We want to be relevant in August and September, with a chance to play in October.”
So do the Twins, and Houston presents the sort of blueprint that Twins General Manager Terry Ryan believes he’s following, too, with highly regarded prospects on the verge of breaking through to the majors. Already, Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas and Eddie Rosario have arrived, with Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, Alex Meyer and more preparing to make the jump soon.
Ryan wouldn’t compare the two teams, but it’s clear he admires the foundation Luhnow is putting in place.
“I don’t think it’s a shock that they know what they’re doing,” Ryan said. “Once we saw what they’ve done via the draft and via roster management, it was probably just a matter of time.”
Six weeks into the season, it’s too soon to panic — but it’s certainly time to worry about underachieving players. Here are a few whose slow starts have their teams concerned (statistics through Friday):
Indians: A leadoff hitter with a .286 on-base percentage is an offense-killer, but Michael Bourn has had it even worse. His 22 strikeouts are second on the team and, despite his (declining?) speed, he was only 2-for-4 as a base-stealer.
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Royals: It’s never pretty with Jeremy Guthrie, who has kept his ERA below 4.00 only once in the past seven seasons.
But while the Royals have managed to win three of his five starts, his ERA just keeps climbing, and it’s now at 6.52 amid calls that he be dropped.
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Tigers: The lineup has been as productive as ever, making it easier for Detroit to hide third baseman Nick Castellanos’ surprisingly punchless bat.
He’s hitting just .219, and just .179 in May, with two homers overall. His steadiness in the field and the Tigers’ lack of options might keep him in the lineup.
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White Sox: So many candidates, especially with four starters owning ERAs above 5.00. But Chicago’s offense — just 83 runs in 25 games! — is being smothered in part by Adam LaRoche’s disappointing start.
They didn’t think they were signing a new Adam Dunn, but LaRoche had 32 strikeouts in 25 games and was hitting .212 with just three homers.
Old man triples
Twins manager Paul Molitor jokingly debated Friday whether Torii Hunter is still capable of hitting a triple as he nears 40. “Oh, I’m sure it’s in there somewhere,” he said. “He might need something [crazy] going on in the outfield, though.”
Molitor should know — only six players in major league history hit more triples than Molitor after their 40th birthday. Even Molitor’s 3,000th hit, at age 40, was a triple. The top 10 players in triples after their 40th birthday include six Hall of Famers and a seventh who would be if he were eligible:
The wheels fell off
By failing to hit a triple, Hunter finished with a single, double and homer for the 19th time in his career, and 12th time with the Twins; he also has two games with a single, double and triple but no homer. But that trails the Twins’ all-time leader in cycle near-misses: Kirby Puckett. The most three-quarter cycles in Twins history (with completed cycles):
Kirby Puckett (1)25
Tony Oliva (0)19
Joe Mauer (0) 18
Rod Carew (1)14
Torii Hunter (0)14
Michael Cuddyer (1)12
Kent Hrbek (0)12
Justin Morneau (0)10