Confident Astros eager to gain believers in AL
Young club aims to silence doubters as it opens new chapter in tough division
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros manager Bo Porter has preached it since the first day of camp: ignore the noise.
For Porter, the noise comes from various platforms and in many forms. It's the national media that have picked the Astros to be pushovers in the rugged American League West, the naysayers who are skeptical about the club's rebuilding process and the critics who doubt the team's ability to compete nightly in baseball's toughest division.
W: Norris L: Harrison SV: Bedard
Porter has lived in a vacuum since arriving in Kissimmee in early February for his first season as manager of the AL's newest team, focusing on trying to change the culture and mindset of a franchise that finished its stay in the National League with 213 losses in two seasons. He has no time for noise.
The only thing he knows for sure is the young Astros will be aggressive, they will have strong fundamentals and they aren't about to back down to anyone -- not the loaded Angels, not the defending division champion A's, not the up-and-coming Mariners and especially not the rival Rangers, who meet the Astros on Sunday at Minute Maid Park in the season opener.
"These guys are prepared to play Major League Baseball, and we've done everything to put them in position to use their skill set and play to their potential," said Porter, the uber-positive manager who spent the previous two seasons as third-base coach in Washington. "We are completely confident in the group of guys we're leaving here with, and we believe that we'll be competitive night in and day out, and we're going to give it our best effort."
After losing 107 games in their final season in the National League Central in 2012, the Astros underwent a significant roster overhaul that will likely mean only two players who started on Opening Day a year ago -- catcher Jason Castro and second baseman Jose Altuve -- will be in the lineup Sunday.
"We do try to ignore the noise, as Bo says, but at the same time it's almost fuel," Castro said. "It's a motivating factor. It's something that will help us to keep that intensity all season, that drive and that kind of fire that we've played with this spring. It makes it that much easier for us to go out and prove people wrong."
They're still mostly pups -- Houston was the youngest team in the Majors for much of last year -- and they're still banking on a bright future of an ever-improving farm system whose prospects are on the horizon, but the Major League club has some talent, too.
Altuve, the 5-foot-5 All-Star second baseman, returns to a lineup that has been infused by veterans like outfielder Rick Ankiel, shortstop Ronny Cedeno and designated hitter Carlos Pena, while giving starting jobs to and pinning hope on youngsters Matt Dominguez (third base), Justin Maxwell (center) and Chris Carter (left field).
Houston added Carter and Pena with hopes of boosting its power potential, and if Spring Training was any indication, the Astros -- while not the 1927 Yankees -- will have some pop.
"There's a lot of talent on this club, and it's not by accident that we're hitting as many home runs as we're hitting, and in our ballpark that right-handed power is going to look pretty good, and the left-handed power as well," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We're playing fundamental baseball."
Still, the Astros are going to need big offensive contributions from Castro, who's finally healthy and had a terrific spring, Dominguez, Maxwell and first baseman Brett Wallace to keep up with powerful AL lineups.
"I don't think there's any doubt in my mind we'll be able to compete in the American League," Castro said. "It's obviously a different style of baseball, but the way we've been playing [in spring] I think is pretty indicative of how we need to play in the American League. We have some confidence going into it."
In addition to adding some much-needed power, the Astros focused this winter on improving their starting pitching depth. Veteran Philip Humber was added and won the No. 3 spot in the rotation behind Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell, and left-hander Erik Bedard joined the rotation. Newcomers Alex White and Brad Peacock were finishing spring in a neck-and-neck battle for the fourth spot.
"I think our rotation is better than people give us credit for," Luhnow said. "With Bud and Lucas at the top of the rotation, I'd take my chances with those guys all day long. Then the depth kicks in after that. I believe that was a key objective of ours during the offseason, and we put ourselves in a pretty good position."
The bullpen has nearly been totally reworked with veteran Jose Veras stepping into a closer's role for the first time in his career, and with a move to the AL the Astros are hoping their starters can go deeper into games because they won't be removed for pinch-hitters. The bullpen should benefit.
"We've made a lot of strides in the right direction, and the talent pool is getting better, the camaraderie is getting better," said Norris, looking to rebound from a 7-13 season. "It's been really refreshing for all of us that have been here. It's about taking steps forward. We have played well, and we want to carry it over to the regular season."
Porter refuses to use the word "rebuilding," but it's no secret the team is hitching its wagon to prospects like shortstop Carlos Correa, last year's No. 1 overall Draft pick and the No. 2 prospect in the organization, first baseman Jonathan Singleton (No. 1), pitchers Jarred Cosart (No. 4) and Mike Foltynewicz (No. 7) and second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. (No. 6) -- all of whom will begin the season in the Minor Leagues.
They're part of the future, but the Astros are confident in the present as well, even amidst the noise.
"People can say whatever they want," Harrell said. "I don't know if you necessarily ignore it, but you just have to go out and play hard every day. That's all you can do. Winning is how you make people be quiet, so hopefully that's the way we'll handle it here. We'll go out and win and be quiet about it and before you know it, people will look up and say, 'The Astros had a pretty solid season.' That's the way I'm looking at it -- just go out and play hard and win."