It’s that most wonderful time of the year. That time when everything is possible. When every team is still in contention for the pennant. It’s the start of spring training. Pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp and the time for being jaded and cynical is still far into the future — or at least until April.
Baseball starts in February, goes to the end of October and at times feels endless. It’s a sport that can be slow to change, and when it does change, those changes are argued about forever — witness the seemingly never-ending arguments surrounding the designated hitter and whether the National League will ever fall in line with the rest of organized baseball and stop making the pitcher bat. Traditionalists are still upset about the use of shifts and advanced statistics.
But once an actual game is underway, all of that is forgotten. Baseball then becomes about the perfect placement of the pitch, the sound of the bat connecting with the ball, a third baseman diving to nab a shot down the line. Of course, with the proper use of shifting, there’s no need for the third-baseman dive, and the smart batter, aware of the shift, will work to take a walk or lay down a bunt.
Major League Baseball is still experimenting with some ideas as spring training gets underway. The lower minors have been trying out pitch clocks in a way to speed up the game. And now the league is going to have the minors try a new way to handle extra innings. The plan is that once a game hits extras, a runner will be placed on second base to start the inning — the thinking being that a runner on base makes it easier to score a run. But some of the great Astros regular season games of all time involve extra innings, such as those Saturday and Sunday games against the Dodgers in 1989 that saw games go 22 and 13 innings on back-to-back days.
None of that would affect the Astros. But there will be some changes at Minute Maid Park. Tal’s Hill is no more. The centerfield fence has been moved in, there will be new bars and restaurants added in what used to be the hill area, and there will be some additional seating — though it’s doubtful that the average fan will be able to afford those seats.
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The team reports to camp on Wednesday at a brand-new location in West Palm Beach, Florida, to a brand-new training facility the team will share with the Washington Nationals. And with the reporting to the brand-new complex comes a deserved sense of optimism that this team is a good team. It’s not just good because it’s spring and the games haven’t started and every guy looks like a future Hall of Famer or because Sports Illustrated predicted the Astros would win the World Series this season.
This isn’t the Astros squad of the final Drayton McLane years. This team hasn’t been stripped of talent, the farm system drained by bad drafting. This Astros team is perhaps stocked with more talent in the non-pitching positions than any other team in club history. Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa have another year of experience and have continued improving each season. Guys like Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel showed immense promise last season. And the additions to the team of Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann shored up the outfield, DH and catching positions.
Not everything is perfect around the Astros, though. The only addition to the starting rotation is Charlie Morton, a so-so pitcher with injury issues. The team is also hoping that Dallas Keuchel will be healthy and return to the form he used to be one of the best pitchers in baseball (and a Cy Young winner), and the team hopes that Lance McCullers can make it through the season without injury and develop into the ace the team believes he can be.
But let’s not focus on the imperfections. It’s the spring, the games have yet to be played and every team is still in contention. Especially the Houston Astros who are projected to finish the 2017 season with the best record in the American League.