The 1991 Houston Astros finished the season with a record of 65-97. They were last in the old NL West, and they were one of the worst teams in the majors. But the fans who watched the team that season had reasons to be excited about the future.
Jeff Bagwell had been converted from third to first base in spring training, and he was on his way to winning the NL Rookie of the Year. Craig Biggio was still behind the plate, but the talk was about moving him to another position so as to keep him healthy and playing. The outfield consisted of youngsters Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley and Eric Anthony. Ken Caminiti was a human vacuum cleaner at third base. And the rotation, while featuring the aging Mike Scott, Jim Deshaies and Mark Portugal, also had a few young guys named Pete Harnisch and Darryl Kile while some guy named Curt Schilling was languishing in the bullpen.
Fans weren't happy with owner John McMullen as the season started. They felt he was destroying an aging team that still managed to stay mediocre yet competitive in order to lower payroll and make the team easier to sell. But there were those who saw what GM Bill Wood was doing, ripping off teams by trading aging players for youngsters while stocking the farm system.
While the team was bad that season, it was still an entertaining team to watch. These kids cared, but they also appeared to be having fun. They were proving they belonged in the majors, and those who watched carefully knew that, given a year or two more, this team would be competing for the playoffs on a yearly basis.
And for the most part, that's what happened. That 1991 team, led by Biggio and Bagwell, formed the backbone of a roster that would compete for the playoffs nearly every season, starting in 1994, ultimately making the World Series in 2005.
That long preamble leads to the Astros squad of 2012. There are no Biggios or Bagwells on this team. There's nothing to indicate any of these guys will be around the next time the Astros make the playoffs, but like that 1991 squad, there's a glimmer of hope.
The nucleus of this young squad is second baseman
Jesus Jose Altuve and left fielder J.D. Martinez, both of whom came on and provided a bit of a spark late last season. Altuve showed he could hit the ball last season, but he didn't draw walks, and like every player with a big rookie campaign, the question is whether he's able to make the adjustments after the other squads have gotten a book on him. And it's looking like he has. He's still hitting the ball, but he's also walking more, which is a very good thing because the more he walks, the more he gets on the base, and the more he gets on base, the easier it is to take advantage of his speed.
Martinez is not as good defensively as Altuve. But the Astros play him in left field, and after years of watching Carlos Lee stand idly by as ball after ball rolled past, Martinez appears to be an improvement just by showing up. The thing with Martinez, however, is not his defense. It's his offense. This is a kid who can mash the ball and who finds ways to get on base.
The rest of the team is not living up to the potential of those two. I'm still not sold on centerfielder Jordan Schafer, and so far, third base is once again a black hole as Chris Johnson has continued to have problems both with breaking pitches and with fielding the baseball (and those who think Brett Wallace, the supposed cornerstone of the Roy Oswalt trade, is the answer at third base after seemingly having failed at first base last season need to remember that the reason he was moved to first base from third base in the first place was that he had difficulties with that whole "fielding the hot corner" thing).
I'm not going to say much about Brandon Lyon or Brett Myers beyond the fact that, like Carlos Lee, they'll be gone next season. And as for Carlos Lee, I fail to see why he continues to play everyday because if there's ever a guy you don't want batting with runners in scoring position, it's Mr. Pop-Out-To-Shortstop Lee.
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But there I am, getting negative. And it wasn't my intent to be negative. I'm having fun watching the Astros play games again. That wasn't the case the past several seasons. I know this team will probably lose any game it plays, but I know they won't get blown out every night. I know the odds are that I'll see a good start from one of the pitchers, and I know that Altuve or Martinez will do something on the field every night.
I know many of you are still angry about the whole "move to the American League" thing. But get over it. Give these young kids a chance. You just might see something you like. And you just might see something that hasn't been seen around the Astros in years: hope for the future.