Tonight's the night. The start of a new season. A new beginning. The Houston Astros are no longer the joke of baseball. Or so say the supposed experts of baseball. The Astros were a semi-competent team toward the end of last season, and some of the much ballyhooed young talent finally started to blossom as the team went 70-92.
This is the first time in several years that most Houstonians will be able to watch the Astros on a regular basis as the CSN Houston debacle has given way to ROOT Sports Houston, which is available on Comcast, U-verse and DirecTV systems in Houston. And the team the Astros will field this season is radically different from the one most Astros fans last saw on TV on a regular basis, and it's actually a much different team than the one fans saw play last season.
This team will have the capacity to hit more than 200 home runs, but it also has the potential to shatter the single-season strikeout record of 1,535 that the Astros set in 2013. On the plus side, if the Astros don't score runs, the winds generated by the strikeouts should be able to supply the power needs of the entire state of Texas for the next century or so. But if the promised power doesn't happen, the team might have problems because the pitching staff, while much improved over years past, is still rather mediocre.
The starting lineup for new manager A.J. Hinch will feature a defensively below average infield of Chris Carter and his hands of stone at first base, 2014 batting champ Jose Altuve at second base, the No. 1 guy on former manager Bo Porter's hit list, Jed Lowrie, at shortstop, and Chicago Cubs reject Luis Valbuena at third. Newly acquired strikeout machine Colby Rasmus will join Jake Marisnick (acquired last season from the Marlins) and Sports Illustrated cover boy George Springer in the outfield. Jason Castro returns to catch, and Dallas Keuchel gets the start on the mound.
Despite the changes, this still really isn't that good of a baseball team. Hinch failed miserably as a manager with the Diamondbacks, but he's one of those smart guys and it's thought that he won't clash with general manager Jeff Luhnow (and Luhnow's mad-scientist vision) as former manager Bo Porter did. Unfortunately, Luhnow's mad vision doesn't seem to include any semblance of the team being good on defense (save for Springer and Marisnick). The rotation still lacks a true ace, with Keuchel, tonight's starter, the best option though he'd be, at best, a No. 2 starter on a decent team. Scott Feldman and Collin McHugh are the two other leftovers from last season, with newcomers Asher Wojciechowski and Roberto Hernandez rounding things out -- some of you might remember Hernandez as Fausto Carmona, a longtime vet who has bounced around the majors and was awful in stops with the Phillies and the Dodgers last season.
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And the bullpen, which has been a disaster rivaling the Titanic the past several years, has been rebuilt. Again. So here's hoping that Luhnow got it right this time with the additions of Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek.
Still, neutral observers say that this Astros team will be improved. But the big question, besides whether the Astros will be better, is whether anyone will give a damn. The diehard fans have been dwindling through the rebound, and with the team having virtually no television presence over the past several years, it's been really hard for the casual fan to track just what exactly has been going on. Is the casual fan just going to jump back into watching a team that has been losing and losing and losing over the past several years and where many of the players are unknown?
So it's at this point that writers always go on the record with the predictions, so here's mine for the Astros. The team will be improved, and look better on the field. But the Astros will still finish below .500 and will win around 75 games and finish in fourth place in the AL West, ahead of the Texas Rangers. Jose Altuve won't be able to repeat the incredible season he had last year, but that's a tough season to repeat. He'll still be an on-base machine, however, and he'll score a lot of runs as the team will hit lots of homers.
Chris Carter will be a disaster at first base and strike out 200-plus times while clubbing 30-plus homers. George Springer stays healthy and earns a few more magazine covers while being chosen for the All Star team. Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus will be huge flops, but Luis Valbuena will settle in at third base and make fans forget about Matt Dominguez. At some point this season, the Astros will bite the bullet and call up Carlos Correa and Mark Appel. Appel will become the ace the team's lacked since Roy Oswalt's departure. And then, come this time next year, everybody will be talking about 2017.