Houston faces tough road in move to AL West
The Houston Astros and their staff think they'll be much better than they were last season.
They're about the only ones with that opinion.
Prognosticators and pundits across the country don't see any way the Astros can avoid finishing last in the majors for the third straight year.
The odds are stacked against a Houston team that has just five players on the 40-man roster with more than two years of major league experience and the league's lowest payroll. Add to that the move from the NL Central to the powerful AL West and things look even more daunting.
It will be tough, most figure, for this team to avoid becoming the first to lose at least 106 games in three straight seasons since the expansion Mets did it from 1962-65.
First-year manager Bo Porter, the former Nationals third base coach, has worked to instill a winning attitude in the Astros all spring, and has implored them not to listen to the critics.
''Ignore the noise,'' he said he tells the players. ''It doesn't matter what anybody has to say - at the end of the day, on March 31, it's the Houston Astros vs. the Texas Rangers. It's us against the other team. All the predictions and other things go out the window.''
Still, it's difficult to envision this team being competitive with a payroll of $25.9 million, and that figure includes the $4.5 million Houston will pay Pittsburgh as part of the deal that sent pitcher Wandy Rodriguez there last season. Without that $4.5 million, the entire team will make about $6.5 million less than Alex Rodriguez alone will earn this season.
''The one thing that you can never account for in competitive sports is what lies inside of a man,'' said Porter, who was part of the recent turnaround in Washington. ''We've all seen enough baseball and we've seen enough competition to know that a lot of times that will and that desire and that passion - a lot of times it wins out.''
''Now, is that going to translate over a 162-game season? Nobody has the answer to that,'' he said. ''None of us has a crystal ball. We don't know.''
Opening day starter Bud Norris is the highest-paid player on the team with a salary of $3 million. He'll try to bounce back from a tough 2012 season where he went 7-13 with a 4.65 ERA. Following him in the rotation will be Lucas Harrell, who was Houston's most successful starter last season with an 11-11 record and 3.76 ERA.
The Astros added Philip Humber, who threw a perfect game last season with the White Sox, to pitch third in the rotation. The perfecto was the highlight of a disappointing season overall where he went 5-5 with a 6.44 ERA. Erik Bedard will be the fifth starter and Alex White and Brad Peacock are battling to round out the rotation.
Houston's biggest offseason acquisition was slugger Carlos Pena, who will likely be the team's first-ever designated hitter. The 34-year-old is coming off a season where he hit just .197 with a career-high 182 strikeouts.
''That's a reason we targeted Carlos Pena - No. 1, he has experience as a DH,'' Porter said. ''There are some finer points to being a DH. What you don't want is a young guy, who has never DHed before, and then you don't have a veteran, and then all of a sudden you put them in a DH spot and it almost acts as four pinch hits.''
Pena is hoping he'll get some work in the field instead of only at designated hitter.
''I want to play first base every single day,'' he said. ''I love fielding. I love that. I want to do it as long as I possibly can. However, I'm part of this ball club and I just want to be ready for whatever our manager decides is the way to use me.''
The Astros also added Pena, who has 277 homers in his 12-year career, to give their young clubhouse a veteran presence.
Another new addition to Houston's lineup is left fielder Chris Carter. Carter came to Houston just before spring training in a trade that sent veteran shortstop Jed Lowrie to Oakland. The Astros like the potential for power of the 26-year-old, who hit 16 homers in 67 games last season for the A's. He and third baseman Brett Wallace could also see time at DH.
After failing to see what they hoped for from either Tyler Greene or Marwin Gonzalez in spring training, the Astros recently signed veteran infielder Ronny Cedeno.
The 30-year-old Cedeno should be a good influence on promising 22-year-old second baseman Jose Altuve. Altuve was one of the only bright spots of last season for Houston when he hit .290 and made the All-Star team.
Harrell said things have already changed under the guidance of Porter this spring.
''I wouldn't say the attitude was bad here,'' he said. ''It was just that it wasn't necessarily a winning attitude ... and so that's what we're trying to change.''
AP freelance writer Dick Scanlon contributed to this report from Kissimmee, Fla.