New AL West foes Astros, Rangers open 2013 season

The Houston Astros will make it official Sunday night when they
face the Texas Rangers: They are an American League team – after 50
years in the NL.

Houston has baseball’s lowest payroll and is coming off
consecutive 100-loss seasons. Things won’t get any easier in the
powerful AL West, though.

The Astros are optimistic they’ll be much better than they were
last season. Most everyone else figures it will be difficult for
this team to avoid becoming the first team to lose at least 106
games in three straight seasons since the expansion Mets did it
from 1962-65.

On Sunday night 28-year-old Bud Norris, Houston’s highest-paid
player with a $3 million salary, will become the team’s fourth
opening day starter in four years. He’s looking to bounce back from
a tough season where he went 7-13.

In the major league’s first regular-season game, he’ll face
Texas left-hander and All-Star Matt Harrison, who went 18-11 in
2012 and signed a five-year contract worth $55 million in the
offseason.

Along with their new league, there are plenty of other changes
for the Astros this year. They’ve got a first-year manager in
former Washington third base coach Bo Porter, and will don new
uniforms which bring back the orange color associated with better
times in Houston.

Porter said he ignores what outsiders have to say about his
team.

”That’s not hard for me because when I look in the mirror I see
a winner,” Porter said. ”No one can make me have a different
perception of myself because I know the effort I’m going to put
into making sure our team is prepared.”

After trading away most of their veterans over the last couple
of years to restock a once-depleted farm system, some in baseball
have suggested the Astros are trying to lose. Owner Jim Crane, who
enters his second year with the team, brushed off that notion.

”That’s totally wrong and we would never do that,” he
said.

He does however understand that fielding a team like this
invites judgment.

”You’re going to get the criticism,” he said. ”We’ve told
people what we’re going to do and we’re sticking to the plan.
Everybody is welcome to their opinion and we’re going to get a lot
of opinions. So hopefully we’ll prove the naysayers wrong and we’ll
play a lot more competitive this year.”

Texas is still expected to contend in the AL West despite the
loss of several key players, most notably 2010 AL MVP Josh
Hamilton. Also gone are catcher Mike Napoli and infielder Michael
Young.

The Rangers and Astros have traditionally played a home and home
series each season, so facing each other is nothing new. But this
year these teams, separated by about 250 miles, will meet 19
times.

”They’re close and it’s a natural rivalry, and we hope to build
that up and make it a good tradition for the state of Texas,”
Crane said.

Rangers manager Ron Washington knows better than to take any
team lightly, regardless of expectations.

”I don’t look at their payroll, I just look at the days we play
them and make sure we don’t think any games for granted, because on
any given day anyone can get beat,” Washington said. ”It’s not
the best team that wins; it’s the team that plays the best.”

Washington has known Porter for years, and believes he’ll help
speed Houston’s development.

”They have some young talent, inexperience, but believe me,
they’re going to play,” Washington said. ”I still think that it’s
going to be a tough year for them, but they’re not going to be
anybody’s doormat, I think Bo Porter and his staff will see to
that.”

Lance Berkman is in his first season with the Rangers after two
seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. The slugger spent the first
the first 11 1/2 years of his career with the Astros.

”It’s going to be weird,” he said of Houston’s move to the AL.
”The Astros spent 50 years in the National League and now to think
of them as an American League franchise is going to be tough. I
guess we’ll have to get used to it because, like it or not, that’s
the situation … I don’t like it because I like having a National
League franchise in Texas.”

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AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins and AP freelancer Tim Price
contributed to this report.