Astros reeling from fallout from scandal as spring begins

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              James Click, the newly-hired Houston Astros general manager, listens as Astros manager Dusty Baker speaks during a baseball press conference Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)
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HOUSTON (AP) — Cheaters. Sign-stealers. A team undeserving of the only World Series championship it has won.

This is the prevailing image of the Houston Astros as Dusty Baker takes over, returning to the dugout at 70 years old to manage the reigning AL champions. The veteran skipper will lean on his decades of experience to help them move past a sign-stealing scandal that cost manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs and made the Astros the villains of Major League Baseball.

Baker, who last managed the Washington Nationals in 2017, hopes the Astros will be allowed to put it behind them.

“Just (that) people have an open heart to forgiveness,” he said.

No one who played on the teams that were labeled cheaters by MLB and remains on the roster has apologized. It’s a fact that has left many around the league with a bad taste in their mouths about these Astros.

Perhaps that will change when the Astros have their first full-squad workout in Florida on Feb. 17. But even if someone who participated in the sign-stealing says they’re sorry, will it be enough?

MLB concluded there was sign-stealing during Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series title and during the 2018 season. The sprawling scandal, the sport’s biggest in years, affected the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, too. Houston was also fined $5 million and will forfeit its next two first- and second-round draft picks.

The Astros are sure to face chilly and maybe even hostile crowds when they travel to ballparks around the league this season.

It will be interesting to see the reception they get when they play their first spring game on Feb. 22 against the Nationals at the ballpark they share and on Feb. 24 when they hit the road for the first time to play the Tigers.

As Baker tries to get acquainted with his new team quickly, he’s talked with bench coach Joe Espada, who also had the role under Hinch, to help guide him.

“He’s asked me what I like. And what I dislike, and I’m relying on him quite a bit,” Baker said. “He knows players, he knows who works hard, he knows who might not work as hard he knows who comes in early, comes in late … so he’s given me some insight to the team, to the players.”

Pitchers and catchers report to Florida on Feb. 12.

NEW LOOK

The biggest change for last year’s team, which lost the World Series to the Nationals in seven games, is the departure of ace Gerrit Cole, who signed a blockbuster deal with the Yankees and left a huge hole in the rotation. The Astros didn’t sign anyone to take his place, but the group could get a boost from the return of Lance McCullers. The young right-hander is expected to be ready to go at the start of spring training. He missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

No rookie is expected to make this team out of camp but it will be interesting to see what designated hitter Yordan Alvarez can do in his first full season in the majors. Alvarez won AL Rookie of the Year last season despite not being called up until June and playing in just 87 games. The left-hander hit .313 with 27 homers and 78 RBIs.

THEY’RE SET

The Astros should have one of the most powerful batting orders in the league as they return their entire starting lineup from last year’s team that won a franchise-record 107 games. Third baseman Alex Bregman, who was runner-up for the AL MVP last season, and Alvarez should both take another step forward in 2020 to boost the group.

THEY’RE NOT

The rotation could be a problem if McCullers isn’t able to return to form after surgery to slide in behind Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke. If he doesn’t, the team will need one of its other young starters to take a big step forward.

ON DECK

Spring training will be key for Baker as he gets to know his new team after being hired less than three weeks before the team reports to Florida. He will also have to adjust to the AL after spending his entire 22-year career as a manager in the National League.

The Astros open the regular season at home on March 26 with an AL West series against the Los Angeles Angels.