Even in spring, not much hope for Astros, Marlins

Spring training is supposed to be a time of hope.

Unless you’re the Houston Astros. Or the Miami Marlins.

With no-name rosters and in the midst of massive rebuilding

jobs, Houston and Miami are more likely to be remembered as among

the worst teams in recent history than for making an improbable run

at the playoffs.

The Astros lost 107 games last year, after 106 defeats in 2011.

Houston’s main goal will be trying to avoid becoming the first team

since the expansion New York Mets in the 1960s to lose at least 106

games in three straight seasons.

”No one expects us to do well,” Lucas Harrell said Thursday,

after pitching in a spring training game against the New York

Yankees. ”So, when we do well, it’s going to be kind of like, `Oh,

wow.’ I definitely think we have a chance to shock a lot of people

this year.”

Brave words, especially when the Astros face the additional

burden of moving from the NL into what looks like the toughest

division in baseball, the AL West. They’ll be matched regularly

against two 2012 playoff teams – Oakland and Texas – plus the

high-priced Los Angeles Angels, who have three of the game’s most

dynamic players: Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout.

Down in Miami, owner Jeffrey Loria totally dismantled the

Marlins after a disappointing debut season in a new stadium paid

for largely with public tax dollars. He’s now a pariah in south

Florida and a laughingstock through the rest of the baseball,

settling for a roster that might do pretty well in Triple-A – but

not in the big leagues.

”I’m still trying to learn their names,” said Davey Johnson,

manager of the NL East champion Washington Nationals. ”I’m not

even sure what position the names are going in.”

He’s not the only one.

After trading away nearly all their high-priced players in one

stunning offseason, the Marlins are prepared to send out a lineup

that includes five players with less two full seasons in the big

leagues, plus a rotation that has only one starter with as many as

10 wins in a season.

”I feel like we have a plan,” first-year manager Mike Redmond

said. ”Will it take a few years? Maybe. But we feel like we have a

plan that’s going to work with a lot of young players and a lot of

young talent. I’m looking forward to the challenge and the

opportunity.”

Redmond keeps reminding his players he was one of 19 rookies on

the 1998 Marlins, the remnants of a World Series title team that

was torn apart by a previous owner. Five years later, many of those

young players were the centerpiece of another championship

squad.

Of course, Redmond probably doesn’t tell his team how the

Marlins finished in `98 – 54-108.

”It’s a fresh start,” he said. ”At the end of the day, man,

nobody gives us a chance to do anything. We have the ability to go

out and surprise some teams. I think we’re a better team than

people give us credit for. But at the end of the day, we’re got to

go out there and prove that.”

According to STATS, only 21 teams have finished with a winning

percentage of .300 or less since 1900 – just two of those (the 1962

New York Mets, in their first season, and the 2003 Detroit Tigers)

in the 162-game era. To avoid joining that infamous list, Miami and

Houston will have to win 49 games this season, which might be a

challenge.

Certainly, both teams can expect to play before lots of empty

seats.

Last season, the Marlins drew 2.2 million to their retractable

roof stadium, which was the third-highest total in franchise

history but ranked only 12th in the NL and was far below

expectations. Not surprisingly after the offseason purge,

season-ticket sales have slumped badly and Miami won’t come

anywhere close to drawing that many fans in 2013.

Houston’s attendance plummeted to a NL-worst 1.6 million last

season, its lowest total in 17 years, and the lack of major moves

during the offseason is likely to send it dipping even more.

Redmond doesn’t think the ill will toward Loria will have any

impact on the players. After all, it’s not their fault Miami traded

away anyone making a significant salary.

”Players are a lot more resilient to that stuff than people

think and give them credit for,” he said. ”When you get in the

flow of the season, all you’re focused on is playing the game and

doing what you’re in control of, and that’s how you play. I don’t

foresee any distractions.”

Then, he added, ”Would it be nice to have 40,000 in the stands

every night? Absolutely. But we can’t control that.”

The Astros reached the World Series for the first time in

franchise history just eight years ago, but that came as a winning

era led by Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell was winding down.

Suddenly, those guys were gone, and Houston’s farm system fell on

hard times. The bottom fell out two years ago, and the ownership

decided to rebuild with youth rather than go for a quick fix.

That may be the right decision long-term, but it’s painful to

watch at the moment.

Last season, Houston’s active payroll dipped as low as $21.3

million at one point. This year, it won’t be much higher. Not with

a rotation that has only one pitcher coming off a year with

double-figure wins (Harrell, at 11-11). Not with a lineup that

includes no one who hit even 20 homers a season ago. Not with a new

closer (Jose Veras) who is on his fourth team in four years and had

all of one save in 2012.

It certainly looked like the Astros had thrown in the towel on

another season when shortstop Jed Lowrie was dealt to Oakland just

before the start of spring training, yet another payroll-cutting

move.

Even so, Harrell said he looks forward to going against the AL

West powerhouses.

If nothing else, it will show the Astros just how far they have

to go.

”It’s one of the best divisions in baseball, and we’re moving

into it,” the pitcher said. ”We want to kind of see where we’re

at, who can make it, who can stick. It’s a great division to be in.

Either we’ll have success or not.”

Bet on the latter.

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at

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