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.”

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AP freelance writer Dick Scanlon contributed to this report from

Kissimmee, Fla.