KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Bo Porter is taking over a team that lost 213 games the past two years.
The payroll has been slashed and expectations are low for the Houston Astros, but don’t expect their new manager to rule with an iron fist. Porter wants his players to be themselves.
“We have standards of what it is to be a Houston Astro,” Porter said. “At the same time, this is a major league clubhouse. It’s a bunch of different guys. You want it to be loose. You want it to be fun. You want them to be able to be who they are.”
The Astros are starting fresh, and this season will certainly be unique for them. Houston is moving from the National League Central to the American League West, and although the short term includes some daunting challenges, this franchise is eager to face them.
“I think as part of this whole kind of rebranding and rebuilding process that we’re going through right now, we’re able to kind of wipe the slate clean and really just kind of forget the past,” catcher Jason Castro said.
The past may be easier to forget now that there are so few links to it left. Houston’s payroll cuts have been ongoing — the Astros traded shortstop Jed Lowrie to Oakland earlier this month. Porter was hired after serving as Washington’s third base coach.
The last team to lose 106 games for at least three straight seasons was the New York Mets from 1962-65. The Astros lost 107 last year and 106 in 2011. Now they’ll have to contend with a division that includes three teams — Oakland, Texas and the Los Angeles Angels — that won at least 89 games last season.
Houston’s move balanced out baseball’s divisions. Each now has five teams, and all things being equal, it should be easier to win a five-team division than one with six teams. But the Astros aren’t in much of a position to expect that at this point. Last year was spent trying to restock the farm system. Houston took shortstop Carlos Correa with the top pick in the draft — and traded Carlos Lee, J.A. Happ, Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez, among others.
The Astros’ payroll was at a paltry $21.3 million by early August.
Switching leagues will create some logistical issues. When a team plays an interleague series against an unfamiliar opponent, it’s often a challenge to prepare.
Now the Astros will play a season’s worth of teams they don’t know much about.
“Dealing with interleague stuff last year was basically starting from scratch,” Castro said. “We had to put that work in and try to build on what little we had as quickly as possible. From the time the series started to the end of the series, hopefully we had a lot better idea from when we started.”
Players will need to become familiar with different ballparks, too.
“Oakland is known for its foul ground, so it’s something that we’ll have to take into account,” Castro said. “There are adjustments to be made in all facets of the game.”
Needing a designated hitter, the Astros signed Carlos Pena, who can also play first base. Porter’s lineup remains uncertain in many respects — no surprise for a team evaluating young players. He’d like second baseman Jose Altuve to hit second, meaning somebody else would have to handle the leadoff spot.
Even that role is a bit different because of the league switch. In the AL, the leadoff man doesn’t have to bat after the pitcher.
“It’s definitely a chance for him to come up more often with men on base,” Porter said. “If you have that guy in the one hole that can hit extra-base hits, that can do some damage, it changes the dynamic of your ballclub.”
Eventually, the Astros will be used to the differences between the AL and NL. Starting pitchers won’t have to worry about being pinch-hit for, for example.
For fans, the benefits and drawbacks of the switch are obvious. Houston will play more games against the Rangers, creating the potential for a spirited in-state rivalry. But there will also be plenty of West Coast games, with later start times on TV.
Before beginning their new schedule, the Astros will have a few weeks during spring training to size up the competition. And yes, they’ll want to focus a little more than usual on the AL teams.
“In spring training, you’d pay attention a lot more to the National League games,” right-hander Bud Norris said. “It’s going to be a different mindset. We’re going to have to make some adjustments.”
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