No-name Astros have look of expansion team

Houston Astros minor league field coordinator Paul Runge, center, talks to pitchers during spring training baseball, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

February 24, 2012 4:25:29 PM PST
When J.D. Martinez goes out on the town, he conveniently stays away from mentioning that he plays for the Astros.

Instead, he'll tell people that he's from Houston, then feel them out for their opinion of the city's baseball team.

"The Astros? Ohhh, they're terrible," is the usual response.

Hard to argue with that.

Coming off a 106-loss season, the Astros are going through spring training with a roster full of unproven youngsters and aging veterans, looking very much like an expansion team. Manager Brad Mills has made it clear that every spot on the team is up for grabs.

"We know that whoever gets the job done during spring training, whoever does things the right way, is probably going to be the one sticking with the team," pitcher Fernando Rodriguez Jr. said. "It's kind of like open tryouts."

The Astros really didn't have any other options after enduring the worst season in franchise history. They had traded away most of their best players. They knew their farm system was a mess. So, with a change in ownership -- and an impending move to the American League -- it was the perfect time for the 50-year-old franchise to start over.

It may pay off down the road. For now, though, the Astros probably have less reason to be hopeful than any other team in the big leagues -- even at a time when just about everyone is basking in the giddy optimism of spring training.

Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 3.49 ERA) is the only pitcher with double-figure wins a year ago. Outside of Carlos Lee (18 homers, 94 RBIs), there's no one else on the roster who hit more than 10 homers or had even 50 RBIs last season.

"Nobody knows who we are," pitcher Bud Norris said. "Everybody is writing us off. That's just the way it's gonna be."

The Astros will likely have the youngest team in the National League, and perhaps all of baseball, when the season opens. Just eight players on the 40-man roster are in their 30s. This team, which used 21 rookies a year ago, is counting on players such as Martinez and 5-foot-7 second baseman Jose Altuve to lead Houston into a brighter -- if still rather fuzzy at the moment -- new era.

Neither Martinez nor Altuve had played above Double-A when they were called up last year. Neither looked out of place after taking a hurried path to the big leagues. The 24-year-old Martinez hit .274 with six homers and 35 RBIs in 53 games. Altuve, who is just 21, batted .276 with two homers and seven stolen bases in 57 games.

Jeff Luhnow, the team's new general manager, pointed out it had been two decades since the Astros used so many rookies in one season. The last time it happened, Houston went 65-97 but laid a foundation for the future with burgeoning young stars such as Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Luis Gonzalez and Curt Schilling.

"A lot of those players maybe weren't well known at that point, but they became well known," Luhnow said. "It's fun to watch guys go from virtually unknown to household names. We have those same kind of players in our organization, like Jose Altuve. He's a great story. He'll always be the underdog because of his size. But if he has success this year, people will be saying they know who plays second base for the Houston Astros as opposed to, `Who are those guys?"'

Every day, players arrive at Osceola County Stadium to a reminder of better times. A sign on the facade marks the franchise's only trip to the World Series in 2005, which wasn't all that long ago. Since then, it's been a largely downward spiral, though one had to look a little deeper to realize the bottom was about to fall out. The Astros had the worst cumulative record in the minor leagues three of the last four years. As stalwarts such as Bagwell and Biggio faded into retirement, no one was there to replace them.

A culture of losing has engulfed the entire franchise.

"We have to expect to win," said Luhnow, who came to the Astros after making his mark in player development with the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. "That not only comes from having players who are capable of winning at this level. It also comes from a mindset that starts at the very lowest levels and goes all the way through the organization, where winning is expected. That's critical."

Luhnow, with the backing of new owner Jim Crane, is determined to rebuild through the farm system, starting with the first pick in this year's draft. The GM has also stepped up scouting efforts internationally, knowing the Astros are unlikely to be big spenders in free agency, at least in the short term, after ranking 13th in NL attendance last season.

Those are long-term philosophies, of course, but not an excuse for accepting defeat.

"We want to shake the system, shock the system, to change that mentality," Luhnow said. "If we change that mentality, the results will eventually track your mentality. We have to figure out a way, and we're already doing it, to make everybody expect that we're gonna win every game, we're gonna win every series. Eventually, when you start to do that, it builds on itself."

Maybe then, everyone will know who these guys are.

Maybe then, the Astros will need to put up a new sign on their spring training stadium.

"You can go a long way when you have talented players who are constantly hungry and don't get complacent," Martinez said. "You're going to see a lot of these players step up and make a name for themselves in the coming years."

Notes: Wandy Rodriguez is expected to get in his regular bullpen work Saturday, despite tweaking his back during his previous throwing session. ... LHP Sergio Escalona, a candidate for the bullpen, felt a twinge in his elbow after a stint in the batting cage. Mills wasn't happy that a reliever who is unlikely to bat more than a handful of time hurt himself with a bat. "There was no reason for him to be swinging like that," the manager said.