2013 Astros: Why there’s hope (if you’re patient)


Claude Raymond

Claude Raymond was baseball’s greatest pitcher from Quebec — at least until Eric Gagne came along. Truth is, Raymond didn’t have much competition for the honor — Joe Krakauskas won 11 for the ’39 Senators (he only lost 17, which wasn’t so bad given the team’s 65-87 record) and 26 in all; Ron Piche won 10 games and saved 12 in the ’60s; the Senators’ Paul Calvert led the American League in a category in 1949, but as you might guess from his 5.43 ERA, it was losses, with 17. Calvert was only one of the reasons the Senators were 50-154. Currently, it’s worth noting that the Pirates’ Chris Leroux, a native of Montreal, has hurled six shutout innings this spring. Raymond was almost exclusively a reliever, making just seven starts in 449 big-league appearances (1959-71). He had most of his best years for the Astros or Colts, keeping his ERA less than 3.00 three times in five years and saving 16 games in 1966. Fittingly, he ended his career with the expansion Expos in Montreal, saving 23 games despite a 4.43 ERA in 1970. He had career totals of 46 wins, 53 losses, 83 saves, a 3.66 ERA and just a 2.8 WAR (almost everyone had low ERAs in the mid-late 60s.)

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: This space was reserved for first baseman Jonathan Singleton, but he’ll be a little late starting his big-league career — about 50 games worth, which is what he was suspended for a positive drug test (marijuana). George Springer might be older, but he’s a more well-rounded prospect. Springer plays center field (how much Jason Maxwell can the Astros take?), has speed (32-for-40 stealing last year and 10 triples), power (.519 career slugging) and hits for average (.296). Singleton is two years younger although about two steps closer because Springer went to college. And Springer strikes out far too often — 156 times to 62 walks — but he seems to have B.J. Upton-type skills. For the Astros, that’s a big improvement.

What is this man doing here? Che-Hsuan Lin can do a lot of things — hitting just isn’t one of them. He’s a three-tool player who would thrive if only baseball had a designated fielder. Or baserunner. But his offense sabotages everything. He’s an outfielder with middle-infield power (career .344 minor-league slugging), he walks (.347 on-base) but doesn’t hit (.256) and he can steal bases (145-for-191) he can’t reach otherwise. It’s a mark of how bad the Astros are that they invited Lin to camp, it’ll be worse if you see him playing for them this summer.

What he said: Astros owner Jim Crane: “I didn’t make $100 million by making a lot of dumb mistakes.” What he meant: “Except for buying the Astros.”

Outlook: The Astros will be welcomed into the AL West, and why not? They’re the worst team in baseball. Who wouldn’t want to play them 19 times a year? Even if it means a couple of trips to Houston.

The Astros have lost 106 and 107 games the last two seasons and haven’t had a winning season since 2008 or a playoff one since 2005 (they’re on a four-game postseason losing streak, having been swept in the 2005 Series; they won’t be breaking that any time soon).

You can understand that Astros fans might not be as patient as Jeff Bagwell will need to be to enter the Hall of Fame. “It doesn’t bother me that people want us to spend more money,” owner Jim Crane said. “But it’s not their money. This is a private company, even though it’s got a public flair to it. If they want to write a check for $10 million bucks, they can give me a call.”

It’s not enough the Astros lack hitting or pitching this year. Apparently, they’re also short on tact (that’s not unexpected from Crane, who according to a Houston Chronicle story of 2000, told “his subordinates not to hire blacks because ‘once you hire blacks you can never fire them.’ ” Wonder how Chris Carter feels about his new owner?)

Irony is, Crane has a point (even if he’s not the one to articulate it). First off, $10 million won’t buy you much in baseball, or else Nick Swisher might still be a Yankee. Second, the business model the Astros seem to be ascribing to — lose a lot now to win later — has its benefits. If you don’t think so, check how getting the top pick twice in the draft worked for the Spurs. Or the Penguins.

Incremental improvement is slow and often limited. The Astros won’t see much of it this year, if any. They’re a broken-down team of dimmed prospects, retreads and mediocrities (with the exceptions of second baseman Jose Altuve and catcher Jason Castro, if he can stay healthy).

The Astros were last in MLB in runs scored in 2012; they’re likely to be again, if the DH doesn’t save them. They were 25th in team ERA last year; they’re likely to be worse this year.

But there’s hope. Farm systems get better before the big team does, and the Astros’ already has: from 25th in 2012 to 10th this year, according to John Sickels; 17th to 9th, according to Baseball America; and 27th to 4th, according to ESPN’s Keith Law.

They had the top pick in the draft (shortstop Carlos Correa of Puerto Rico, who struggled in his first 50 games as an 18-year-old. Reserve your panic), and they’ll have another this June.

They’re as sure a bet as there is in baseball to lose 100 games this year. And as sure a bet as there is to improve in the years ahead.

Which is a mixed blessing, at best. For Astros fans in 2013, that’s about as good as it gets.

Team song: Walter Becker: Down In the Bottom

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