1:25 AM CDT, April 7, 2013
Like his bosses, Mike Foltynewicz is a baseball optimist. He can see the Astros rising out of the ashes they find themselves in at the beginning of the Jim Crane era.
"In three or four years, we're going to be a fun team,'' said Foltynewicz, a 21-year-old right-hander with a 97-mph fastball. "We're going to be competing for the World Series, no doubt. We have some awesome talent.''
Shortstop Carlos Correa, first baseman Jonathan Singleton, center fielder George Springer, second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. and outfielder Domingo Santana are decorated prospects. They should form the core of the Astros' team by 2015 or '16, which could have Stanford's Mark Appel or Indiana State's Sean Manaea in a rotation that includes young guns like Foltynewicz and Lance McCullers Jr.
But in the meantime, can rookie manager Bo Porter avoid this becoming the Astros' third consecutive 100-loss season? Only two clubs since 1964 have suffered that badly for that long, and the trio of 100-loss seasons for the Blue Jays in 1977-79 and Royals in 2004-06 would not prove to be springboards to greatness, at least not in Foltynewicz's time frame.
Like Theo Epstein's Cubs, the Astros have a creative, analytical front-office staff committed to the idea of scouting and player development. It is run by second-year general manager Jeff Luhnow, who is coming off a highly successful tenure as the Cardinals' scouting director. According to Baseball America, he drafted 21 players who were on an opening-day roster, the most of anyone.
But unlike the Cubs, the Astros don't have major-market resources. They have lost thousands of season ticket-holders since going to the 2005 World Series at the end of the Jeff Bagwell/Craig Biggio era and entered 2013 with a big league payroll of $21.1 million, which is just a tick more than the $20 million Luhnow says he is authorized to spend in the draft. The Astros pick first, as they did last year, and based on their season-opening series could have the first pick for a third consecutive season in 2014.
Porter, a 40-year-old workaholic who says he took notes off tape on all of the Astros' 162 games from last season after being hired in October, guided the Astros to victory in the Major League Baseball opener last Sunday. But reality set in when Yu Darvish just missed a perfect game in the second tilt against the Rangers.
Alexi Ogando and four relievers struck out 15 Astros in the third game, giving Rangers pitchers 43 strikeouts in the first three games, a record.
"Just a couple of rough games,'' said Carlos Pena, who had six strikeouts in three games.
Or not. The Astros have had a .343 winning percentage the last two seasons, and it won't be surprising to see losses pile up like beer cans at a Robert Earl Keen show as they make the unpopular move from the National League Central to the American League West.
The Rangers, A's and Angels rule the West, and all won 89-plus games last year. And don't forget the seemingly revived Mariners, who went 38-34 down the stretch last year and split a four-game series with the A's to start this season. The Dallas Morning News' Gerry Fraley suggests that placing such an unproven roster in this division will be a case of "the steamroller and the steamrolled.''
Luhnow, a baseball outsider whose business acumen was identified by Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., shares Epstein's belief that .500 teams get nowhere in the modern game. He's willing to suffer on the surface while collecting talented 25-or-younger players in the minor leagues.
"We all feel a sense of urgency to get this to the endpoint as quickly as possible," Luhnow said. "But to do that, we have to be disciplined about how we implement (our plan). That means not doing things that are going to give us an extra win or two this year at the expense of an extra five wins two or three years down the road. I don't call that patience. I call that being disciplined and sticking to a strategy that has been well thought out.''
Foltynewicz, a product of Minooka High School, could be to Luhnow what Jeff Samardzija was to Epstein — an undervalued asset discovered in the organization's inventory.
He's opening the season with high Class-A Lancaster in the California League but could move fast and have a significant impact when he arrives. He gave the Cubs a preview March 30, throwing four scoreless innings in an exhibition at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros took Foltynewicz three picks after the Cubs made a signability choice with their first-round pick in 2011. With Chairman Tom Ricketts not yet having increased the draft budget, the Cubs swung and missed on Southern Arkansas right-hander Hayden Simpson, who was released recently.
"I was right there, but I barely heard a word from either of them,'' Foltynewicz said of the two Chicago teams. "I talked to a guy from the Cubs once, but the White Sox were never around. I was right out their back door, but I don't think they were interested at all.''
Who knows what Foltynewicz will grow into? Maybe he will be a No. 2 starter behind Appel or Manaea. Maybe he will stall along the way, like Samardzija had before reinventing himself at 27. But he's in the right place to get an opportunity.
No changes for DH: It was 40 years ago Saturday that the Yankees' Ron Blomberg stepped in to face the Red Sox's Luis Tiant as baseball's first designated hitter, and the argument about the rule has raged ever since. Commissioner Bud Selig, then the owner of the then-AL Brewers, was a supporter then and remains one now.
"It's the only thing (eccentric A's owner) Charles O. Finley ever proposed that I voted for,'' Selig said. "We just needed a boost in offense in the American League. Attendance was bad, everything was bad in the American League at that time. National League clubs didn't want it. (Phillies owner) Bill Giles always said he liked a little variety, and I think that's right.''
A story in USA Today suggested that the NL is moving closer toward adopting the DH, but Selig disputes that notion. He believes the current arrangement is here to stay.
"I haven't had one owner talk to me about the designated hitter,'' he said. "If we were ever going to have to decide on a uniform rule, it would be as part of some kind of cataclysmic event. Broad geographical realignment, for instance, but I don't see that happening. I think Bill was right. It's an argument, but it's a good argument.''
Paying it forward: Terry Francona is bringing a high level of energy to the Indians after working for ESPN last season, and one reason he's so comfortable is that he is reunited with Brad Mills, his longtime bench coach in Boston.
Mills left the Red Sox to manage the Astros in 2010 but was doomed when Luhnow took over for Ed Wade and decided to implement a scorched-earth approach. They immediately become the most decorated bench combination in the AL Central.
Francona's book, co-authored by the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy, provides a great look at the Red Sox in the Epstein era. One cool nugget is how much Francona thought of New Trier graduate Dave Jauss (son of the late Tribune sports reporter Bill Jauss), who did advance scouting for the Red Sox before the 2004 postseason, when they beat the Angels, Yankees and Cardinals to end the so-called Curse of the Bambino.
Francona, a generous type, was disappointed players hadn't voted Jauss a full World Series share, so he included a $20,000 check in his Christmas card.
"Dave Jauss busted his ass for us, and I wanted him to know I appreciated it,'' Francona said. "Those reports were great.''
Streaking: Bryce Harper showed signs of a magical season before leaving Florida, going 11-for-11 down the stretch to end the Grapefruit League batting .478. He picked right up when the season started, getting two hits in each of the Nationals' first three games to make him 17-for-23 over this span.
Harper homered on his first swing of the year and again in his second at-bat Monday. It was the 20-year-old's first opening day.
"I knew way before the game he wasn't going to be fazed about anything," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He's totally committed to having a good year. I mean, he had a phenomenal spring. Best spring maybe I've seen anyone ever have. And continuing on."
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