LAKELAND, Fla. – The Houston Astros have a plan. It sounds complicated, but isn't. Their smart guys seek smart ways to get good players or to make their own players better, and one day we'll find out whether the plan worked. That's about it.
In the meantime, a 107-loss team will be fed to the American League in general and the American League West in particular, places where plans often – but not always – arrive at media conferences in black limousines.
The observation has been made that the Astros will pay their full roster about what the New York Yankees will pay Alex Rodriguez, which sounds inequitable. In reality, however, the Astros and Rodriguez are likely to have similar effects on their division races in 2013.
The Astros that will cover the ground between what the organization is now and what it will be in general manager Jeff Luhnow's plan are, granted, no-names. I use the term because Luhnow did the other day before an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. Also, because at the start of camp, rookie manager Bo Porter had the names removed from the backs of all the jerseys. The 25 chosen to play against the Texas Rangers on March 31, the start of the regular season, will have "earned" back their names.
Those who didn't must choose between "Bagwell," "Biggio" or "Puhl."
Luhnow has been GM for a little more than a year and Porter his field manager since late September. Luhnow is bright, somewhat bookish, knows his baseball and wears a ballcap with some authority. Porter is a pure baseball guy capable of a fierce glower and a gracious smile, sometimes inside the same sentence. After years of job interviews and near misses, he has gotten his first shot. Predictably, then, little about this will be easy. Few expect anything from these Astros, who have undergone a thorough strip-down/reorganization, leaving the projected big league roster heavy in nuances like upside, promise and geez-I-hope-this-works.
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The reviews for '13 haven't been especially kind, ranging from forecasts of 100 losses, 120 losses, and total implosion on opening day. Luhnow nods, grins, shoulders the assessments and believes in the plan. Porter does all that except maybe the smile. He has a roster to insulate, young men to direct. There's a way to do this no matter the names on the backs of the jerseys. You know, if they had them. The challenge is big. The players are raw. The expectations couldn't be lower.
Asked the other day about a player and his chances to make the club, Porter said simply, "Anybody who's in camp has a chance to make the 25-man roster."
Even, you know, that one guy, that outfielder who's never played a full season at Double-A? That guy?
"He in camp?" Porter asked with feigned curiosity. "He's in camp, right?"
The questioner, now suddenly unsure, nodded. Porter nodded back.
"He's got a chance," Porter said flatly.
It's kind of cool like that. Porter says in four words what he can say in exactly four. In danger of five, he used a contraction. No wasted coddling. No circuitous explanations. Play the game, forget about the rest. Forget, in particular, what most people seem to think about the Astros and the coming buzz saw. Or season.
"I could give it to you real simple," Porter said in a rare lead-up. "Ignore the noise. Outside the clubhouse, ignore the noise. We control the attitude, passion and desire we come to the park with every day. People ask us that question. The best thing you guys can do is ask the players."
Carlos Pena will be the first regular designated-hitter in franchise history. He is 34. In his 13th season, he will play for his seventh team. He went to the World Series once, in 2008, for the Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise that lost 96 games the season before. These Astros are not those Rays. But, Pena has experienced the awful, followed by the remarkable. Sometimes a mind like Luhnow's and a grasp like Porter's take hold. Maybe not in a year or two or even three. But, sometimes …
"Reminds me of my better days," Pena said. "Everything started from scratch. From zero. It's very interesting."
The Rays were atrocious. And then they got smarter. Then, of course, they pitched. Before that, everyone laughed at them.
"You do not pay attention," Pena said. "I understand what's going on around us. I create my own reality. It's my choice. You enjoy each other, trust each other, and then you get on that bus together and ride it out together. That's our only reality. Why would we burden ourselves with everything else? We want to travel light."
Probably, it will be a slow ride for the Astros. They've done what they could to gather talent and much of it is young, perhaps years away. Meantime, they're asking a few veterans to reverse their career trends, and a few prospects to un-plateau and their fans to ride along.
One day, it could be the spiritually and philosophically centered franchise Pena once played for. It could understand exactly what it is, who it is. For the moment, it will, as Porter insisted, attempt to ignore the noise and push ahead.
"We're not going to change our plan," Luhnow said, "based on what other people think we're doing. … I think we have a chance to be a lot better than people think."
Whatever's going to come will come. There'll still be the plan. There'll still be Bo Porter. And in a few weeks, there'll even be names.
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