By KRISTIE RIEKEN, Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Astros have a grand total of five players with more than two years of major league experience on the 40-man roster, a first-year manager and a move to the American League to deal with, too.
They also have a payroll projected to be the lowest in baseball since the Florida Marlins spent just under $22 million in 2008.
So why are they so optimistic they can avoid becoming the first team in a half-century to lose 106 games in three consecutive seasons?
General manager Jeff Luhnow doesn't see youth as a detriment and believes he's assembled a talented group of players.
"For me youth is a good thing," he said. "I'm optimistic. I think we're going to have a much better year than people think, and I don't think it has anything to do with payroll. I think it has to do with the coaching staff that we have and the young players that have a tremendous amount of upside."
Houston hired Nationals third base coach Bo Porter to lead the rebuilding effort. He's heard the predictions that his new team could be historically bad, but won't let that change his approach.
"We will stress to our players (not to) get caught up in the end result, be more concerned about the process which is what we do every day to prepare ourselves and put us in position to win every ball game," he said.
Several players already have spent time with Porter during the offseason and are looking forward to working with him this year.
"You can see that he's passionate and all in, and I think we're all feeding of that and we're excited to be the team that turns this around," first baseman Brett Wallace said.
It certainly won't be easy for a team which could join the 1962-65 New York Mets as the only teams with 106 or more losses in three consecutive seasons, according to STATS. Houston lost 106 games in 2011 and a franchise-worst 107 last year.
Another dreadful season would put them in line to be the first franchise to have the No. 1 overall draft pick for three straight years.
The Astros are expected to have just five players on their roster who will make more than $500,000 this season. Only one of them, newly acquired veteran slugger Carlos Pena, is a position player.
Pena, a 34-year-old first baseman signed as a free agent for $2.9 million, is among three players on Houston's 40-man roster who is 30 or older. The Astros are counting on him to immediately step in as a leader.
"We were very adamant about getting some of the right veterans in here," Porter said. "I think they're going to speed up the learning curve for a lot of our young players."
Twenty-seven-year-old starting pitcher Bud Norris projects be to the highest-paid Houston player after agreeing to a $3 million contract that avoided arbitration but he also could be dealt. Following Norris and Pena on the payroll are relievers Jose Veras ($1.85 million) and Wesley Wright ($1,025,000), and pitcher Phil Humber ($800,000), claimed off waivers from the Chicago White Sox less than a year after he pitched a perfect game against Seattle.
Houston's payroll would increase slightly if veterans such as Erik Bedard and Rick Ankiel, who signed minor league contracts, are put on the big league roster.
Trading away most of the veterans and slashing the payroll has helped replenish a farm system that was ranked among the worst in baseball as recently as last spring. But the moves have done little so far to improve the product on the big league team.
Luhnow countered questions about Houston's low payroll by discussing other areas where the team is spending money.
"We're making a huge investment in our pipeline," he said. "We're going to spend close to $20 million acquiring prospects through the draft and through the international process. We're investing in teachers at the minor league level, we're investing in our capabilities to develop talent and we're staying consistent with our strategy, which is to develop the best young talent in baseball and be as consistent and competitive as soon as possible."
Houston continued shedding veterans on Monday when it traded one of its most proven position players in shortstop Jed Lowrie and his $2.4 million salary to Oakland for three young players. Luhnow said he's open to making more moves before opening day but won't change course from the team's plan.
Porter is encouraged by the talent and potential of many of his new players. Still, he knows that those playing in the majors for the first time will experience setbacks no matter how talented they are.
"With young players come growing pains," he said. "Some of these guys may be dealing with failure for the first time. I think one of the biggest challenges for us as a staff is to be able to give them the confidence that's needed to go out and continue to fight even though there may be some adversity that comes their way because they're playing at the highest level."
Luhnow was encouraged the Astros went 15-15 at the end of last season, beating some clubs still in the postseason hunt. He hopes players who made their big league debuts last year will use that experience to help make this year's squad better.
"The way we ended last season was a step in the right direction, and I'd like to pick up where we left off and begin the year surprising people, winning some series that we're not supposed to win and being competitive," he said. "I'd also like to see some players take a step forward."
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