MLB Opening Night: Rangers vs. Astros series MEGATHREAD

TEXAS TANGO

by Steven GoldmanMajor League Baseball chose to kick off both the Sunday night schedule and the 2013 regular season with a match-up that is, let’s face it, less than the best the game has to offer.

Yes, the Astros switched from the NL Central to the AL West during the offseason, but league swaps are not unprecedented (Bud Selig’s darlings, the Milwaukee Brewers, did it 16 years ago), and due to interleague play, the Astros and Rangers have met annually since 2001, with the Astros losing four of the last five series, dropping 17 of 22 games (Texas leads the lifetime series 42-30). The novelty value here is all on paper -- watching Carlos Pena bat as the Astros’ first non-transient designated hitter doesn’t quite have the historic resonance of seeing Jackie Robinson shatter the color line.

The Astros are deep in a rebuilding phase and have a roster with a less name-recognition quotient than the checkout crew at your local Wal-Mart. They lost 106 games in 2011 and 107 games in 2012, and are a pretty good bet to lose 100 or more again this year. Incredibly, the ‘Stros were not quite this bad even in their early post-expansion seasons. They remain a grab bag of placeholders and prospects, with an emphasis on the former. They will be praying for ex-prospects such as Chris Carter and Fernando Martinez to establish themselves as quality major leaguers until the farm starts producing. Even if they do, it’s going to be a very long year.

The Rangers are still one of the best teams on the circuit, but having been knocked out of the playoffs in last year’s first round, thereby derailing the third-time-to-the-World-Series-will-be-the-charm/We are not the Marv Levy Buffalo Bills narrative, their star has been slightly diminished.

Still, the mission remains the same, even if the team watched Mike Napoli leave for the Red Sox and Josh Hamilton sign with the division-rival Angels without making a compensating big signing -- the biggest names added to the team were catcher A.J. Pierzynski and the cusp-of-retirement DH Lance Berkman, both risky: Pierzynski, 36, showed unprecedented power last year, while Berkman, 37, missed almost the entire season with knee problems. If these two players regress, the Rangers could find themselves missing Hamilton even more than they might have expected.

Rangers starting pitching remains an asset, at least on paper -- Matt Harrison is coming off of consecutive strong seasons, but Derek Holland missed time last season with shoulder fatigue and posted a 4.67 ERA, and Yu Darvish’s wildness put him squarely in the good-not-great category. Alexi Ogando will begin the season in the rotation. Fortunately, both Colby Lewis and prospect Martin Perez should be back in relatively short order, so the questions that arose about Ogando’s durability in 2011 need not recur this year.

Players to watch

by Steven Goldman

Matt Harrison

Left-handed pitcher

Harrison succeeds with a low-90s fastball and a strong changeup, striking out relatively few batters (his 5.6 strikeouts per nine last season ranked 32nd among qualified AL starters) but getting an above-average number of grounders. He wouldn't be the same pitcher without Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre behind him.

Adrian Beltre

Third Baseman

Now the center of the Rangers’ offense with Hamilton gone. Three years removed from his disappointing Seattle stint, you don’t hear a lot about his Hall of Fame chances, but he’s already one of the best two-way players ever at the hot corner -- and likely will have 3,000 hits.

Leonys Martin

Centerfielder

A product of the widening pipeline of Cuban talent, Martin has been knocking on the door for a couple of years, now has the unenviable job of replacing Hamilton. He won’t, being more of a singles-oriented contact hitter, but should prove a better fit on defense.

Bud Norris

Right-handed pitcher

Had one of the weirdest splits you’ll ever see last season, posting a 1.71 ERA at home, but 6.94 on the road. Provides proof that a high strikeout rate is no guarantor of success; command and control must be present as well. Norris struggles with both. Result: walks, home runs, sadness.

Jose Altuve

Second Baseman

Thanks to Sirius-XM’s Mike Ferrin, home run distances are now measured in Altuves, increments of approximately 5’5". After a .274/.336/.351 second half last year, the Astros are hoping that’s not his greatest contribution to the game. Fortunately, his .303/.344/.438 first half counts too, and if settles somewhere in the middle at 23, well, that will do until Jonathan Singleton, George Springer, and Delino DeShields Jr. come long.

Matt Dominguez

Third Baseman

Received from the Marlins in the Carlos Lee trade, Dominguez’s bat had nearly flatlined at Triple-A. He revived with the change of organizations, then hit with surprising authority in the bigs (five homers in 109 at-bats). Strong defense is Dominguez’s calling card, so if he continues to hit the Astros might have lucked into another building block.

About the park

by Steven Goldman

Minute Maid Park: Given the name, it’s appropriate that Minute Maid is slightly juiced, yielding home runs with above-average frequency. This applies particularly to right-handed hitters, who get to take aim at Crawford Boxes atop the scoreboard down the short 315’ left-field line. A statistical oddity from last season implies the poor state the Astros find themselves in: They hit 79 home runs at Minute Maid, their opponents hit 79 home runs at Minute Maid. So much for the home-field advantage.

Overall, the park has been largely neutral in terms of scoring in recent years. It’s a nearly 440-foot poke to center field, which features a purposeful obstacle, Tal’s Hill, a steep incline topped by a flagpole. Chick-fil-A cows top the "fowl" poles, reminding America to check their blood pressure whenever a ball is hit down the lines (key stat: 1400 mg sodium per sandwich, 93 percent of the American Heart Association RDA).

Minute Maid Park is sort of a cross between the cookie-cutter parks and something really original. Aside from the asthetical quirks, like the hill in center field, the flag pole on the hill or the train in left, the park used to play differently later in games after the roof was opened. But, with MLB issuing an edict that the roof must say either open or closed until the end of the game, even those differences went away.

With the roof closed, MMP can be loud and have a great atmosphere. There also used to be a great view of the skyline when the roof was open, but a giant billboard for "community partners" has all but blocked that. Still, there is not a bad seat in the park.
- David Coleman, The Crawfish Boxes

JUST Ask the locals!

from Lone Star Ball & The Crawfish Boxes

What rivalry?

"Something that I don't think people outside of Texas get is that Rangers/Astros isn't really a rivalry. They have this thing called the "Silver Boot" that is given to whoever wins the season series between the teams, and a few years ago, a D/FW columnist wrote that the only person who cared about the Boot was then-Astros owner Drayton McLane.

Now that McLane is gone, I don't think anyone cares about the Silver Boot. But the Rangers and Astros are basically two teams in the same state. At some point, if there's a playoff race or something, you could see a rivalry grow between them, but I don't think one exists now." - Adam J. Morris, Lone Star Ball

Hey, it could happen!

"There is no real rivalry between the Rangers and Astros...yet. Though the two teams have been playing in interleague play for years now, the six games each season haven't caught the imagination of fans. There is a trophy in the series, the Silver Boot, but it's more of a punch line.

In a bigger picture sense, Houston and Dallas have a geographic rivalry that is bigger than any one sport. People who live in Houston generally don't care for Dallas or things from Dallas. So, a rivalry between the Rangers and Astros could well spring up as they play more, but for now, it's just another series." - David Coleman, The Crawfish Boxes

One Key Stat: 4.99 R/G

by Steven Goldman

The Rangers averaged almost five runs a game on offense last season, leading the league by a hair over the New York Yankees. However, that figure was heavily influenced by the very hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The Rangers hit .285/.347/.473 and scored 5.52 runs per game there versus .261/.320/.420 and 4.47 on the road.

Unsurprisingly, the Rangers were only a .531 team when away from home. Given their offseason losses, the Rangers will have a harder time masking their offensive weaknesses this year.

While letting Josh Hamilton go was unquestionably the right decision, and Mike Napoli’s defensive shortcomings and deteriorating hip also made letting him go a defensible call, the Pierzynski/Geovany Soto catcher platoon, the center field platoon of Martin and Craig Gentry, and Berkman (who probably needs to be platooned) won’t come close to replacing their production. With left-handed hitters Mitch Moreland and David Murphy probably also in the lineup most days, left-handed pitching could be a problem for this team. At least this is good news for right fielder Nelson Cruz, who has hit .325/.391/.606 against southpaws since 2010.

Bottom Line: Rangers Sweep

by Steven Goldman Despite some Nolan Ryan-focused front-office turmoil this spring, we know the quality of the Rangers’ operation by now: they’re good, and with talents like Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt, and Martin Perez ready to launch, they’re not going away anytime soon. With general manager Jeff Luhnow leading, the Astros are finally rebuilding the right way. Their time will come, but the Rangers’ time is now, and they’ll leave the Astros with a tough 0-3 start to the season.

Game 1: Astros 8, Rangers 2

by Steven Goldman Oops. So, it turns out the avenging Astros won’t be opening the season 0-3. You could see the risk inherent in pitch-to-contact types like Rangers starter Matt Harrison right from Astros leadoff man Jose Altuve’s first at-bat of the game.

He pulled a grounder past shortstop Elvis Andrus for a single. Grounders are what Harrison wants, but when you let the batter put the ball in play, you don’t always get a desired outcome -- sometimes they hit ‘em where they ain’t. Throw in some uncharacteristic wildness and you have the quintessential recipe for disaster.

As for the Astros, even though they thwacked three of four Rangers pitchers, you have to be a bit troubled by their 13 strikeouts in eight innings -- if they whiff that often against Harrison, what are they going to do against the real strikeout pitchers, like Game 2 starter Yu Darvish?

Game 2: Darvish vs. Harrell

Two games into the season, the Astros have had 61 at-bats and struck out 28 times. Even strikeout king Mark Reynolds doesn’t fan at that rate. One wonders how Brett Wallace feels starting the season 1-for-7 with six strikeouts. Obvious rejoinder: “How do you think he feels?” Well, Brett, the good news is it won’t last. There are easier pitchers coming your way. As for Yu Darvish, he’s nearly perfect.

Game 3: Ogando vs. Humber

Where: Minute Maid Park | When: Weds, Apr 2 @ 1:10 CT | How: FSSW/CSN
Coming Soon!
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