TEXAS TANGOby 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.
Matt HarrisonLeft-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 BeltreThird 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.
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 NorrisRight-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 AltuveSecond 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 DominguezThird 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.
"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