WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There are so many gifted young players in baseball these days that you sometimes lose count. You try to make a list of the very best ones and you're always forgetting someone, just because there has never been more young talent in the game than
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There are so many gifted young players in baseball these days that you sometimes lose count. You try to make a list of the very best ones and you're always forgetting someone, just because there has never been more young talent in the game than there is right now.
You know what a big show the Yankees are going to be this season now that they have "All Rise" Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the same batting order -- with Gary Sanchez still around, too, probably wanting to raise a hand occasionally and say, "Remember me?"
But the real show in baseball is still the Houston Astros, the defending World Series champions.
It doesn't mean they're going to win again or that this is the start of a new dynasty in baseball. But watching them play baseball is like watching the Golden State Warriors play basketball. The Astros are just one World Series working on two. The Warriors are two NBA titles working on three in four years. But the Astros are the team in sports most like Golden State.
In fact, the Astros are that kind of show even when they are striking out. Yup. Happened the other day, when they were facing 11 100-mph fastballs against Noah Syndergaard of the Mets -- 11 out of the 22 pitches Syndergaard threw. George Springer led off for the Astros by squaring up on one of the fastballs that Syndergaard had tossed up there at 100, hitting a ball hard on a line to left field. Jose Altuve wasn't quite as lucky a couple of minutes later. Syndergaard had thrown a couple over 100 to Altuve before he threw him a changeup at 92 on the inside corner that didn't just freeze the reigning American League MVP Award winner, but tried to turn him into an ice sculpture.
When Altuve walked back to the Astros' dugout on the third-base side of The Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, he couldn't help but smile and look over his shoulder at Syndergaard over what had just happened to him, even though what had happened to him was the same as being dunked on in a playground basketball game by one of the bigger kids.
Afterward, here is what Altuve said: "If he throws that changeup to me 100 times, "he's going to strike me out 100 times."
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"It was like a few years ago when Lance [McCullers, Jr.] first came up," Jeff Luhnow, the Astros' general manager, was saying Friday afternoon. "He struck out Miggy [Miguel Cabrera] with just the nastiest breaking ball you've ever seen. And you know what [Cabrera] did then? Pointed his bat at Lance and tipped his cap. All you can do sometimes."
Again, the Yankees are loaded. So are the Indians, still. Now that J.D. Martinez is going to be in Boston's batting order, and the Red Sox have decided to bring the home run back to Fenway Park, they are loaded, too. And Boston, by the way, has Mookie Betts -- one of the great talents in the game on both offense and defense, one whose name doesn't find its way into the conversation about the best young players nearly as often as it should. The Angels have Michael Trout and now Shohei Ohtani, The Sho Hey Kid. You know the Cubs still have Anthony Rizzo on one side of the infield and Kristopher Bryant on the other.
But the Astros have the most talent. They do lead off with Springer, the MVP Award winner of last year's World Series. They have Altuve at second, coming off a year when he was the most complete player in baseball, even at 5-foot-6, swinging away from the time he walked out of the on-deck circle. Next to him, at shortstop, is Carlos Correa, who, if he stays healthy this season, has a chance to move right past his own second baseman and have an MVP Award-worthy season himself. Correa is that good. And he doesn't turn 24 until Sept 22.
To Correa's right is Alex Bregman, another of the stars of the 2017 postseason, a guy whose real position is "baseball player'" and who drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 5 of the World Series -- only the greatest World Series game ever played.
Altuve's age is his number: 27. Springer is 28. Bregman is Correa's age, 23. Marwin Gonzalez, a terrific all-around player, is also 28. Justin Verlander, a former AL Cy Young Award winner, is the ace of the pitching staff. Dallas Keuchel, another former AL Cy Young Award winner, is right behind him. Charlie Morton and McCullers, who combined in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series and then Game 7 of the World Series, come in behind them. So does Gerrit Cole, whom the Astros got from the Pirates.
The Yankees got better, absolutely, when they got Stanton. So did the Astros, who were better than the Yanks when it counted in the last two games of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park.
I asked Luhnow on Friday if he is able to separate the executive in him -- the one who built this team with flair and patience and genius -- from the baseball fan in him when he watches the Astros play.
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"Come on, how can they not bring out the baseball fan in me?" he said. "I love watching them play. I love watching them interact with each other. I know when a team wins, you always hear about what a great dynamic there is, and how much they like playing together. But these guys genuinely like playing with each other. And believe me, it shows."
Luhnow paused and said, "Listen, as stressful as the postseason was -- especially losing the way we did when the ALCS went back to New York -- I still had fun watching it all play out. Listen, I have a different kinship, because I put it together. But still, when it's all there in front of you -- the talent and power and speed and camaraderie and the joy they bring to playing the game -- yeah, it brings home what a special game this is."
It was the old jazz man, Dizzy Gillespie, who once said that the professional is the one who can do it again. A special baseball team tries to do it again. A lot happened in baseball during the offseason. A lot might still happen with the free agents who remain available. But the Astros are still the main event.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com and the New York Daily News, and is a best-selling author.