Dynamic Springer integral to Astros' resurgence
Talented outfielder leads Houston's wave of entertaining young players
Hall of Famer Bobby Cox remembers the first time he saw George Springer play baseball. Took him about three minutes to know. Guys like Cox, they see things you and I can't.
Come to think of it, Cox usually has seen things even many of his peers haven't seen. Sometimes when he looks at a player, a lifetime of experience takes over a certain part of the brain, and there's an instant analysis.
Anyway, Cox knew immediately that Springer was the real deal, that he was just different. Maybe it was the way the ball came off his bat. The sound. The velocity.
Those of us who've been around a while have heard old-timers talk about watching Willie Mays take batting practice and how they just knew they were seeing one of those guys they'd remember for the rest of their lives.
So back somewhere in the low Minors, when Cox saw Springer for the first time, he remembered the kid's name. He generated such easy power. He moved so easily.
Springer also had that facial expression, that constant smile, or what seemed to be a smile. There just was joy in everything he did. Cox told others that he'd loved what he'd seen of Springer, that he couldn't wait to see more.
When I think of my hometown baseball team, the Houston Astros, and how much fun they're going to be having over the next few years, I always start with Springer.
The Astros are loaded with talented young kids. They've got waves of good players on the way to the big leagues: third baseman Colin Moran, second baseman Tony Kemp, right-hander Lance McCullers, etc.
This is a little like watching the Kansas City Royals in 2010 or '11. The Royals had so much young talent in the pipeline that you could see great things about to happen.
I have no idea if the Astros are going to win the American League pennant in the next few years, but I have absolutely no doubt that they're on the verge of becoming not just a good team, but an entertaining team.
That's why Springer is important. To get a community reengaged with a team, winning is important. Teams go out and spend thousands of dollars on marketing slogans and gimmicks and all of that. All that is fine, probably smart. It may help create a buzz around the club and get people talking.
Strip it all away, though, and it's about winning. Everything starts there.
And so, Houston showed last summer that the team is not far from being competitive. It's not just that the Astros improved by 19 games in 2014. It's not just that, despite some large holes on the roster, they played very well for long stretches last season, for instance, going 56-57 between May 11 and Sept. 15.
When Houston businessman Jim Crane bought the team in 2011, he was upfront about doing things a certain way. He was going to hire a general manager with a background in player development, and he was going to allow that guy the opportunity to strip the franchise down and build it back again.
Once Crane settled on Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals, he wanted him to replenish the farm system and to use the trading of veteran players to acquire young, controllable big league talent. His larger goal, though, was the farm system.
That's the lifeblood on which every team must be built, and for teams unable to buy a bunch of big-ticket free agents, it's the only way to compete. Actually, it's probably a better way to compete than big-ticket free agency, but that's another story.
Last summer, the outlines of a competitive team came into shape. Second baseman Jose Altuve won a batting title. He's an amazing player, an amazing young man. To be told time and again that he's not good enough, that he's too small, that this sport isn't for him, simply makes the story so much sweeter.
There were others. Chris Carter became a dominant offensive player. Scott Feldman, Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel became the foundation of a nice rotation. And some of the young guys, especially right-hander Michael Foltynewicz, positioned themselves to make an impact in 2015. Right behind him are the No. 1 overall picks of the 2012 and '13 First-Year Player Drafts: shortstop Carlos Correa and right-hander Mark Appel. Both of them could be in the big leagues at some point in 2015.
The Astros finally have local television revenues flowing again, around $57 million a season, and Crane says he's ready to bump the payroll if Luhnow is able to acquire veteran players to speed the timetable.
Once upon a time, the Astros owned an entire city. Between 1997 and 2005, Houston went to the playoffs six times and won the National League pennant in 2005. During those years, the Astros were one of the smartest, most efficient organizations in the game.
But beyond winning, the Astros had something else that's important, and that's where Springer figures in. They had players like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman, players who were tremendous performers, winners all. But they were also appealing personalities, accessible people, members of the community in a larger sense. In Houston, they were seen as OUR players.
And this is where 25-year-old Springer figures so significantly into the rebirth of the Astros. Altuve, who is only 24, is a special talent, a special man. Correa, 19, is going to dazzle fans with his grace and talent when he arrives.
But Springer, as Cox saw back in the Minor Leagues, is just different. No one can predict greatness with any certainty. But Springer is about as close as a player can be. That's because he does everything well. That's because Springer has a resplendent personality, a guy who will raise the visibility of the entire franchise.
Fans will want to come to the ballpark to see this guy. Springer gave us a taste last summer, hitting 20 home runs in 78 games and compiling an .804 OPS before a quad injury sidelined him the final 2 1/2 months of the season. Still, in that glimpse, he looked very much like the real deal. Springer made you want to stop and watch when he came to bat.
The Astros aren't yet a finished product. Houston needs help at first base and third base and probably left field as well. The team needs relievers, too, as many of them as Luhnow can acquire.
But it can come together quickly at this point because the Astros have the pieces to build around. They have every reason to be optimistic, and while that optimism doesn't begin and end with Springer, he might just be one of those players capable of lifting an entire franchise. Here's hoping.