High-energy Astros offer glimpse of future
As top prospects develop, big league pieces show promise on Opening Day
HOUSTON -- Someday, these kinds of games will be the norm for the Astros. There's almost no question about that. That's because they're being rebuilt smartly and rapidly. So maybe a night like Tuesday is a good practice run for the sunny days ahead.
Anyway, it felt a lot like old times at Minute Maid Park as the Astros opened the 2014 season by doing virtually everything right in beating the Yankees, 6-2, in front of a big, noisy crowd of 42,117.
There are twin storylines at work. One is that this is a hugely important season for the franchise, as arguably baseball's deepest farm system is on the verge of delivering a bounty of gifted players. From outfielder George Springer to shortstop Carlos Correa to pitcher Mark Appel and a long list of others, Houston's system loaded with players who are widely seen as more than just potential big leaguers.
Many of them are seen as true impact players, the kind that can lead a franchise back into October. That's certainly what the Astros are hoping. Everything they've endured the last three years -- all 324 losses -- has been with an eye on building something that will last.
Still, all those high-end prospects are only part of the story. As general manager Jeff Luhnow has reconstructed the Minor League system, he has completely remade the big league team once, twice, three times, shuffled players here, there and everywhere.
And that's why Tuesday was important.
"Maybe it was slight validation for all the hard work," Luhnow said. "Obviously, there's still a lot to do."
Opening Day was the sweetest kind of validation a GM can have. Here's how five of Luhnow's offseason acquisitions performed:
• Leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler hit two doubles and scored two runs.
• First baseman Jesus Guzman hit a two-run home run off Yankees starter CC Sabathia in a four-run first inning.
• Starting pitcher Scott Feldman pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings.
• Finally, relievers Chad Qualls and Matt Albers got the final six outs.
The Astros once more have baseball's youngest team, averaging 26.9 years per player. So while Luhnow is focused on the big picture, he's hoping that this team will be more competitive than the club that lost 111 times last season.
Luhnow is also hoping that, amid the youth and the opportunity, he'll find players who are able to stick around and contribute when Houston turns the corner for good.
"Every game feels like it's the most important game," Luhnow said. "When we play one like this, it's important."
Fowler led off the bottom of the first inning with a double to center field, the deepest part of the park, and two hitters later, second baseman Jose Altuve singled him home. Two batters after that, Guzman homered. That quickly, it was 4-0.
"I think the energy they played with tonight is something you'll see on a regular basis," manager Bo Porter said. "There's a commitment we made to each other from Day One."
Yes, it's just one. But after a Spring Training in which fundamentals and aggressiveness and attitude were preached daily, it was a great beginning.
"These guys are playing with a lot of energy," Porter said. "Their attention to detail is outstanding. Everybody wants to get out to a good start, but I think it's extremely important for us."
For one night, the crowd was loud, and the postgame clubhouse vibe was outstanding. With a nod to the past, the Astros had one of their legends, Nolan Ryan, throw out the ceremonial first pitch to another, Craig Biggio.
And it ended with back slaps and bear hugs in the dugout. Only a beginning, but a really good one.
"We've got a bunch of younger guys that got a taste last year," outfielder Robbie Grossman said. "We know what it is to show up every day and be a big leaguer. The additions they made in the offseason -- Dexter, Albers, Jerome [Williams], Chad, Jesse Crain -- it just brings a whole different element to this clubhouse."
Indeed. On this night, the Astros made some nice defensive plays, ran the bases aggressively and played with the confidence of a contender. It was as satisfying as one game can be.
"The atmosphere in the clubhouse is great, and that's all you can ask for," Fowler said. "The guys are young, but they're eager to win and exciting on the field."