By Richard Cuicchi | February 03, 2013 at 09:34 AM EST | 2 comments
Football season is finally over. It’s time to start getting excited about baseball, as spring training camps are set to open within two weeks. While there have been some significant changes over the winter for several clubs, perhaps none will be more impactful than that which the Houston Astros will make in transitioning from the National League Central to the American League West Division. The move is triggered by Major League Baseball’s need to balance out the number of teams between the two leagues. When Jim Crane purchased the Astros franchise in 2011, one of his concessions in the deal was to agree to move the team to the American League. This is only the second time in baseball history a team is switching leagues. You may recall the Milwaukee Brewers made a similar shift (from American to National) in 1998.
The Astros, then called the Colt .45s, were originally an expansion club of the National League in 1962, when the New York Mets franchise also debuted. That was the first time the National League had increased its original eight-team format, going back to 1900. In 1969, the Astros became part of the National League West Division, when Major League Baseball first transitioned to a divisional format in each league. This was followed by the transfer to the National League Central Division in 1994, when each major league added a third division.
While the Astros’ on-field success as a franchise over their fifty-one years of existence is somewhat arguable (compiling a .492 overall winning percentage), they nevertheless played in one of the most notable venues--the Astrodome, developed some spirited rivalries in their division, built a loyal fan base, and created a legacy that includes some of baseball’s most noteworthy players.
The Astrodome’s opening in 1965 put the Astros franchise in the spotlight as the first professional team to play in a domed stadium, even though the team floundered in its first few years. (They were often called the “L’Astros” by some impatient fans and sportswriters.) However, becoming part of the National League Central Division turned out to be favorable for the Astros. Before the move, they had previously appeared in post-season play only three times during their first thirty-years. Then, over the next twelve seasons as part of the Central Division, the Astros had their most productive stretch, when the team appeared in the post-season playoffs six times, including their first World Series in 2005. They developed fiery rivalries with the Cardinals, Reds and Cubs, in what many observers considered the weakest division in the National League.
While Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan is generally regarded as the most famous of the Houston Astros players, other major leaguers who appeared with the Astros include other Hall of Famers: Nellie Fox, Robin Roberts, Eddie Matthews, Leo Durocher, Joe Morgan, and Don Sutton. However, names like Jimmy Wynn, Jose Cruz, Mike Scott, Cesar Cedeno, J. R. Richard, and Larry Dierker resonate more readily with long-time Astros fans. Later, along came the “Killer Bs” (nickname for stars Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Lance Berkman) and Roy Oswalt, who led the successful teams of the 1990s and early 2000s.
The “L’Astros” moniker became an even more relevant characterization of the team during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, when they lost 106 and 107 games. These were two of the most disastrous back-to-back seasons by a team in baseball history. Soon after the Bagwell and Biggio era, the Astros started a movement towards a low-budget operation, unloading their better players who had long-term high salaries. In 2012, the club had the third-lowest team payroll at $60.6 million (per ESPN.com). Although the final roster is not yet firmed up, the Astros’ payroll is estimated to be half that in 2013. And this will be a team mainly comprised of relatively inexperienced major league players and a few veterans who would only be backups on most other teams. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Lucas Harrell was rated the top player for the Astros in 2012. I’m sorry, Lucas who?
With all due respect to the teams and fans of the American League East, the Astros will go from the weakest division in the National League to perhaps the toughest American League division in 2013. The AL West’s Angels, Rangers and A’s are expected to pick up where they left off in 2012. Furthermore, the last-place Mariners made big strides in the off-season to upgrade their roster, in order to make more of an immediate impact. I really can’t see the Astros winning many more games than they did during the past two seasons. The Astros’ front-office has undergone a big turnover in the past few years, and in my opinion they are largely unproven in their ability to build a viable club from personnel developed within the organization. Unfortunately, considering factors like the tougher competition in the American League West, the continuance of the club’s low payrolls, and no “Killer B”-type players on the near-term horizon, I envision the Astros will continue to see lean years ahead.
So, what do fans think about the Astros’ move? Has MLB unduly imposed a hardship on the franchise? Can the Astros organization develop enough players to get them into contention within a few years? Did the Astros hire first-year manager Bo Porter because more experienced, veteran managerial candidates were savvy enough to avoid putting themselves into the Astros’ dire situation? Are you going to miss the rivalries in the National League Central? Does anyone see a positive in all this? About the only thing I see is that I can get to see the Yankees play closer to home!