HOUSTON — The Houston Astros will make it official Sunday night when they face the Texas Rangers: They are an American League team — after 50 years in the NL.
Houston has baseball’s lowest payroll and is coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons. Things won’t get any easier in the powerful AL West.
The Astros are optimistic they’ll be much better than they were last season. Almost everyone else figures it will be difficult for this team to avoid becoming the first team to lose at least 106 games in three straight seasons since the expansion Mets did it from 1962-65.
On Sunday night, 28-year-old Bud Norris, Houston’s highest-paid player with a $3 million salary, will become the team’s fourth opening day starter in four years. He’s looking to bounce back from a tough season in which he went 7-13.
In the major league’s first regular-season game, he’ll face Texas left-hander and All-Star Matt Harrison, who went 18-11 in 2012 and signed a five-year contract worth $55 million in the offseason.
Along with their new league, there are plenty of other changes for the Astros this year. They’ve got a first-year manager in former Washington third-base coach Bo Porter and will don new uniforms that bring back the orange color associated with better times in Houston.
Porter said he ignores what outsiders have to say about his team.
“That’s not hard for me, because when I look in the mirror I see a winner,” Porter said. “No one can make me have a different perception of myself because I know the effort I’m going to put into making sure our team is prepared.”
After the Astros traded away most of their veterans over the past couple of years to restock a once-depleted farm system, some in baseball have suggested the Astros are trying to lose. Owner Jim Crane, who enters his second year with the team, brushed off that notion.
“That’s totally wrong, and we would never do that,” he said.
He does however understand that fielding a team like this invites judgment.
“You’re going to get the criticism,” he said. “We’ve told people what we’re going to do, and we’re sticking to the plan. Everybody is welcome to their opinion, and we’re going to get a lot of opinions. So hopefully we’ll prove the naysayers wrong, and we’ll play a lot more competitive this year.”
Texas is still expected to contend in the AL West despite the loss of several key players, most notably 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton. Also gone are catcher Mike Napoli and infielder Michael Young.
The Rangers and Astros have traditionally played a home-and-home series each season, so facing each other is nothing new. But this year these teams, separated by about 250 miles, will meet 19 times.
“They’re close, and it’s a natural rivalry, and we hope to build that up and make it a good tradition for the state of Texas,” Crane said.
Rangers manager Ron Washington said he knows better than to take any team lightly, regardless of expectations.
“I don’t look at their payroll, I just look at the days we play them and make sure we don’t think any games for granted, because on any given day anyone can get beat,” Washington said. “It’s not the best team that wins; it’s the team that plays the best.”
Washington has known Porter for years, and said he believes he’ll help speed Houston’s development.
“They have some young talent, inexperience, but believe me, they’re going to play,” Washington said. “I still think that it’s going to be a tough year for them, but they’re not going to be anybody’s doormat, I think Bo Porter and his staff will see to that.”
Lance Berkman is in his first season with the Rangers after two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. The slugger spent the first the first 11½ years of his career with the Astros.
“It’s going to be weird,” he said of Houston’s move to the AL. “The Astros spent 50 years in the National League, and now to think of them as an American League franchise is going to be tough. I guess we’ll have to get used to it because, like it or not, that’s the situation. ... I don’t like it because I like having a National League franchise in Texas.”