HOUSTON ( Associated Press) – After what the Houston Astros did in the first two seasons of driver Dusty Baker, he has no reason to think they will not take another step forward this year.
“Two years ago we were one game away from going to the World Series and last year we were two games away from winning the World Series,” said Baker. “I like to believe in natural progress, so the natural progress has to be that we will win it.”
The Astros reached the World Series for the third time in five seasons last year before falling in six games against the Braves. Houston also lost the World Series in 2019 after winning its only title in 2017 in a season marred by the team’s sign theft.
Now they will try to continue their recent success run without Carlos Correa after the superstar shortstop left for Minnesota in free agency. Correa was the all-time leading pick in 2012 and spent his entire seven-year career with the Astros, becoming the face of the franchise and the undisputed leader of the team.
Despite his departure, the Astros remain confident that they will once again compete against a team that returns most of last year’s squad that won 95-67 to win the AL West for the fourth time in five years.
“We have a lot of great players in this locker room,” left-back Michael Brantley said. “We all know what we have to do to be ready for this season and we will continue to play at a high level as a team.”
Second baseman Jose Altuve added: “I think we have another chance to make it really far this year.”
The Astros have not made any brand new free agent purchases to compensate for Correa’s loss, but general manager James Click said he does not believe it is necessary given the team he has.
“We think we have a lot of depth in the bullpen, we have a lot of depth in the rotation, and we feel very good about the position player group we have,” he said. “It is a timetable that we feel very good about.”
Houston opens the season on April 7 against the Los Angeles Angels in the first of nine consecutive games before the home opener on April 18, which is also against the English.
NEW (OLD) APPEARANCE
The most exciting addition to this team is the return of the bait Justin Verlander. The two-time winner of the AL Cy Young Award is back after performing for the last time in the majors on the opening day in 2020. Verlander was injured in that start and is out after undergoing a Tommy John surgery.
The 39-year-old looked good this spring, but Baker said on Tuesday Verlander is unlikely to start on opening day this year because it is not in line with his schedule.
The Astros hope he can return to his 2019 form when he led the AL with 21 wins and received his second Cy Young award.
Verlander, a meticulous planner, will approach this season like every other season in his career. But he knows there could be some bumps along the way after an almost two-year absence.
“I think I’m kind of a case study on this one,” he said. “Many guys who have Tommy John are younger or earlier in their careers and do not have 3,000 big league innings under their belt or close to it.”
Verlander’s return will also be a boost for a rotation with three young starters that will definitely benefit his leadership.
In the last two full seasons, excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Altuve has reached a career high with 31 homers. The 5-foot-6, seven-time All-Star certainly enjoyed showing off his impressive pop. But this season he is looking back for the player he was.
Altuve had 200 hits or more to lead the AL for four consecutive seasons starting in 2014, but has not had more than 169 in a season since. He also saw a drop in his batting average after winning the AL batting title in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
“I’ve fallen a little in love with homers over the last two years,” he said. “This year, yes, homers are good, but I want to be more productive. Like getting on base, going back to my game, getting a few hits and when the homers happen, it happens. I’m just not going to try to find homers every time. ”
SMOKE TO WATCH
Houston is likely to start the season with just one rookie, but he’s important: Jeremy Peña, the team’s leading prospect, is expected to take over for Correa at shortstop.
The 24-year-old was a third-round pick by the Astros in 2018 and advanced to Triple-A last season where he hit .287 with 10 homers and 19 RBIs in 30 games. The Astros think Peña has the tools to be a star and is looking forward to helping him develop.
“I’m glad Jeremy might get the chance to play in the big leagues and establish himself as a very good player,” said Altuve. “I think Jeremy will come to the big leagues and make our team better. He has a lot of talent, a lot of good tools to show. ”
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