HOUSTON – After what the Houston Astros have done in manager Dusty Baker’s first two seasons, he has no reason to think they won’t 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,” Baker said. “I like to believe in natural progression so the natural progression should be that we’ll win it.”
The Astros reached the World Series for the third time in five seasons last year before falling to the Braves in six games. Houston also lost the World Series in 2019 after winning its only title in 2017 in a season marred by the team’s sign-stealing scandal.
Now they’ll try to continue their recent run of success without Carlos Correa after the superstar shortstop left for Minnesota in free agency. The top overall pick in 2012, Correa 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 contend again with a team that returns most everyone else from last year’s squad that went 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 fielder Michael Brantley said. “We all know what we need to do to get ready for this season and we’ll continue to play at a high level as a team.”
Added second baseman Jose Altuve: “I think we have another chance to make it really far this year.”
The Astros didn’t make any splashy free agent signings to offset the loss of Correa, but general manager James Click said he didn’t believe that was necessary considering 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 really good about the position player group we have,” he said. “It is a roster that we feel very good about.”
Houston opens the season April 7 against the Los Angeles Angels in the first of nine straight road games before the home opener April 18, which is also against the Angels.
NEW (OLD) LOOK
The most exciting addition to this team is the return of ace Justin Verlander. The two-time AL Cy Young Award winner is back after last pitching in the majors on opening day in 2020. Verlander was injured in that start and has been out after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The 39-year-old has looked good this spring, but Baker said Tuesday that Verlander likely won’t start on opening day this year because it doesn’t line up with his schedule.
The Astros hope that he can return to his 2019 form when he led the AL with 21 wins and received his second Cy Young Award.
A meticulous planner, Verlander will approach this season like he has 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. “A lot of guys that have Tommy John are younger or earlier in their career and don’t have 3,000 major league innings under their belt or close to it.”
Verlander’s return will also be a boost to a rotation that features three young starters who will certainly benefit from 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 has certainly enjoyed showing off his impressive pop. But this season he’s looking to get back to the player he used to be.
Altuve had 200 hits or more to lead the AL for four straight seasons beginning in 2014, but hasn’t had more than 169 in a season since then. He’s also seen a drop in his batting average after winning the AL batting title in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
“I got a little in love with homers the last two years,” he said. “This year, yes homers are good, but I want to be more productive. Like get on base, go back to my game, get some hits and if the homers happen, they happen. I just not going to try to look for homers every time.”
ROOKIE TO WATCH
Houston is likely to start the season with just one rookie, but he is important: Jeremy Peña, the team’s top 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 are looking forward to helping him develop.
“I’m happy for Jeremy that he might get the opportunity to come and play in the big leagues and establish himself as a really good player,” Altuve said. “I think Jeremy is going to come to the big leagues and make our team better. He has a lot of talent, a lot of great tools to show off.”
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports