Astros insist that despite gutted roster, solid foundation for rebuild exists

March 19, 2013

Dennis Martinez, El Presidente, is back in the big leagues, working for a team that is widely expected to affect the playoff picture in the American League by losing 100 games or more.

As the Houston Astros move from the National League to the American League West this season, they have drilled down payroll to a Major League-low $25 million, pursuing a disciplined strategy of rebuilding with young talent.

With two wild-card spots available in the postseason - supplementing the berths that go automatically to the three division winners - there is the potential for the Angels, Rangers, A's and Mariners to exploit the unbalanced schedule and gain an advantage in the race, by piling up wins against the Astros.

Various books have the Astros losing 99 to 101 games this season.

"We know we are not going to do that," Martinez insisted, before the Blue Jays hit four home runs to defeat the Astros 10-6, in a Grapefruit League game Tuesday. "It's not going to happen. We are not going to win 105 games but with the talent we have here, we can accomplish a lot more than people are expecting. Baseball is more fun when you are winning. It is never fun when you are losing."

Martinez recalled making the majors for the first time in 1976 with the Baltimore Orioles, a team that used a young core under manager Earl Weaver's guidance to finish second in the AL East. Martinez would build a 23-year career in the majors, pitching 10 seasons in Baltimore and eight with the Montreal Expos. He threw a perfect game for the Expos against the Dodgers on July 28, 1991, and won 100 games in both the NL and AL for a total of 245 victories.

Today, looking to be in pitching shape at age 58, he lives in Miami, owns a resort in his native Nicaragua and has six grandchildren. The timing was right to return to fulltime duties, after serving as a spring training instructor for the Orioles a few years ago, and also for the Palm Beach Cardinals in the Florida State League.

"Our job is to help the young pitcher ups, to guide them," he says. "They have the physical talent, so now they have to understand the mental part, to be successful."

Owner Jim Crane paid $615 million for the franchise in 2011 when the Astros had the worst record in baseball, hired general manager Jim Luhnow and authorized him to clean house, with the objective or rebuilding a depleted stock of talent in the farm system. The Wall Street Journal reported that when Luhnow asked about being obligated to retain the owner's favoured personnel, Crane ripped out a blank sheet of paper and handed it to him. Carte blanche, in other words.

While trading away veterans, the Astros hired people for the front office and a new field manager, Bo Porter, 40, the youngest in baseball. To illustrate the difference in maturity between the two rosters, the Astros haven't determined an Opeing Day starter yet - "By next week we'll have it lined up, and then (the decision will] be coming to a theatre near you," Porter said – while the Jays announced R. A. Dickey more than a month ago. Said Porter: "If I had R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to choose from ... "

When rebuilding, many teams will bring in veterans to make the team at least artificially competitive and to appease fans, as the Miami Marlins have done with their $40 million payroll. The Astros are all-in by comparison, investing a trifle in 2012 to take advantage of new rules that award the biggest spending pools to the worst teams. Many franchises are starting to reap huge hikes in local cable contracts and the Astros are expected to bring in $50 million this season from Comcast, doubling last year's take, with gradually escalating revenues over the course of a 20-year deal.

"We believe there is a solid foundation," Martinez says. "The most important thing is to build up for a long process. Later we can add one or two elite players to get over the hump."

Jays notes: Pitching coach Pete Walker had detected a flaw in lefthander Ricky Romero's delivery which may be affecting his control. Romero is moving about six centimetres along the rubber toward third-base to correct it. Last week in Lakeland, against Detroit, he pitched well in the bullpen but the flaw returned in a competitive situation. Romero's been assigned to work a minor league game on Thursday rather than a Grapefruit League game. ... Henry Blanco caught R.A. Dickey in a minor league game on Tuesday, indicating that he will be awarded the backup job behind J.P. Arencibia. Manager John Gibbons has not announced whether Blanco will be assigned to the knuckleballer as a personal catcher, while Dickey praised Blanco as a "pro's pro." They have worked together previously. ... Mark Buehrle gave up eight his and four runs in four innings, all the runs scoring in the third inning ...Jose Bautista's fourth home run of the spring cleared a tree in left field that's about 10 metres high ... Backup closer Sergio Santos gave up a two-run homer in one inning and is closer to game readiness than anointed closer Casey Janssen, who is scheduled to pitch in a minor league game Wednesday. Both had shoulder surgery in 2012. "It's important to be able to bounce back from [an outing] and feel great the next day," Walker said. ... Oft-injured pitcher Dustin McGowan is also scheduled to work in the minor league game. He is out of options. ... SS Jose Reyes and 1B Edwin Encarnacion are expected to return from the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday and be in camp on Thursday.

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