Sunday, March 31, 2013

Astros begin new era with renewed Texas rivalry

They're in far different places, the Rangers and Astros, these two franchises that will open the 2013 Major League Baseball season Sunday night at Minute Maid Park at 8:05 ET on ESPN. The Rangers are constructed for the short term, hoping to win now and knowing that anything short of another World Series would be a bitter disappointment. Life is really simple for the Rangers in that way.

Even after an offseason in which Josh Hamilton and others departed via free agency and Michael Young was traded, the Rangers believe they're good enough to win. Their lineup has been solidified by the signings of Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski, and if right-hander Yu Darvish has a breakout season, the Rangers probably are good enough to play deep into October.

There are questions about the quality of the rotation and the reliability of the bullpen in front of closer Joe Nathan. Young's departure significantly shifts the clubhouse dynamics, and after last season's late collapse, the Rangers could use a good start to change the conversation.

But they're good, and with a very good farm system, they're likely to hang with the A's and Angels in an American League West race that's expected to be extremely competitive.

"I think we'll have a very good club," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We've still got a very good nucleus. We certainly added some winning pieces in Pierzynski and Berkman. They've won World Series. They've always been winners wherever they are. Nothing will change here."

For the Astros, this is a season of transition, beginning with their move to the American League, complete with new colors and a new logo. They've got a rookie manager in Bo Porter and see this Opening Day as the next step in the reconstruction of a franchise. They believe they're doing it the right way, building from the ground up, predicting that once they're back that they're back for good.

"Clearly, when you're moving from one league to another, that's a monumental change," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "To have the opportunity to showcase our new uniforms, our new manager, our new staff, a lot of our new players on the national stage like that against a powerhouse like the Rangers is a good thing for baseball and a good thing for the Astros. Hopefully, people will see something they like that night and decide they want to come down to the ballpark."

This season's success won't be measured strictly in terms of the won-loss record. But there's also a quiet confidence inside the organization that they're going to be far better than people think and that they're going to be competitive sooner rather than later.

What they'll say for the record is that they'd like this team -- catcher Jason Castro and second baseman Jose Altuve and Opening Night starter Bud Norris -- to be one that's entertaining and competitive, a team that will play hard and set a course for the future. This season's roster could turn into a revolving door of sorts as players from one of baseball's best farm systems get their first taste of the Major Leagues.

"It's special to me for the city of Houston," Porter said. "It's special to me for the Astros organization. Going through all we've been through as an organization the last few years to have that kind of stage, it's a great opportunity for the rest of the country to take a look at our ballclub, take a look at our organization and realize that things have changed for the better. That's what excites me."

By the end of this season, the Astros are hoping to have identified a core of players to build around in the years ahead. And that's what this first Rangers-Astros game in the American League is all about on a lot of levels.

Baseball fans in Texas look forward to a day when the Rangers and Astros will be playing September games that decide playoff berths. Those games have the ability to gain the attention of an entire state and to give the two franchises the kind of regional rivalries they've never had before.

They've played one another six times a season in Interleague Play since 2001. But those games haven't carried the same weight because the games are played before the All-Star break and also because both clubs haven't been competitive at the same time. The Rangers have dominated the series, going 19-5 the last four years.

Now, baseball's Texas teams will be playing one another 18 times a year, and the rivalry that never seemed to take hold during Interleague Play will have a chance to draw an entire state into the conversation.