By Will Martin
We are now less than three weeks away from the start of Spring Training with the arrival of pitchers and catchers on February 16th in Arizona and Florida.
That start will be somewhat overshadowed by the events of the weekend in New Orleans as the NBA All-Stars will be in full force.
With that said for the last year you have seen the birth of the first ever team in 113 years make the jump from the National League to the American League West.
True 2013 was an inaugural season that the Houston Astros would like to forget-especially against the Texas Rangers at 2-17 there is much to be able to get behind and get excited about as you count down the days to that ever important start. To wit:
Before we say, ‘hello’ a ‘goodbye’ is in order as it was announced on January 29th that Lance Berkman has decided to hang up his spikes and call it a career. One that took him from Houston to New York to St. Louis to Texas in 2013.
There were ten plus memorable seasons spent in Houston where he averaged 34 home runs a year along with 95 walks and an on base percentage of .410. A World Series title in St. Louis in 2011 and a year in Texas where he played in 73 games before nagging knee problems would nag at him making this decision a little easier.
“It doesn’t make sense to play in the physical condition I’m in,” Berkman said. Indeed it was his right knee that was the culprit that wouldn’t allow him an opportunity at season #16.
“I’m not going to keep trying to run out there for the heck of it,” Berkman said.
Time certainly has a way of letting you know in sports if you can hang and keep going or be able to walk away. Don’t assume that there’s any sense of regret in Lance’s decision.
“I think I’m actually glad about it,” Berkman said. “I’m excited about the next chapter in my life. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family, and at some point, I’ll definitely coach somewhere.”
It was quite the career for the ever popular in the clubhouse fan favorite.
“I’ve had a great career,” Berkman said. “I did everything anyone could have set out to do. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.”
Down On The Farm
Now looking ahead-saying hello in essence-there is the following. With seven of the Top 100 minor league prospects in the Astros farm system we should not be surprised that MLB.com has determined the Houston Astros possess the #1 farm system in all of baseball according to Keith Law of ESPN.com.
“They have depth and they have a couple of high-ceiling guys at the top of the system, getting close to the point where the light at the end of the tunnel no longer looks like an oncoming train,” Law wrote. “It’s been ugly, Astros fans, but hang in there.”
You can also credit the brain trust of Jeffrey Luhnow, Jim Crane, and Bo Porter for not being afraid to go after talent very passionately in places like Latin America to load up on talent while trading away more established players in the process. The past few years Houston has gotten the 1st draft pick and will do so again in 2014.
Three players who began the climb to the bigs in 2013 were Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholzer, and Josh Zeid on the mound. In the field fans certainly have a right to be excited about kids like Robbie Grossman and infielder Matt Dominguez.
As for those top 100 prospects and where they rank? You have Shortstop Carlos Correa (8), right handed Pitcher Mark Appel (17), Outfielder George Springer (21), First Baseman Jonathan Singleton (50), right handed Pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (52), righty Mike Foltynewicz (54), with Delino DeShields Jr. rounding out the list (66).
You can expect some of these players to get major league playing time in 2014 perhaps as soon as Opening Day on April 1st.
There are also new additions over the offseason via trades. Adding Scott Feldman to the rotation, Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, and Chad Qualls for possible relief duties and a center fielder with all the potential in the world from Colorado, Dexter Fowler.
Pitcher Mark Appel is truly intriguing with a fastball timed in the low 90s and as high as 98. 22 years young, Stanford primed and the #1 Draft pick in 2013 with a 6.35 million dollar signing bonus this son of a Chevron lawyer is at most a year away from being in the Astros rotation.
At the very least he will bring great dividends in the minors at Oklahoma City or Corpus Christi. Appel spoke about the whole process of reconnecting with family before heading out to Kissimmee next month.
“It’s been great,” Appel said at Saturday’s FanFest at Minute Maid Park. “My parents were in China for the last year and a half, and it’s nice getting to be with them and getting to be with my parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and stuff like that. It’s great to be back in Houston.”
Last season Appel was 3-1 with a 3.79 ERA while playing at Quad Cities and Tri City. Jeff Luhnow has a different take about this prospect when asked about last year in the minors.
“He pitched the game that got Quad Cities to the playoffs and had a healthy workload, but not too much,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “I can’t wait to see what he looks like with a full season of rest. I’m really excited to watch him in Spring Training.”
This off season for Mark Appel has been one of learning and staying in shape at Minute Maid Park. To say he is ready for February might be an understatement.
“I’m excited for Spring Training, just to have the experience to be with the Major League guys and compete against some of the best,” he said. “Even though it’s Spring Training, it’s still exciting for me, and I’m hoping it will prepare us for the season.”
“Honestly, I want to learn as much as I can and work hard and just have a positive attitude,” he said. “Go and out give my all every single day. That’s kind of where I’m at, and that’s what my focus in.”
Any worries about expectations from others and the notion of pressure?
“Honestly, I don’t really feel any pressure,” he said. “I think pressure comes when I don’t feel confident in who I am and that I have to prove I’m somebody I’m really not. If I go out there and do my best and work hard and have a great attitude and go out there and give it my all in Spring Training, I don’t think I’ll necessarily feel any pressure.
“I don’t feel pressure to be somebody different when I’m at home or last year when I was at school or anything like that. I am who I am, and I’m not trying to be anybody else.”
Suffice to say Mark Appel is going to the present and future of a solid Astros ballcub and one of many new faces you better get accustomed to before too long in the A.L. West.
Nolan Ryan Houston Bound?
There was also a visit this week from a person with Houston ties and 49 years in the game. His first year in the bigs also the first for the Astros in 1965. Yes we speak of Nolan Ryan who on January 27th had a meeting with Jim Crane, Jeffrey Luhnow, son Reid and some of the front office staff of the Astros.
Last October Nolan left the Texas Rangers to pursue more time on the ranch and ponder a future return to baseball. If blood is thicker than water then what everybody has been saying the last year will ring true in 2014.
As for that meeting with the aforementioned?
“I had a very positive meeting with Jeff and then with Jim and just talked about what they would foresee my role with the organization might be,” he said. “So I left it with Jim that I’d get back with him. I wanted to give some thought to it. I’ll get back to him prior to Spring Training and let them know whether I’m interested in coming over or not.”
In case you forgot Nolan Ryan Ryan was involved with the Astros as a player from 1980-1988 and with the team from 2004-2008. If Nolan were to come back the role would be a lot more diminished than in Arlington.
Personally a return for Nolan would insure more fans filling the seats at Minute Maid Park. To say nothing of the mentoring he could provide all the young arms of that #1 farm system. Working with family makes for another interesting dynamic.
Think Reid Ryan would be okay with a little paternal inclusion?
“He brings credibility, he brings experience,” Reid Ryan said last week. “He’s like Roger [Clemens] in the fact you can use him in so many ways. I think the one thing is I don’t think he has a desire to be in the office every day. He doesn’t want to mess with my plan and Jeff’s plan, and he wants to be there and help us both and help Jim. He loves this game and loves the Astros, even when he was in Arlington. Hopefully, he and Jim can sit down and figure something out.”
You get the feeling that somehow, in some way they will. Situation win-win for the Astros.
Just a few things to look forward to come February 16th in Florida…and Arizona when pitchers and catchers arrive.