Opening Day Beckons
The mood hardly could have been more relaxed at the Houston Astros' media luncheon. Almost everyone appeared to be in a good mood (hardly typical for any reporter gathering). Reef chef Bryan Caswell was there in his usual Astros cap, promoting his offerings at Minute Maid Park (including El Real Tex-Mex food as a new option for club level ticket holders).
Someone jokingly told Astros great Craig Biggio that he was a slacker for having retired so "early" with the Astros set to face a 49-year-old starting pitcher who is three years Biggio's senior Saturday. "I can throw just as hard as he can," Biggio shot back, grinning.
Mac 'n' cheese burgers waited on a grill. It was that kind of day.
"We believe we have the talent in the organization to win any series," Jeff Luhnow said.
But no one was quite as stoked as new Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Lunhow took optimism and good feelings to a new level when he took the podium.
Sure, everyone in baseball puts on a happy face for Opening Day. But Luhnow went far beyond that in laying out the prospects for a team that finished 56-106 last season and didn't sign a single significant free agent.
"We believe we have the talent in the organization to win any series," Luhnow said. "Most publications are picking us to finish dead last in the Central and 29th or 30th (out of 30 teams) in all of the Majors.
"But I think we're going to surprise some people."
And Luhnow wasn't done there. Later he added, "I think our guys have the potential to win a lot of games. A lot more than people expect."
Sixty three would be more wins than some expect, with many tabbing the Astros for a second straight 100-loss season in the first year of Jim Crane. But Luhnow ran through the entire expected starting lineup and most of the pitching staff to make a player-by-player case on why these Astros can do more.
"He's definitely one you can dream on becoming a Jacoby Ellsbury-type player," Luhnow said of Schafer.
The Astros could be the most inexperienced team in the big leagues with 10 players (five position and five pitchers) on the 25-man roster who have never been on a Major League roster before. No matter . . . ?
"You're going to see 100 percent effort and the results are going to track that," Luhnow said.
With owner Jim Crane content to watch from the back of the room, feeling no need to grab a piece of the spotlight, Luhnow laid out his vision for the players. The general manager pronounced Jason Castro ready to handle the bulk of the catching duties. He called Carlos Lee (the first baseman with the hulking contract the Astros would love to trade) "a great citizen." He noted that second baseman Jose Altuve drew more walks in spring training (10) than he had in his entire Major League career to date (five in 57 games).
On and on it went, with Luhnow's own confidence seemingly growing with every word. Say this for the youthful-looking executive with the silver hair and the natty suits: He knows how to sell belief.
Not that the GM's love doesn't seem genuine. Especially for third baseman Chris Johnson and center fielder Jordan Schafer.
"The Chris Johnson everyone saw two years ago is what we're going to see," Luhnow said. "An even-better version of that."
Luhnow went as far as comparing Schafer — a 25-year-old with a career .228 batting average — to Boston Red Sox All-Star Jacoby Ellsbury, who challenged for the American League MVP Award last season. Or at least, name dropped Ellsbury in relation to Schafer.
"He's definitely one you can dream on becoming a Jacoby Ellsbury-type player," Luhnow said of a player the Astros acquired in the Michael Bourn trade. "A guy who can hit home runs and steal bases."
The Astros opener against the Colorado Rockies looms on Friday evening. This is one general manager who cannot wait.