Senior Baseball Columnist

Astros drawing buzz by being competitive


Houston 2B Jose Altuve has a .309 batting average and .365 on-base percentage. (Getty Images)  
Houston 2B Jose Altuve has a .309 batting average and .365 on-base percentage. (Getty Images)  

Sit down. Look straight ahead. There.

Now. Before the Houston Astros follow through with that threat to incorporate their rainbow coalition of old colors into new uniforms, while it's still safe to view them without wearing sunglasses ... you owe it to yourself to take a good look at them.

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"They are exciting," says one veteran scout who's spent time with them recently. "They are a fun team to watch."



The same Astros who were left for dead this spring?

You bet. Roy Oswalt may be long gone, but there have been plenty of times this season -- this month in particular -- that the Oh! has remained in place.

The Astros' 2.75 team ERA is the best in the majors during the month of May. Right-hander Bud Norris' 0.35 May ERA leads the majors. In beating the Cubs on Monday to kick off a three-game sweep, Norris, Houston's sixth-round pick in 2006, ran his record to 4-0 in four May starts. The Astros are 8-1 this season in his nine starts.

Norris, Wandy Rodriguez, Lucas Harrell, J.A. Happ ... these guys all deserve a clap. Houston starters have worked five or more innings now in each of their past 37 games, the second-longest streak in the majors to San Diego's 38. Get that kind of work out of your starters, you've got a chance.

And the Astros do. Fueled in part by their 16-10 record in Minute Maid Park, they've moved to within two games of .500 at 21-23. Silly as this may sound with the Cardinals and Reds ahead of them in the NL Central, Brad Mills deserves some serious early season manager of the year love. New general manager Jeff Luhnow is climbing the charts with a bullet.

"There's a buzz there," the scout says. "They're fighting and scratching. They're scrapping hard, and the fans really like 'em."

During an interleague series with the Rangers last weekend in Houston, a sort of coming-attractions preview of Houston's impending move into the AL West in 2013, the joint was jumpin'. The Astros drew a total of 113,261, the most for a three-game series at home since 2007 (also against the Rangers). And after getting a load of little second baseman Jose Altuve (5-5) in particular, many of them surely will be back.

By the time the Rangers left town, visions of a serious divisional rivalry were two-stepping through the heads Astros owner Jim Crane and his people.

"Altuve is a standout," says our scout. "If you forget his height and actually evaluate him as a ballplayer, he can hit, he has a quick bat, he's got plus speed, he's got good hands, he's got plus range, he can turn the double play ... he's everything you want in a baseball player.

"You look at him and he may be 5-6, but he hits like he's 6-5."

Altuve currently ranks second among major league second baseman in both batting average (.309) and on-base percentage (.365).

The big disappointment so far has been left fielder J.D. Martinez, 24, who took forever to come out of the blocks. But he banged out three hits and collected three RBI on Wednesday night against the Cubs, and he's showing signs of life after scuffling through a two-week drought in which he went 1 for 33. He's reached base safely now in seven of his past eight games with eight hits and three walks.

"He's been really struggling, but he looks like he's going to be a beast," the scout says of Martinez. "And [shortstop] Jed Lowrie looks like a pro. He gets his hits and leads by example. Chris Johnson has a strong arm at third base. They really blend well together.

The Astros' plus-12 run differential ranks fifth in the NL. Of the four NL clubs with a better run differential than the Astros, three are in first place.

For a work in progress, not bad. At all.

Rats, no Rizzo: Stuck in their longest losing streak since 2002 and playing to fans who cannot wait to get to the future, the Cubs are working overtime to keep the Anthony Rizzo buzz at bay. While the Cubs have been losing nine in a row, the big first base prospect they acquired from the Padres over the winter is crushing Triple-A pitching for a second consecutive season. Through 44 games, he's hitting .355 with 16 homers and 43 RBI.

Two issues are preventing the Cubs from summoning him:

1. For all their problems, first base is not one of them. Bryan LaHair may not be as sexy as Rizzo in terms of a prospect, but he's hitting .310 with 10 homers and 21 RBI (though he's 1 for 20 over his past seven games).

2. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer still blames himself for summoning Rizzo too soon last year when the two were with the Padres. Then, Rizzo was killing Pacific Coast League pitching in Tucson, and Brad Hawpe was a dud at first base in San Diego, so the Padres recalled Rizzo in early June. Result? Rizzo batted .141 with 46 whiffs in 128 at-bats.

Hoyer is determined not to make that mistake again. Far as he's concerned, next time Rizzo pulls on a major-league uniform, it should be for good.

But here's one difference that could be a good sign for both the Cubs and Rizzo: One scout who watched Rizzo in San Diego last year and again this spring with the Cubs cannot believe the difference. It's almost like two different Rizzos, the scout says.

"He looked like a completely different guy this spring," he says. "They talk about how you can't change your arm action and your swing? This guy has changed his swing. I couldn't believe the difference in the way he looks."

Meaning: Shorter swing, and quicker to the ball.

French for "Man, do the Blue Jays have catching": Toronto is doing just fine with J.P. Arencibia and Jeff Mathis behind the plate. And at a position an which there is a dearth of talent throughout the industry, they're doing just fine at Triple-A Las Vegas, too.

Travis d'Arnaud, the backstop acquired from Philadelphia in the Roy Halladay deal, is catching attention for his work behind the plate while hitting .293 with seven homers, 21 RBI and an .849 OPS in 38 games.

"He could catch for 15 clubs right now," says one scout who has watched him recently. "The Angels would love to have him. He's a Russell Martin type."

All hail the Rangers: I rarely talk to anybody in the game -- players, coaches, scouts -- who don't agree that, right now, Texas is the strongest team in baseball (the Dodgers' impressive 30-14 record notwithstanding).

Or, as one scout puts it, "The only thing Texas has to worry about is not winning the World Series again. You hate to say that when only a quarter of the season is gone, but that's where it's going to end up. They've got the best team."


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