Astros camp report: Season could get real ugly in Houston

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Someone's going to be wrong about the Astros. Someone's going to be very wrong.

Maybe it's us. Maybe it's them.

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Maybe it's the baseball bloggers who love them. Maybe it's the traditional baseball men who hate them.

The scouts who have watched them all spring take turns predicting how bad it will get.

"I have them winning three games the first month of the season," one says.

"The over-under on wins is 40," says another. "And I actually raised that, from 35."

The blogger-types take turns predicting how soon it will get to be good.

"It bears repeating," our own Dayn Perry wrote last week. "Three or four years from now, no one's going to be laughing at the Astros any longer."

The anti-Astros crowd so badly wants to see them fail that they're no doubt exaggerating how bad it is (and how little chance it has to get better anytime soon). But the pro-Astros crowd so badly wants them to succeed that they're no doubt being too optimistic about how good it will get (and how soon it will happen).

What's happening here is either the start of something really exciting, or a disaster so bad the commissioner should have stepped in to stop it. Either the Astros are embarrassing the game by trying to lose, or they're finally going through a logical process of building a winner.

The narratives are out there, strong enough that the Astros have been one of the most talked-about teams in baseball this spring. The narratives are so strong -- and so strongly felt -- that sometimes you think Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff spend much of their time trying to shoot them down.

No, Luhnow and staff say, they won't be challenging the 1962 Mets' modern-day record of 120 losses. They won't be nearly as bad as everyone thinks.

"I believe that more today than I did at the beginning of spring," Luhnow said Sunday.

The way they see it, this team has enough power that it will score runs, and enough pitching depth that it won't get overwhelmed. And the way they see it, some of these players can be part of a team that eventually wins.

Scouts following the Astros struggle to identify more than two or three players in the entire camp who can be part of a long-term plan. Luhnow names seven or eight right away, including three on his current major-league roster (second baseman Jose Altuve, catcher Jason Castro and starting pitcher Lucas Harrell).

"I think the core is already here," he said. "I really do."

Luhnow deserves some benefit of the doubt, because his track record is better than his doubters would like to admit. Plenty of people ripped the players Luhnow drafted when he was with the Cardinals, but some of those same players (Allen Craig, Jon Jay, to name two) have already won a World Series.

"Those are the players who people said were 'high-floor, low-ceiling,'" Luhnow said.

Luhnow was an easy target for traditional baseball types, and the way he built the Astros front office has only fed the perception he wants to change everything about how the game is run. The Astros pride themselves on having engineers and space scientists on the staff, and they've given out titles like "director of decision sciences" and "senior technical architect."

They even hired writers and bloggers to help work in baseball operations.

No wonder the bloggers love them.

But even that narrative is one the Astros are fighting. The pro-Astros crowd may love them for being anti-tradition, but the Astros themselves resist that characterization.

"I think a lot of people out there think it's a lot of guys with spreadsheets making baseball decisions," Kevin Goldstein said. "It's just not true."

Goldstein came to the Astros from Baseball Prospectus, and there were certainly eyebrows raised when he was named the team's pro scouting coordinator. But in his first seven months on the job, Goldstein has proven to be a lot more scout-friendly than some in baseball (and in the blogger world) would have expected.

"I know we're going to break people's hearts by saying this," Goldstein said. "We have a scouting staff. We care about scouts. We have crazy-great scouts. It's important that we have a big scouting staff."

The scouting community isn't impressed. Stories abound about former scouts the Astros let go, and some rival scouts refer to holdover Paul Ricciarini as "a dinosaur -- the last Astros scout."

The only thing that will impress people is if Luhnow's Astros eventually win.

Even the most optimistic Astros supporters won't predict that happens this season. Even Luhnow, who keeps guaranteeing the Astros will exceed expectations, understands those expectations are extremely low.

For now, the Astros are happy their offense has looked somewhat powerful this spring (40 home runs in the first 27 games). They'll tell you the attitude in camp has been overwhelmingly positive, despite all the negativity they hear from outside.

"Bo has an expression, that all that matters is what we talk about in here," infielder Brett Wallace said.

Bo is Bo Porter, the always-up first-year manager. You wonder how his extreme optimism will play if (when?) the Astros are 20 or 30 games under .500, and you wonder if he's just here to make things sound better until the Astros are ready to win.

And you wonder when that will even be. The bloggers say it will be soon.

The scouts who watch say they just don't see it.

"I don't see how," said one scout who has followed the team. "I haven't seen one player with the status of [Eric] Hosmer or [Mike] Moustakas or that type of guy. They've added all these former No. 1 picks, but the reason those guys were traded is they didn't perform for the team that had them.

"It's got a chance to be pretty ugly."

The Astros say it won't be. The pro-Astros crowd says that even if it's ugly now, it won't be ugly soon.

Someone's going to be wrong.

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