Weekly Hit Ground Ball: A 2013 return

After a one-year hiatus, my ‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball column returns today.

Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the key stories that caught my eye in MLB over the past week.

Lonestar State MLB season opener

Our progression through the long baseball-free winter months reached a significant moment this past week as ESPN announced which game would be the 2013 MLB regular season opener.

Baseball fans in the U.K. will be putting sleep to one side in the early hours of Monday 1 April as the Houston Astros make their American League debut against the Texas Rangers. The game will begin shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday 31 March, making for a 1 a.m. Bank Holiday Monday start for us.

The game choice is a slight surprise. The obvious choice for the marquee season opener was the game between the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers hosting the reigning World Series champions the San Francisco Giants.

Over the past ten seasons, the reigning World Series champions have featured in the opening game on seven occasions (taking the three Japan series in 2004, 2008 and 2012 out of the equation).

On the other three occasions, the Orioles celebrated 50 years in Baltimore to start the 2004 season against the Boston Red Sox, Ryan Zimmerman memorably launched the new Nationals Ballpark by launching a walk-off home run against the Atlanta Braves in 2008, and there was no single opening game in 2011 when the action started on a Thursday.

The Astros’ move into the American League is certainly a notable moment. It marks the end of the organization’s 51-season spell in the Senior Circuit and is the first time a team has switched leagues since the Milwaukee Brewers moved from the AL to the NL in 1998.  Combine that with this being the first game in a new American League local rivalry against the Rangers and it should be the sort of memorable occasion that the marquee opener deserves.

The only problem from a neutral’s perspective is that the Astros aren’t very good. And that’s putting it kindly.

Houston lost 107 games in 2012, after losing 106 in the previous year, and their offseason inactivity coupled with the move to a more competitive division doesn’t bode well for their prospects in 2013.  Their number one starting pitcher right now is Bud Norris and whilst he’s a decent enough starter who can rack up some strikeouts for your fantasy team, he isn’t anyone’s definition of an ace.

It’s a shame that the Astros are starting this new era whilst being in the early stages of a rebuilding phase. The Major League team and farm system had needed an overhaul since 2009, but stubbornness alongside the protracted sale of the organization delayed the process for a couple of years and it’s probable that Astros fans will be waiting until 2015 or 2016 before they start to see real progress at the Major League level.

But let’s not be too negative. Every baseball fan knows that however mediocre a team may look on paper, and however poorly they may perform over the course of a season, they are capable of pulling out a win on any given day or night.

The Astros played six Interleague games against the Rangers last season. They lost five of them, but they did gain a 6-5 victory over their rivals on 19 May at Minute Maid Park.

One solitary win doesn’t count for much in the general scheme of things; however wouldn’t it be great if the unfancied Astros shocked the Rangers with an Opening Night victory, sending their fans home happy, decked out in clothing adorned with their new logo and colour scheme, toasting the joy of being able to claim that they have the best record in the Majors, for one night at least.

It could come true, or they could be put to the sword by a Texas team intent on showing the locals how tough life will be in the AL West.

The 2013 regular season opener will not just be a great occasion for the Astros, it will be an instant reminder, as another season gets underway, of one of the great wonders of baseball: you never know what’s going to happen.

Berkman joins the Rangers

Saturday’s news that Lance Berkman has agreed a one-year,$10m contract with the Texas Rangers will bring an extra storyline to the opening game.

Berkman is of course an Astros hero having been a star on the team from 1999 to 2010. Injury wrecked his 2012 season with the St. Louis Cardinals, restricting him to only 32 games; however, that followed a memorable 2011 campaign in which he helped the Cards to a World Series win.

Moving to the AL, where his knees can be rested as a Designated Hitter, increases the odds that Berkman will be able to contribute throughout the season. If he does, the Rangers’ offence is really starting to shape up again. This is their projected batting lineup against right-handed pitchers, as proposed by the brilliant MLBDepthCharts website:

1 2B Ian Kinsler
2 SS Elvis Andrus
3 LF David Murphy*
4 3B Adrian Beltre
5 DH Lance Berkman**
6 RF Nelson Cruz
7 C A.J. Pierzynski*
8 1B Mitch Moreland*
9 CF Leonys Martin*

Projected Bench
C Geovany Soto
IF/OF Leury Garcia
IF/OF Mike Olt
OF Craig Gentry

(* = left-handed hitter, ** = switch-hitter).

The one criticism you could level at the line-up is that David Murphy is not an ideal Number Three hitter, but if they could add another quality bat to the outfield mix – and they continue to be linked with a trade for Arizona’s Justin Upton – then it would become a very well-balanced offence.

The Rangers have lost several key players this offseason, not least Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, whilst missing out on pitching targets such as Zack Greinke and James Shields.  However one look at their roster tells you that it would be a grave mistake to underestimate how good a team they remain.

Optimism in Cleveland

Positivity and optimism was overflowing this week in Cleveland as the Indians formally announced the signing of free agent outfielder Nick Swisher.

The former Yankee is one of the most gregarious players in MLB so the level of excitement coming from the player was no surprise. However, there seemed to be a wider sense at the press conference that Cleveland, with Terry Francona at the helm, are on their way up.

Moving from a 68-94 record in 2012 to challenging the formidable Detroit Tigers in 2013 may be beyond them, but there are genuine reasons for fans of the Tribe to look forward to the coming season with optimism that their team is heading in the right direction once again.

 

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