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2011 Gives Astros And Their Fans Blank Slate

2011 promises to be a season like no other in Houston. But should we be expecting to laugh or cry at our team's performance as the year unfolds?

This week Rob Neyer wrote a send-up of the Baltimore Orioles, and came up with reasons why a team that has 96 and 98 losses in the last two years could break .500 in the toughest division in baseball. Call me crazy, but I could not see this article being written about the Astros. That's not being critical about Neyer, but one of my casual observations. It has been a doom-and-gloom sort of winter, but spring is finally here. 

Spring Training heralds a turning of the page, a blank slate for every position player and pitcher. 

I always believe that the best course of action before a season is to have no level of expectation good or bad, and to get lost in the team's performance, savoring the small victories as they come rather than just tempering expectation levels. Perhaps we can go an entire month without griping about paying Carlos Lee $18.5m this year. 

But my advice is paraphrased nicely in the great oracle that is the HHGTTG:

The guide's omissions are less easily rationalised. There is nothing on any of its pages to tell you on which planets you can expect suddenly to encounter fifteen mile high statues of yourself, nor how to react if it is immediately apparent that they have become colonies for flocks of giant birds. The nearest approach the Guide makes to this matter is on page seven-thousand-and-twenty-three, which includes the words "expect the unexpected." This advice has annoyed many Hitch-Hikers in that it is 'A' - glib, and 'B' - a contradiction in terms. 

But it holds. Expect the unexpected, even if it is a contradiction in terms.

After all, if Jose Bautista can hit 54 home runs in a single-season and then get a five-year $64m contract (which could rise to $78m), having hit 59 over the previous six seasons then almost anything is possible. He went from an AB/HR ratio of 29.7 before 2010 to 10.5 last season. 

Given this baseball miracle, is it so hard to suggest that Brett Wallace might fill the hole in his swing, Bud Norris and Chris Johnson might be key contributors, Jason Castro might have a solid sophomore season while the rotation and bullpen might pitch like it did in the second-half. 

If you missed this Astros County article on 'Five Burning Questions for 2011' then I suggest you have a look now. Being an Astro fan isn't about expecting 90-win seasons. That's for other teams. I've reached acceptance, so should everyone else. This is our team, win or lose. 

Whether fans on the fringes will show up at the ballpark when owner Drayton McLane has just raised ticket prices is another matter. Considering the attendances have been gradually slipping from 3 million in 2007 to 2.3m in 2010, another slippage of 150-200,000 should be expected in 2011. Unless they can hold onto .500 for a lot longer than they did last season.

Because as we all remember the Astros managed to cling onto the .500 mark for three hours at 0-0, and then it was gone, never to be seen again. And that started with six games at home.  Now they start the season with six games on the road, playing their first three at Citizens Bank Park, and even with their impressive record at the Phillies latest home they will likely face Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt before heading on to Cincinnati for another three with the NL Central champs. After that they return home for a 10-game homestand with the Marlins, Cubs and Padres

Unless you have a runaway division leader a .500 team can still be relevant into August and September even if they aren't in 'contention', and while the Astros seem to have been banished to irrelevancy by most agencies within baseball, Athlon's team preview was the most positive I've seen for years, calling them an 'interesting team'. 

Even flawed Astros teams, as the last half-decade has shown us, can go on at least one crazy run. The coaches, who were new at the start of last season have had time to bed in. Mike Barnett will take over the hitting coach duties, and we will see if he can do anything to jog an offense that looked anemic through huge swathes of last season. 

Most encouraging are comments made by the Astros' pitchers about 2010 and Brad Arnsberg. Given the rotation's superlative performance in the second half some have postulated that they started to motor when they got on board 100% with what Arnberg was telling them. If that is the case it bodes well for 2011. 

"Making adjustments with a brand new coaching staff was hard for everyone last year," Norris said. "It might take us half a season. That's pretty much what it did for us."

"It took me a while to get into his [Wandy Rodriguez] house, but when he let me in and realized that I might be a little smarter than I look, we became great friends," Arnsberg said. 

 And with a new generation of clubhouse leaders in Hunter Pence and Brett Myers, the team has shed most of the veterans who started last year on the roster. Whether this energy and youthful enthusiasm can translate into success is anyone's guess. 

Hence why we tune-in on a daily basis.  

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.