HOUSTON -- The guy who is the No. 2 starting pitcher for the Houston Astros, a team expected to lose a lot of games this summer, stood in the Houston dugout Saturday and talked pitching with former pitchers Orel Hershiser and Steve Sparks.
Well, let's rephrase that. The word talked doesn't really do justice to Lucas Harrell. With great passion, what he really did was articulate, advocate, enjoin, dictate, concede, commend and most importantly, he inquired, of Hershiser and Sparks. He listened, with even more energy than when he spoke, absorbing what he was told and repurposing it for his own use.
Harrell discussed his cutter grip, and the challenge of finishing a breaking ball instead of casting it. Without realizing it, he ran through a personal oral history of pitch sequences to B.J. Upton and a half-dozen other big league hitters he has faced -- the count, the pitch selection, the thought process, the chess match, the execution. He talked about how he gives signs to the catcher when the hitter's not looking. He talked about what he's seen in Mariano Rivera, Greg Maddux and others.
In those few minutes, Harrell inadvertently provided a reminder of why Opening Day is so great. Seven hundred fifty players -- the 25 on each of the 30 rosters -- will seek solutions, as Harrell does. Some might have less ardor than Harrell, but they begin today with the hope of change for the better, hope of improvement, hope for a breakthrough.
The Texas Rangers, who open against the Astros here tonight in the first game of the 2013 season, hope to find enough production from Lance Berkman, A.J. Pierzynski and others to offset the losses of Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, and return to the playoffs yet again. The Astros' Bo Porter will manage his first game here in Houston, his wife's hometown, believing that his vision for team-building matched that of owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Porter might've been a candidate to be the Washington Nationals' next manager to follow Davey Johnson, but the idea of creating something on a clean slate attracted him, in spite of the long road in front of the Astros.
Roy Halladay has a Hall of Fame resume and yet he will make his first start looking for solutions, as he evolves in the last year of his current contract. Bryce Harper, fueled by the experience and understanding he gained last summer, seems poised to overwhelm the game he has played since he was a little boy. Mike Trout wants fewer strikeouts and more walks.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have one focus: playoff berth or bust. B.J. and Justin Upton never really thought they would play together as professionals, but now when one brother turns in the Atlanta Braves outfield, he'll see the other. Joey Votto, an MVP winner, is forever convinced there is something he can do better. The Detroit Tigers will open this season burning to put themselves in position to take the last step in their climb.
Today, it all seems possible, whether you're Lucas Harrell or Justin Verlander. Carpe diem.
The Astros will try to make their dream a reality, writes Brian Smith.
• There's no getting around it: Starlin Castro just looks older. His face looks different, his upper body has filled out, and he just seems older. Teammates have noticed it, too, in little things, like how he runs out to his position, how he carries himself on the field, how much more focused he is. And there is this: "He's stopped swinging at so many bad pitches," said one teammate.
The first segment of Castro's career has been pretty good, albeit marked by moments of immaturity, like the night he wasn't watching as his teammate pitched. Castro turned 23 eight days ago, and since 1961, only five other players have had more hits than Castro and his 529 before their 23rd birthday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Since 1920, only 14 players have more hits than Castro before their 23rd birthday.
If Castro continues to develop his plate discipline, he could be a very different and even more dangerous hitter this season.
Paul Sullivan has nine questions about the Cubs.
• I've heard this over and over and over from evaluators who spent their spring in Arizona: The Mariners are going to be a very different offensive team, and will be improved. "I don't know if they'll be good enough to make the playoffs," said one veteran staffer, "but they killed the ball against us. Up and down the lineup. They're swinging it." He ran off the names of Michael Saunders, Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse, Justin Smoak. "Very different," he said.
There are more questions about the rotation, Ryan Divish writes.
• Predictions are one of the ridiculous things that we all do, and one of the most fun (see: NCAA tourney brackets). We have no idea who is going to get hurt, who is going to be traded, who is going to suffer some personal setback that affects his play. We don't know. We look at the sparse handful of tea leaves provided through the offseason and spring training, set against the backdrop against recent history, and we guess. Mostly, we are wrong.
But hey, here it goes:
I've got the Orioles, Tigers and Athletics winning their respective divisions in the AL, with the Rangers and Angels getting in as wild-card teams. I filed these predictions a few weeks ago, and if I had waited until today, I might've dropped the Angels, whose pitching problems have been acute this spring, with no end in sight. I have very little confidence in my AL East pick, because any of the five teams could finish first, depending on injuries, and each of them is capable of finishing last; I cannot remember a division with that kind of depth. I think the Orioles have much more pitching than they're given credit for. The Red Sox are going to be better. The Rays could win the division if Matt Moore takes a big stride forward as a pitcher. And the Blue Jays could win it if they solve their bullpen problems.
I can't remember the last time I picked the Yankees to miss the playoffs -- it might've been back in the Stump Merrill days -- but their lineup problems are deep and perhaps unsolvable. It's not clear what they're going to get out of Mark Teixeira, and if the legendarily tough Derek Jeter is too sore to run to first base as a DH, there's no telling if they'll get much help from him at all this summer.
The Tigers are ridiculously good, and unless they are hit by a wave of injuries, it's hard to imagine what would take them down.
In the National League, I had the Nationals, Reds and Diamondbacks winning their respective divisions, with the Braves and Giants making it as wild-card teams. If I could have a do-over today, I'd probably have the Giants as the division winner -- the injury to Arizona's Adam Eaton really hurts the Diamondbacks -- and I think I would put in the Phillies in as a wild-card team, because the three best teams in the NL East are going to absolutely feast on the Mets and Marlins, teams capable of losing 100-plus games.
The Nationals and Reds are the two most complete, well-rounded teams in the majors, and under that standard I think there's a gap between those two teams and the rest of baseball. The Tigers have a closer question, the Braves have a powerful lineup filled with guys who nonetheless strike out a lot, and the three AL West leaders all have some major question marks. But Washington and Cincinnati do everything well, and the two teams have depth.
The Dodgers have big names and big stars, but questions persist about many of them. Is Zack Greinke's elbow issue going to pop up again? Are Adrian Gonzalez's days as an elite power hitter behind him? Can Carl Crawford be healthy, and productive? Does Hanley Ramirez have a place to play as he comes back?
In the World Series, I've got the Nationals beating the Tigers, which is terrible news for both of those teams, because last year, I had Tampa Bay beating Arizona, and we know how that turned out.
• Douglas Hanks and Barry Jackson detail the ugly financial situation that hovers over the Marlins' new ballpark, with some access to financial records.
If the Marlins want anybody to take their financial plight seriously, they will need to fully open their financial records -- not partially.
• Bernie Miklasz believes the day is near that the National League adopts the designated hitter. I'm not sure that I disagree with him, because as he writes, the difference in the rules will be highlighted every day, all summer long.
The fight for jobs
2. The Dodgers kept another shortstop.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Nationals should lock up GM Mike Rizzo now, writes Thomas Boswell.
2. Ruben Amaro explained his 25-man roster.
Dings and dents
The Nationals are built to last, writes Adam Kilgore.
Halladay is facing his biggest challenge, writes Matt Gelb.
The Marlins are still worth watching, writes Dave George.
Greg Cote writes about the disconnect between the Marlins' leadership and the fans.
A deep rotation gives the Pirates lofty expectations, writes Rob Biertempfel.
Hal McCoy thinks the Reds' rotation should be solid.
Cubs fans are not quitters, writes Rick Morrissey.
For the Cardinals, the sky's the limit, writes Derrick Goold.
The Giants are ready to get cranked up, writes Steve Kroner.
The Dodgers have a lot of ability, Dylan Hernandez writes.
Petco Park might be more hitter friendly for the Padres, writes Dennis Lin.
Walt Weiss was born to run the Rockies, writes Troy Renck.
The Yankees got some worldly perspective at West Point.
Peter Schmuck thinks the Orioles will prove doubters wrong and make the playoffs.
The Red Sox are searching for an identity, writes Tim Britton.
All systems are go for the Blue Jays, says John Gibbons.
There is a method to the lineup madness for Joe Maddon.
Sheldon Ocker thinks Cleveland is an 80-win team because of its starting pitching.
A baserunner really irritated Ron Gardenhire, and the manager wasn't pleased with Mike Pelfrey's day. From the story:
Pelfrey allowed nine hits and four earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. "He got his innings in," Gardenhire said. "He got his pitches in. Put it that way. He took forever. You have to have a pace in a game. He's working on some things. ... So you give a little bit of leeway, but you have a pace to the game. I think that's why we had misplays, when you do that, just standing out there. It's a work in progress. Let's put it that way."
Pelfrey said he's ready to start the season.
"I am," Pelfrey said. "I thought that I was pretty good today; I wanted to work on my slider. ... It's my fourth-best pitch."
There is real hope for the Royals, writes Sam Mellinger.
The Tigers finished spring training in good shape.
The Rangers are opening their season with confidence, despite offseason misfires.
• There is sad news about Bob Turley.
• The Marlins have had 20 years of tumult, as Juan Rodriguez and Craig Davis write.
• The Brewers have a very modest TV contract, writes Bob Wolfley.
• The Astros have little leverage in their TV dispute.
• Bill Livingston writes about a new book called "The Pitch That Killed."
• There is a lot to like about this baseball season, writes Bob Klapisch.
Happy Opening Day, everybody.
And today will be better than yesterday.