For the first time in history, the Oakland A's will head to Houston to face off against their new division rivals – a team that is coming off setting a major league record for strikeouts in the first three games of the season after whiffing 43 times against the Texas Rangers.
Expectations for the Astros couldn't be much lower coming into the season, as the club's front office has vowed to stick with a rebuilding process that could last a few seasons in order to strengthen their organization from the bottom up. Considering the Astros are coming off two-consecutive 100-loss seasons, the new brass' decision to go with patience hasn't gone without criticism, as would be expected.
The Astros entered the season without a single long-term contract commitment and a number of relatively talented young players. But none of those players have a proven major league track record, which could lead to a third-consecutive 100-loss season while the team gets used to the rigors of the American League West.
An interesting wrinkle into the new division rivalry is the number of former A's on the Astros roster. Brad Peacock, Chris Carter and Carlos Pena headline the list that grew to include left-hander Travis Blackley (via trade) on Thursday. Houston sent over minor league outfielder Jake Goebbert, who figures to join Double-A Midland.
Blackley was a key piece to an excellent A's pitching staff in 2012, but fell victim to the numbers game after having a terrible spring training where he allowed 20 earned runs in 12.2 innings.
Oakland heads into the series on a mini-two-game winning streak after dropping the season's first two games to the Seattle Mariners. The A's notched just six hits over those two contests, but combined for 21 in the final two games of the series when they out-scored Seattle, 14-4.
Newcomer Jed Lowrie – a former Astro - has gotten off to a great start with his new team, already having four doubles in as many games and a home run. After being moved from the fifth spot in the lineup (where he went 1 for 6) to the No. 2-hole, Lowrie has gone 5-for-7 and scored three runs.
With Lowrie hitting second, the A's have a formidable switch-hitting duo atop the lineup with Coco Crisp leading off. The table-setters being productive take a lot of pressure off players such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss, who won't have to carry the offense if the runners get on base ahead of them.
Cespedes has also gotten off to a nice start with two homers and four driven to start his sophomore season. His middle-of-the-lineup mate Reddick didn't get his first hit until Thursday, but did something more encouraging than perhaps any statistics could indicate this early in the year.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Reddick lined a 1-1 offering the other way off the left-field wall for a double that drove in Lowrie. Although Reddick's power numbers were outstanding in his first full season in the big leagues, he was very susceptible to pulling off pitches and attempting to yank everything over the right field wall. Teams exploited that late in the year, which was a likely reason for his struggles down the stretch and in the playoffs. For him to become a complete hitter, he will need to continue to work outside pitches the other way, which he did for the first time in 2013 on Thursday.
Former A's top prospect and 2012 contributor Chris Carter has taken over the left field job in Houston. It was a position that Carter struggled to play in the minor leagues, but the Astros hope the small dimensions in their home park can make things easier on the natural first baseman. Carter finally showed he was able to hit for good power in the majors by hitting 16 homers in 67 games for the A's last season, but his struggles down the stretch kept him out of the lineup in the postseason.
Peacock came to the A's from Washington for Gio Gonzalez and was hit-and-miss in his first season in Oakland's organization. He struggled with a number of adjustments he was forced to make with his new club and was inconsistent with Triple-A Sacramento. Peacock is coming off a solid spring where allowed less hits than innings pitched.
Based on his spring numbers and the fact he made Houston's rotation out of camp, there's reason to believe Peacock's 2012 season was just a bump in the road rather than a true indicator of his potential. On the other hand, making the Astros' rotation this year might be less significant simply because it's the Astros, a team that figures to lose 100 games. Regardless, Peacock has very good stuff, including a plus fastball and knuckle curveball that serves as an outstanding out-pitch.
Straily is coming off an outstanding 2012 that saw him catapult his career from Double-A to the major leagues thanks to gaudy strikeout numbers, where he exhibited a minor league strikeout rate akin to Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg. But he had an up-and-down run in the big leagues and wasn't able to get away with nearly as much against major league hitters. He allowed 11 home runs in 39.1 innings, four of which game in his August 8 start against the Los Angeles Angels.
Straily has a full four-pitch array of offerings that helped his rapid advancement up to the major leagues. But none of his off-speed offerings would be considered ‘plus,' making his ability to locate his pitches paramount to any success. His fastball is above-average and he's still working on two-seam offering that should help him improve upon his 30 percent ground ball rate.
Straily will get his share of strikeouts with his ability to change elevations on his pitches, especially his fastball, but he'll need to work down in the zone if he wants to better his 6.48 FIP from 2012. It has been reported Straily will only make one start before being demoted to Sacramento to allow Bartolo Colon back into the rotation following the five games remaining on his suspension from last year.
Colon will make his debut Saturday against Erik Bedard. The portly right-hander will start for the A's Saturday instead of waiting a turn in the rotation to allow all of the A's young starters two extra days' rest after throwing so many innings a year ago. Finding time off for key players will be an ongoing theme this season, as A's manager Bob Melvin will look to combat late-season struggles that hurt the A's in the playoffs against the Tigers.
There's no knowing what kind of pitcher Colon will be coming off his suspension a year ago. The A's interest in the right-hander before last season came from his performance in 2011 in New York, which could have been aided by whatever performance enhancing drugs he was suspended for in 2012.
Colon's spring didn't prove anything, except for the fact that he could throw strikes. He allowed 31 hits in 20 innings while only walking one hitter, indicating that he was in the strike zone consistently, which was likely his main goal after not throwing in a game since midway through the summer. When Colon is at his best, he's throwing his two-seam fastball to either side of the plate while staying down in the zone to get ground balls at an outstanding rate.
When Colon isn't able to find the edges of the strike zone, he has proven to be very hittable. If he's unable to prove performance enhancers didn't play a role in his successes from the last two years, the A's will look to Straily or perhaps top prospect Sonny Gray, who is getting rave reviews from his coaches at Triple-A Sacramento.
Bedard only threw six innings this spring after dealing with a hip strain that forced him to miss 12 days in camp. The left-hander has had a litany of injuries throughout his career and was signed this offseason to a low-risk, one-year deal worth $1.5 million by the Astros.
Bedard is coming off a 2012 season where he went 7-14 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and allowed more than four walks per nine innings in 125.2 frames. His inflated .314 BABIP likely led to a FIP of nearly a run less than his 5.01 ERA, which can give Houston some hope for 2013.
The 10-year veteran got off to a great start with Pittsburgh, with a 2.65 ERA in his first six starts. But he suffered back spasms and wasn't the same after, allowing a 791 OPS against. Given his history, it's unlikely Bedard stays healthy for a full season, but could string together some solid starts as he faces off against other teams' No. 5 starters.
Sunday's game will see a pair of number one starters make their second starts of the year, when Houston's Bud Norris (1-0, 3.18 ERA) takes on Brett Anderson (0-1, 2.57). Norris was the Astros' opening night starter and earned a win over the Texas Rangers to kick off the year. Norris went 5.2 innings, allowed five hits and three walks to a talented Texas lineup en route to the club's only victory so far.
Norris is a hard-throwing strikeout pitcher that gets more fly balls than ground balls, which could hurt him at Minute Maid Park. If Norris is able to keep the A's in the ballpark, Oakland could be a good matchup for him considering how apt they are to the strikeout. The key for Norris – as any other pitcher facing the A's – will be to keep Crisp and Lowrie off the bases in front of the heart of the order.
Anderson comes into Sunday's start after losing to Felix Hernandez on opening night. The talented lefty threw well, allowing just four hits in seven innings, but walked four. The A's couldn't muster up any offense against Hernandez, who shut out Oakland en route to the 2-0 win.
Anderson should be looking forward to facing an Astros lineup that will likely break the A's record for strikeouts that the A's set in 2012. Carlos Pena is the only Astro that has ever faced Anderson. Pena has gone 3-for-8 with a pair of doubles and a homer. Otherwise, none of Houston's hitters have seen Anderson's slider, which is one of the best from the left side of the rubber in the American League.
One roster note: Moss is back in the Bay Area, awaiting the birth of his child. He is expected to be placed on the paternity list at some point during the series, at which time Shane Peterson will be activated to make his major league debut. Peterson was pulled early in the Sacramento River Cats' Opening Day game on Thursday after going 1-for-1 with a walk and a double in two plate appearances.