By PAUL NEWBERRY
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Spring training is supposed to be a time of hope.
Unless you’re the Houston Astros. Or the Miami Marlins.
With no-name rosters and in the midst of massive rebuilding jobs, Houston and Miami are more likely to be remembered as among the worst teams in recent history than for making an improbable run at the playoffs.
The Astros lost 107 games last year, after 106 defeats in 2011. Houston’s main goal will be trying to avoid becoming the first team since the expansion New York Mets in the 1960s to lose at least 106 games in three straight seasons.
“No one expects us to do well,” Lucas Harrell said Thursday, after pitching in a spring training game against the New York Yankees. “So, when we do well, it’s going to be kind of like, ‘Oh, wow.’ I definitely think we have a chance to shock a lot of people this year.”
Brave words, especially when the Astros face the additional burden of moving from the NL into what looks like the toughest division in baseball, the AL West. They’ll be matched regularly against two 2012 playoff teams — Oakland and Texas — plus the high-priced Los Angeles Angels, who have three of the game’s most dynamic players: Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout.
Down in Miami, owner Jeffrey Loria totally dismantled the Marlins after a disappointing debut season in a new stadium paid for largely with public tax dollars. He’s now a pariah in south Florida and a laughingstock through the rest of the baseball, settling for a roster that might do pretty well in Triple-A — but not in the big leagues.
“I’m still trying to learn their names,” said Davey Johnson, manager of the NL East champion Washington Nationals. “I’m not even sure what position the names are going in.”
He’s not the only one.
After trading away nearly all their high-priced players in one stunning offseason, the Marlins are prepared to send out a lineup that includes five players with less two full seasons in the big leagues, plus a rotation that has only one starter with as many as 10 wins in a season.
“I feel like we have a plan,” first-year manager Mike Redmond said. “Will it take a few years? Maybe. But we feel like we have a plan that’s going to work with a lot of young players and a lot of young talent. I’m looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity.”
Redmond keeps reminding his players he was one of 19 rookies on the 1998 Marlins, the remnants of a World Series title team that was torn apart by a previous owner. Five years later, many of those young players were the centerpiece of another championship squad.
Of course, Redmond probably doesn’t tell his team how the Marlins finished in ‘98 — 54-108.
“It’s a fresh start,” he said. “At the end of the day, man, nobody gives us a chance to do anything. We have the ability to go out and surprise some teams. I think we’re a better team than people give us credit for. But at the end of the day, we’re got to go out there and prove that.”
According to STATS, only 21 teams have finished with a winning percentage of .300 or less since 1900 — just two of those (the 1962 New York Mets, in their first season, and the 2003 Detroit Tigers) in the 162-game era. To avoid joining that infamous list, Miami and Houston will have to win 49 games this season, which might be a challenge.
Certainly, both teams can expect to play before lots of empty seats.
Last season, the Marlins drew 2.2 million to their retractable roof stadium, which was the third-highest total in franchise history but ranked only 12th in the NL and was far below expectations. Not surprisingly after the offseason purge, season-ticket sales have slumped badly and Miami won’t come anywhere close to drawing that many fans in 2013.
Houston’s attendance plummeted to a NL-worst 1.6 million last season, its lowest total in 17 years, and the lack of major moves during the offseason is likely to send it dipping even more.
Redmond doesn’t think the ill will toward Loria will have any impact on the players. After all, it’s not their fault Miami traded away anyone making a significant salary.
“Players are a lot more resilient to that stuff than people think and give them credit for,” he said. “When you get in the flow of the season, all you’re focused on is playing the game and doing what you’re in control of, and that’s how you play. I don’t foresee any distractions.”
Then, he added, “Would it be nice to have 40,000 in the stands every night? Absolutely. But we can’t control that.”
The Astros reached the World Series for the first time in franchise history just eight years ago, but that came as a winning era led by Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell was winding down. Suddenly, those guys were gone, and Houston’s farm system fell on hard times. The bottom fell out two years ago, and the ownership decided to rebuild with youth rather than go for a quick fix.
That may be the right decision long-term, but it’s painful to watch at the moment.
Last season, Houston’s active payroll dipped as low as $21.3 million at one point. This year, it won’t be much higher. Not with a rotation that has only one pitcher coming off a year with double-figure wins (Harrell, at 11-11). Not with a lineup that includes no one who hit even 20 homers a season ago. Not with a new closer (Jose Veras) who is on his fourth team in four years and had all of one save in 2012.
It certainly looked like the Astros had thrown in the towel on another season when shortstop Jed Lowrie was dealt to Oakland just before the start of spring training, yet another payroll-cutting move.
Even so, Harrell said he looks forward to going against the AL West powerhouses.
If nothing else, it will show the Astros just how far they have to go.
“It’s one of the best divisions in baseball, and we’re moving into it,” the pitcher said. “We want to kind of see where we’re at, who can make it, who can stick. It’s a great division to be in. Either we’ll have success or not.”
Bet on the latter.