Yes, you read that correctly. The Cleveland Indians are taking on the Houston Astros in a three-game series set to begin tonight at Minute Maid Park. No, this is not interleague play rearing its ugly head. This is a full-fledged American League matchup that is the result of Major League baseball’s offseason realignment.
With the Astros now official members of the AL West, the Indians get to venture down to Houston at least once a year every year from here on out and they get to use a DH. This is different from years past in which the Indians would be forced into double switches and an assortment of jumbled lineups in an attempt to make up for the loss of Travis Hafner‘s bat. Despite that, playing the Astros and calling it a matchup of American League teams is going to take some getting used to. As a matter of fact, if I can be blatantly honest here for a second, it’s down right weird and I don’t like it.
Change is a bitter pill to swallow.
Moving on from the strangeness of this whole set up and getting into the games themselves, this series is a matchup of two teams struggling to find their way in 2013, but for two very different reasons. As we all know, the Indians are a team that went out and spent this offseason in the hopes of competing for a division crown or at worst one of the two available wild card spots. Right now, their struggles are due more to getting acclimated with one another and developing a sense of chemistry than because of a lack of actual talent on the field. Despite the offensive woes and pitching problems, there is still reason to believe that the Indians can turn things around and turn 2013 into a winning season.
The Astros, on the other hand, are on a path completely opposite of the Indians. They spent their offseason slashing payroll and acquiring assets with which to build around in the future. Their end goal is not to compete in 2013 or even 2014. The Astros are looking to build their farm system for the future. It a massive rebuild, one that has drawn the ire of their fans and even some pundits who would rather see the team abandon a set plan in the hopes of building a flash in the pan contender that is not sustainable over the long haul.
However, that’s not to say the current big league club for the Astros doesn’t have some talent that can make life difficult on the opposition. Second baseman Jose Altuve, despite his diminutive stature, is an absolute terror both at the plate and on the base paths. He currently leads the team in both batting average and on base percentage. He was their lone All-Star representative last season but it wasn’t a token appearance. Altuve is a legitimate star in the making who gets lost in the shuffle thanks in part to the lineup and luckluster team that surrounds him.
Filling out the outfield for the Astros is a unique combination of speed, power, and veteran leadership. Left fielder Chris Carter is a legitimate power threat, leading the team in home runs and RBI. Center fielder Justin Maxwell is a potential star in the making. He has a unique combination of speed and raw power. When everything is clicking, he’s fun as hell to watch. But when it’s not, things can get ugly. As for right field, veteran Rick Ankiel provides some power and speed to go along with a veteran presence this young team needs.
Last but not least, the Astros also have newly acquired designated hitter Carlos Pena. During his prime years with the Rays, Pena was a perennial 40-plus home run and 100-plus RBI power threat. In recent years his power has lessened along with his plate discipline (in his defense, his plate discipline was never all that great to begin with), but that doesn’t mean he can’t still turn on a fast ball out over the plate.
Other than those few players, the current roster is pretty bare. That includes the pitching staff. Bud Norris can turn in the occasional magnificent performance, but after him it’s a rag-tag group pieced together on a budget. It’s the type of pitching staff that could go a long way in helping a struggling Indian offense regain its mojo.
So will the Astros serve as the medicine for what ails the Tribe? Hopefully. Coming off of a demoralizing opening home stand that saw them lose six out of eight games, the Indians need a pick me up. If they can’t find a way to become a more efficient offensive machine and get more runs across the plate this could end up being a frustrating weekend that leaves all of us with even more questions about what lies ahead in 2013.