HOUSTON — The Houston Astros spent the offseason reeling from a sign-stealing scandal that cost manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs.
Veteran Dusty Baker took over as the manager of the American League champions just before spring training. It was a choice owner Jim Crane made in large part because he wanted an old-school disciplinarian to try and distance the Astros from the damage the previous regime did to the team and its image.
The change didn’t stop the Astros from being the villains of baseball this spring. The players, none of whom were punished for their roles in the scandal, were heckled and booed at workouts and during the few games they played before baseball was shut down because of the pandemic.
They were sure to face hostile crowds on every road trip. But the team got a respite: The season was delayed for months and now the 60-game sprint will be played in empty stadiums.
Baker, the 71-year-old manager who may be looking at his last bid for a World Series title, hopes the scandal doesn’t hang over the team when the season finally begins July 24 at home against Seattle.
“It’s over now,” he said. “I hope we don’t have to keep rehashing that over and over throughout the course of the year. It’s behind us. I’d like to leave it behind us.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred concluded in January the Astros violated rules by using a television camera to steal catchers’ signs during their run to the 2017 World Series title and again during the 2018 season. Hinch and Luhnow were suspended for one season before being fired by Crane.
Crane and many of the players still on the team who were involved in the scandal, including third baseman Alex Bregman and second baseman Jose Altuve, spent the early part of spring training apologizing for what happened, but it did little to quell the anger toward the Astros.
“We’ve asked for forgiveness,” Baker said. “We’ve expressed sorrow, some guilt, some sadness which I’ve seen earlier before the layoff here. So, I’m just hoping we can get back to business and put this all behind us.”
Altuve wouldn’t answer when asked if he thought the time off would make it easier from the team to move on or if it had given people time to forgive the Astros.
Instead he talked about the challenges of the 60-game season and said he’s excited to get back on the field.
“We now have to adjust ourselves to a shorter season, so it might play a little different, but I have the same thinking about my team,” he said. “I like the team we have.”
The Astros are preparing for the possibility of being without designated hitter Yordan Alvarez for the start of the season and potentially longer. Last year’s AL Rookie of the Year has not yet reported for camp for an undisclosed reason and was placed on the injured list Sunday. Alvarez hit 27 homers with 78 RBIs in just 87 games last season. General manager James Click said they could use several different players at DH if Alvarez is unable to play.
Houston returns 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander to lead the rotation but lost fellow ace Gerrit Cole to the New York Yankees in free agency. Verlander had groin surgery in March but is healthy now and should be ready to start on opening day. Behind him is veteran Zack Greinke, who joined the team last year at the trade deadline, and third in the rotation is Lance McCullers. The Astros are counting on McCullers to have a big season in his return after missing last season following Tommy John surgery.
“He’s going to be a big part of our success,” Baker said. “Losing Gerrit Cole, hopefully he can step in and give us some quality starts, because before he got hurt the guy was one of the best around.”
The back end of the rotation is less solid with several players vying for the last two spots. Right-hander Jose Urquidy was put on the injured list on Sunday for an undisclosed reason.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
There aren’t any rookies on Houston’s roster that are expected to contribute this season, but this could be the season where Kyle Tucker finally breaks out. Tucker, who can play outfield and first base, has appeared in just 50 MLB games over the past two seasons. Tucker, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2015 draft, hit 34 homers with 97 RBIs in Triple-A last season.