Texas Rangers

MLB Insider: Astros will be better, but just how much?

To call the 2013 Houston Astros a bad team is an insult to bad things.

The combination of nuts and gum? A flat tire in a downpour? Sitting next to an infant on a cross-country flight?

All better than last year’s Astros, who went 51-111 and lost 17 of their 19 games against the Texas Rangers.

Even when things went well for the Astros, which seemed to happen regularly against Josh Hamilton and crew in Anaheim, waiting for them was a catastrophic bullpen collapse or a silly mistake by a player who should have been in the minors.

Often it was both.

But when the phone rang at Feldman Manor in the Bay Area over the off-season, right-hander Scott Feldman listened.

The Astros sold him on their minor league system, something he had heard before with the Rangers. The Astros made him feel the love, and showed it to him with a three-year contract worth $30 million and a start on Opening Day.

Unlike the vast majority of the Astros’ fan base, which uncorked a 0.0 TV rating last week for a game at Toronto, Feldman is a believer. He doesn’t have much of a choice, though, if he keeps it up he might be too valuable for the Astros to not unload at a future trade deadline.

Feldman has also seen what the future pieces look like. He knows how much of a difference a year of experience, good or 111-losses bad, can have on a group of players.

The Astros will be better this season. That’s their goal. It would seem impossible to be any worse.

The question, though, is how much better will they be?

“You can always make predictions, but you never know until you go out and play the games,” Feldman said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are young and want to prove all these people wrong.

“A lot of guys last year was their first year in the big leagues. A lot of guys are still learning at the big-league level. But that time you get, just being there and getting experiences like so many of the guys did last year, that can do nothing but help.”

Feldman is a wily veteran, at age 31, on a pitching staff that saw its bullpen bolstered in the off-season and has young starters who have shown well in flashes. Waiting in the minors are Mark Appel, the first pick in the 2013 draft; Mike Foltynewicz, the 19th pick in 2010; and Lance McCullers Jr., taken 41st in 2012.

The lineup was bolstered at the top with Dexter Fowler, a veteran speedster, but no lineup with Jose Altuve batting in the cleanup spot is going to contend for a playoff spot.

Help is coming from the minors with outfielder George Springer, despite the spring contract flap, and shortstop Carlos Correa, the first pick in 2012 and Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect.

Those players represented the Astros’ main selling point when general manager Jeff Luhnow negotiated with Feldman.

“I knew what their plan was going forward, and that last year was in the past and they’re looking to get better and better each year,” Feldman said. “Jeff’s building the team the right way. Obviously, losing 100 games three years in a row, a lot of fans don’t like that. You’ve got to find out who your core guys are, and I think he’s been doing that.”

For now, though, the Astros have to help themselves.

Feldman is doing his part, overcoming Opening Day jitters to beat the Yankees and slowing down the Angels in his second start. He limited the Rangers to two hits in seven scoreless innings Friday.

“I was glad to get that first one out of the way,” he said. “Opening Day, and [Derek] Jeter’s last Opening Day. I hit him in the wrist in his first at-bat.”

Now, he and the Astros are off and moving toward their simple goal for 2014.

“We talking about it in spring training quite a bit to be the most improved team in the American League,” he said. “Who knows how many wins or losses that’ll be this year, but hopefully we can get that goal. Next year will be even better, and to just keep building and building every year is the goal here.”

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