ANAHEIM, Calif. – It's here, it's here, it's, well, actually, it's only almost here. But it's close. It's so close.
The annual first-year player draft, sometimes – OK, never – called the Rule 4 draft, is but 2½ weeks away and, as they say in the business, the MLB draft doesn't really start until the Houston Astros make a pick.
This is what they say in the business when you lose 106 or so games every year.
The Astros appear to be trundling into that general neighborhood again, which means there are a handful of very important days every year, starting with three home games against the New York Yankees and pretty much ending on draft day, which this year falls on June 5.
There's a plan, you see. And good plans require smart people to think them up, and time and patience to mature, and some luck and, of course, a draft day, which is almost here, which is good, because it's a huge part of the plan. Draft day is very exciting in Houston, like Christmas and the World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest all rolled into one, and everyone monitors it very closely.
Like Jose Altuve.
"No, I don't," he said. "I wasn't drafted, so…"
But others are into it.
Like Collin McHugh.
"I'm really not."
Well, Bo Porter, for one.
"Not really. We don't have time. I worry about beating the Angels tonight."
"I think so. I'll probably pay attention to it, just because it's kind of interesting. I know who we got the last couple years."
By virtue of their – let's see – 111 losses last season, the Astros will choose first, like they did last year. And the year before that. By many accounts, they've scouted and selected wisely in the past, and are in a reasonable position to do so again (most folks have them taking N.C. State lefty Carlos Rodon). Their farm system is well thought of, and their first pick from '11 – George Springer – has played right field for the big-league team for the past month and performed quite capably.
So, as far as anyone knows, it's coming, and one day the Astros will be good again, maybe before the Chicago Cubs, who appear to have a similar plan, only louder. But, first, there must be draft days, lots of them, and conversations about tomorrow, and long, slow breaths, and empty ballparks, and last-place finishes, none of which are a lot of fun.
Meanwhile, they've won five of their past six games, including a 5-2 pasting of the Angels here Monday night, and have won three consecutive games for the first time since – let's see – early September. Their starting pitching is presentable. They've played reasonable defense. They do hit some home runs.
The Angels were playing about as well as anybody, and their best starter – Garrett Richards – was on the mound Monday night, except the best pitcher on the field was Dallas Keuchel, and of the two teams here, the Astros looked like the ones who wanted to be. For a night, it was more than half the battle.
So that's what "meanwhile" is going to have to look like if the Astros are going to survive between draft days. They are 17-28. Through 45 games last season: 13-32. A day, a game, an inning, an inch at a time, they found four wins somewhere. In that starting rotation, perhaps, which has outpitched the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. In an offense that hasn't been very good, but has out-OPSed the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals. In the wonderful Altuve, who does so much so well. In Keuchel, who came within a Mike Trout infield single of consecutive shutouts.
Not in the bullpen. That's a wreck.
"We have different areas of progress," said Porter, who seems to believe so hard it hurts. "Individually, we see how they're progressing. When you look at the overall improvements of the ballclub, that is something we'll review at the end of the year. I'm not going to put a number on how many wins we need to have at the end of the season."
The reality is, it's mid-May and nobody is more in last place than the last-place Astros. They're not a good team. That's the plan they've chosen. Except there are 25 guys who show up expecting otherwise, or at least most of the 25, and many try as hard as they can, and sometimes that's good enough.
Keuchel called it, "Being overshadowed by the rebuilding process," and asked to explain that, said, "I just think that we've got guys out here competing. A play or two last year and we could have had a lot more wins."
And while "a play or two" would have at best gotten them to 53 wins, you get the idea.
A year later, he said, they're still playing hard, and, "You're seeing it rewarded."
Yes, they've had a hell of a week. Keuchel was terrific Monday night. Altuve was the finest player in the ballpark, both sides of the ball. They made plays, they got after an opposing pitcher who wasn't at his best, and they were rewarded for their commitment to the process. To the journey, long as it is.
Along with all of that, they drew three hours closer to the draft. Which, for the moment, is the point.
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