Jordan Lyles, Astros will settle for small victories

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – After a right at Disney World and a left after 10, 11 – I don't know, just how many Denny's does one town really need? – you arrive at Astro-geddon and a lovely complex of diamonds and verdancy that otherwise hosts a 106-loss baseball team.

That's a lot of awful in the National League, and in the Central division on top of it, and a long, long year for a proud franchise that went to the World Series in the middle of the last decade.

Then there's the not entirely unreasonable argument that the Houston Astros could be worse in 2012. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn are gone, Brett Myers is in the bullpen waiting for leads to protect, Carlos Lee is still on the books, and almost everybody else who contributed to last season is back.

The Astros are, as Jeff Luhnow, their eager and affable new general manager, described them without a hint of apology, "a hybrid Triple A-major-league club." After being stripped down by outgoing owner Drayton McLane, sold to Jim Crane and 40-some partners and stripped down again, the Astros are what they are: the worst team in baseball, trying to get smarter and better, and still the worst team in baseball.

That said, I was drawn to the Astros when I read 21-year-old right-hander Jordan Lyles had discovered a new grip for his curveball and would test-drive it Monday against the Atlanta Braves.

This, after all, is a team of Jordan Lyleses. With few exceptions, they shouldn't be here yet, or be here in starting or featured jobs, so they're making fixes and learning new angles while preparing for their first or second or even third big-league seasons.

Lyles was the 38th pick in the 2008 draft. When he debuted in the majors last May he was just the second high school pitcher from his draft (along with Tyler Chatwood) to clear the minor leagues. He was 20, with all that suggests, meaning he was both mature beyond his seasons and somewhat vulnerable to whatever was around the next corner.

By August and September, Lyles was spending a little too much time on bat barrels, so he went home to South Carolina, thought that through, and early in camp had come up with a spiked-grip curveball to go with his precision fastball, signature changeup and trusty cutter. In bullpen sessions, the curveball was really coming along, too.

"We're giddy about it right now," Lyles said Monday morning.

Now this sort of thing is happening all over Florida and Arizona. But, it's unlikely there will be a younger or less experienced team than the Astros come opening day, so the micro-adjustments in Astros camp probably have outdistanced the macro-preparations in veteran camps by a long ways. If all goes according to the depth chart, when the Astros open April 6 against the Colorado Rockies, the seven position players not named Carlos Lee will have played an average of 126 major-league games.

That's not young, it's embryonic.

Lyles' curveball, then, would be a huge step in a young man's professional development. At the same time, it's a tiny part of what is happening all over Astros camp, and it ain't easy. Not anywhere and not for anyone.

Take Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay, who owns what is widely regarded as the best curveball in the game. An instinct for the curveball? Not quite. When they were in the Toronto Blue Jays' system together, Chris Carpenter taught Halladay a different grip for his curveball.

"I threw it for about a year and a half until I got it where I wanted it," Halladay said Sunday. "It's such a feel pitch. You just gotta find something that's comfortable for you."

And then take your beatings with it until the hitters tell you you've got it right.

"Yeah, baseball's a difficult game," Lyles said. "You're not going to pick up something overnight."

Good thing the Astros have a month.

A year ago, with four months of Pence and Bourn, they were 13th in the league in runs scored. They were last in ERA. They were next-to-last in fielding percentage.

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It wasn't necessarily the players' faults. The team was sold out from under them, the best players were traded for what amounted to organizational depth and to further tomorrow, and there were still lots of games to play. In some cases – Lyles', for one – promising players were getting important game experience. In others, you know, league rules say you have to field nine guys.

Luhnow arrived in early December from the Cardinals, where he'd functioned as scouting director and was excellent at it. In Houston, he hired a couple handfuls of intelligent people to fill his front office. And he began the process of putting together a competitive team. This, of course, won't be it. But, he contends, the market is big enough, a new media rights deal is coming in 2013, and organizational foundations of attitude and work ethic are being established.

They're going to go ahead and expect to win, he said, no matter what anyone says.

"Results," he said, "will eventually come."

One day, they will think big again, and presumably spend big again. After this season, they move to a league and a division – the American League West – where being very bad won't be quite as difficult.

But for the moment, they think small. They'll squeeze another pitch out of an at-bat. They'll throw strike one a few more times. They'll make the play they're supposed to make when they're supposed to make it.

They'll re-grip a curveball and try that.

It's what they have.

In two innings Monday, Lyles threw four of his new curveballs. Two were high and two bounced. None went were he'd hoped.

Afterward, however, he grinned. They were his first two innings of spring and his curveball wasn't the only pitch that wasn't quite right. He'd go back to "Broke" – pitching coach Doug Brocail – and they'd figure it out.

"The command wasn't there," Lyles said.

Probably, it was just some little thing. It often is. And there are lots of them in baseball's Astro-geddon.

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