Rangers, Astros begin new eras, as MLB season kicks off in Houston

With the Houston Astros' move to the American League the hope is that one day they will be able play meaningful games against the Texas Rangers.

It likely won't be this year, though.

On Sunday the two Lone Star State rivals kick off the 2013 Major League Baseball season, as Houston makes its AL debut against the Rangers at Minute Maid Park.

Texas, of course, has reached the postseason, in each of the last three seasons, while the Astros capped their National League run a year ago with a second straight 100-plus loss season.

But, as bad as the taste was in the Astros' mouth at the end of last year, it may have been worse for the Rangers.

Texas seemingly had everything going there way and held a 5 1/2-game lead in the American League West as late as Sept. 6. However, the wheels fell off for manager Ron Washington and the Rangers ended the season losing seven of nine, including the final three to the Oakland Athletics in a series to decide the division.

To make matters worse, the Rangers then lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the one-game wild card playoff to end their season.

Now the Rangers enter the 2013 campaign with even more uncertainty as free agent Josh Hamilton bolted to the division rival Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, slugger Mike Napoli left for Boston and team leader Michael Young was traded to Philadelphia.

General manager Jon Daniels, who is reportedly in a power struggle with team owner Nolan Ryan, re-armed his offense with aging veterans like Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski, but the Rangers will be hard pressed to find someone to match the near Triple Crown production of Hamilton.

Berkman, of course, spent the first the first 11 1/2 years of his career with the Astros.

"I think we'll have a very good club," Washington said. "We've still got a very good nucleus. We certainly added some winning pieces in Pierzynski and Berkman. They've won World Series. They've always been winners wherever they are. Nothing will change here."

One of those winning pieces is left-hander Matt Harrison, who enjoyed a breakout 2012 season, going 18-11 with a 3.29 ERA in 213 1/3 innings (32 starts).

It was the lefty's second consecutive season with an ERA of less than 3.40 and at least 185 innings pitched. His reward was a 5-year, $55 million contract extension in the offseason.

While the Rangers have their eyes on another postseason appearance, there are no such hopes in Astros-land. In fact the team enters the season with a $25 million payroll, or $4 million less than what injured New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez is slated to earn this season.

And though it probably does little to salve the angst in the front office's executive suite, Houston could scarcely get much worse than they've been the last two seasons.

A 56-win nightmare in 2011 was followed by just 55 wins last season, hardly the sort of farewell the 51-year-old franchise had in mind before leaving the NL Central for new surroundings in the AL West.

Problem is, it's not as if a change of scenery is a historic cure-all.

The last time a team swapped leagues and divisions was back in 1998, when the Milwaukee Brewers left the AL Central for its similarly named NL counterpart - and went from third in the former to fifth in the latter while winning 78 and 74 games, respectively.

Few expect the Astros to even approach those numbers in the AL in year one, but, for his sake, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow at least expects stability under new manager Bo Porter.

"People know Bo is going to be here for a long time," he said. "He could be one of those guys who is an Astros manager for decades, not just years. The players knowing that this is the group that's going to be here. It begins to lay the foundation for stability, which is really what we're looking for."

Right-hander Bud Norris gets the call for the Astros in Sunday's opener. Norris was brilliant coming out of the gates last year, as he won five of his first six decisions, while pitching to a 3.14 ERA through nine starts.

However, the wheels fell off from there and he ended the year, 7-13 with a 4.65 ERA.

Texas has dominated the Astros over the past four years, winning 19 of the 24 matchups.