Astros starting fresh in more ways than one

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — Bo Porter is taking over a team that

lost 213 games the last two years.

The payroll has been slashed and expectations are low for the Houston Astros, but don't expect their new manager to rule with

an iron fist. Porter wants his players to be themselves.

"We have standards of what it is to be a

Houston Astro," Porter said. "At the same time, this is a major league

clubhouse.

It's a bunch of different guys. You want it to be loose. You want

it to be fun. You want them to be able to be who they are."

The Astros are starting fresh, and this

season will certainly be unique for them. Houston is moving from the

National League

Central to the American League West, and although the short term

includes some daunting challenges, this franchise is eager

to face them.

"I think as part of this whole kind of rebranding and rebuilding process that we're going through right now, we're able to

kind of wipe the slate clean and really just kind of forget the past," catcher Jason Castro said.

The past may be easier to forget now that

there are so few links to it left. Houston's payroll cuts have been

ongoing — the

Astros traded shortstop Jed Lowrie to Oakland earlier this month.

Porter was hired after serving as Washington's third base

coach.

The last team to lose 106 games for at least three straight seasons was the New York Mets from 1962-65. The Astros lost 107

last year and 106 in 2011. Now they'll have to contend with a division that includes three teams — Oakland, Texas and the

Los Angeles Angels — that won at least 89 games last season.

Houston's move balanced out baseball's

divisions. Each now has five teams, and all things being equal, it

should be easier

to win a five-team division than one with six teams. But the

Astros aren't in much of a position to expect that at this point.

Last year was spent trying to restock the farm system. Houston

took shortstop Carlos Correa with the top pick in the draft

— and traded Carlos Lee, J.A. Happ, Brett Myers and Wandy

Rodriguez, among others.

The Astros' payroll was at a paltry $21.3 million by early August.

Switching leagues will create some logistical issues. When a team plays an interleague series against an unfamiliar opponent,

it's often a challenge to prepare. Now the Astros will play a season's worth of teams they don't know much about.

"Dealing with interleague stuff last year

was basically starting from scratch," Castro said. "We had to put that

work in and

try to build on what little we had as quickly as possible. From

the time the series started to the end of the series, hopefully

we had a lot better idea from when we started."

Players will need to become familiar with different ballparks, too.

"Oakland is known for its foul ground, so

it's something that we'll have to take into account," Castro said.

"There are adjustments

to be made in all facets of the game."

Needing a designated hitter, the Astros

signed Carlos Pena, who can also play first base. Porter's lineup

remains uncertain

in many respects — no surprise for a team evaluating young

players. He'd like second baseman Jose Altuve to hit second, meaning

somebody else would have to handle the leadoff spot.

Even that role is a bit different because of

the league switch. In the AL, the leadoff man doesn't have to bat after

the pitcher.

"It's definitely a chance for him to come up more often with men on base," Porter said. "If you have that guy in the one hole

that can hit extra-base hits, that can do some damage, it changes the dynamic of your ballclub."

Eventually, the Astros will be used to the differences between the AL and NL. Starting pitchers won't have to worry about

being pinch-hit for, for example.

For fans, the benefits and drawbacks of the

switch are obvious. Houston will play more games against the Rangers,

creating

the potential for a spirited in-state rivalry. But there will also

be plenty of West Coast games, with later start times on

TV.

Before beginning their new schedule, the Astros will have a few weeks during spring training to size up the competition. And

yes, they'll want to focus a little more than usual on the AL teams.

"In spring training, you'd pay attention a lot more to the National League games," right-hander Bud Norris said. "It's going

to be a different mindset. We're going to have to make some adjustments."