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MLB Insider: Sizzling Astros blast into Detroit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

When the Houston Astros have made national headlines in recent years, it's been almost exclusively negative publicity.

It's been for firing a manager, then another, then another. It's been for at least one of their games drawing a 0.0 television rating. It's been for low-balling a No. 1 overall draft pick, and then not signing him. It's been for finishing 60 or 52 or 50 games under .500.

Not anymore.

The Astros are coming to town for a four-game series against the Tigers at Comerica Park boasting the most wins in all of baseball, at 27-14.

Every year in MLB, there seems to be that one team that shocks the world — that is terrible one day, and then out of nowhere wakes up great. Think the Kansas City Royals in 2014, the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, the Baltimore Orioles in 2012. Or the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, or the Tigers in 2006.

It would seem the Astros are this year's stunning bunch, even though analysts coast to coast (guilty) suggested that their move from the National League to the American League West three years ago would delay their return to prominence by years, if not decades.

"It's satisfying to be relevant again," Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, on the job since 2011, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.

They have a chance to be more than relevant.

The Los Angeles Angels can't seem to put it together. The Seattle Mariners never seem to get going, despite throwing millions of dollars on the fire. The Oakland A's are a mess, after a series of bizarre moves over the winter. And the Texas Rangers are a shell of the team that not long ago was playing in back-to-back World Series.

In fact, the Astros, now that they've gotten our attention, are almost certainly the most well-rounded team of the bunch, with emerging frontline starting pitching in Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, home-run power at every spot in the lineup, and a bullpen that is vastly improved.

Those who cover the Astros say they're a deeper team (able to withstand the nasty thumb injury to shortstop Jed Lowrie), just about everything that's needed to go right has gone right, and that the bullpen deserves as much credit as anything for the turnaround. Since 2009, the Astros bullpen has been among the worst in the major leagues and in 2013-14, it had the worst bullpen, by ERA, in all of baseball. Of course, when there aren't many leads to protect, as there haven't since they began their run of sub-.500 seasons in 2007, the bullpen woes aren't terribly noticeable.

The bullpen makeover began in December 2013, when they signed Chad Qualls; it continued in May 2014, when the Astros took a flyer on Tony Sipp; and it continued this offseason, with the signings of Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Joe Thatcher, and the waiver-claim of Will Harris.

If we didn't know already, the Kansas City Royals reminded us last October just how important the bullpen really is, and now the Astros have one of the top relief units in the game — and a six-game lead in the AL West to go with it.

What's also interesting about the Astros, other than their revival, is that their offense is chock full of uber-low batting averages — they began Wednesday with just three active regulars hitting better than .243 — and high strikeout totals. Their team batting average is worst in MLB, and on-base percentage is close behind, but their slugging percentage is among the best.

Really, only Jose Altuve — who's cooled lately, but certainly will perk up against the Tigers, one of his favorite punching bags — has a track record as a really good hitter. The rest, not so much. But they're still getting it done, because they're hitting enough home runs at such a clip, opposing pitchers are getting stiff necks.

And, thus, they're shocking everyone — including the front office, which, quietly, was hoping for a .500 season in 2015, and the great leap in 2016, even if Luhnow did go on TV and predict a winning season back in January.

The great leap, it seems, has come early, though the Astros aren't sticking out their chests just yet, at least not in public.

"We're not naive," Luhnow told the Times. "We know the Angels, Mariners, A's and Rangers will be fighting all year long.

"We just want to be part of that fight."

Coming up short

Last season, only four major-league shortstops made more than 16 errors.

A's shortstop Marcus Semien already is at 16 for 2015, after a throwing error in Wednesday's 6-1 loss to the Astros.

Semien, 24, can be cut a little slack. This is the first year, minors or majors, that he's being asked to play just shortstop, after coming over from the Chicago White Sox in the offseason in the Jeff Samardzija trade.

And, so, the A's aren't really freaking out about the errors.

"What I'm going to continue to tell Marcus is to not be concerned with errors. Stay aggressive," Mike Gallego, and A's coach and former shortstop, told the Sacramento Bee. "In order to play shortstop in the big leagues, you have to be aggressive and fearless."

The A's, though, are bringing in ex-Rangers manager Ron Washington to work with the infielders, especially Semien, according to multiple reports.

Semien, at least, is doing his best to make up for the errors with his offense, sporting a .309/.352/.497 slash line.

Makes cents

Were the Miami Marlins really thinking outside the box when they named general manager Dan Jennings their new manager?

Not really.

In all likelihood, the Marlins were thinking more about their bank account.

By moving Jennings from the front office to the dugout, they saved a whole lot of money from if they had hired somebody with, oh, any managerial experience, or even any major-league playing experience. Jennings, of course, has neither.

The Marlins, remember, still are paying Ozzie Guillen, fired three years ago, and Mike Redmond, fired Sunday, as well as former GM Larry Beinfest, fired in 2013.

When you're still paying a whole lot of folks who don't even work for you, it makes it tricky to afford those who actually do.

The Marlins, with great expectations entering 2015, have lost five in a row, including the first two games of Jennings' tenure.

Walking the plank

So, who will be the next manager fired in 2015, after the Milwaukee Brewers axed Ron Roenicke and the Marlins canned Redmond?

Here are my favorites, with odds:

* John Gibbons, Blue Jays -- 3/1

* Ryne Sandberg, Phillies -- 7/2

* Bud Black, Padres -- 5/1

* Terry Collins, Mets -- 10/1

* Bryan Price, Reds -- 12/1

* Robin Ventura, White Sox -- 12/1

Three up ...

1. White Sox: They've finally showed some signs of life, winning eight of their last 10 games to get to .500.

2. Tigers: An afternoon start for a Thursday series opener? Bizarre, but the more day baseball, the better.

3. Nationals: They're starting to play like we all expected, thanks to the out-of-this-world Bryce Harper.

... three down

1. White Sox: Are they really for real? Their negative-30 run differential suggests they're actually a fraud.

2. Astros fans: The team is playing out its mind, but they haven't drawn more than 30,000 since Opening Day.

3. Yankees: They're starting to play like we all expected, and now they've lost Jacoby Ellsbury to the DL.

Diamond digits

5 -- Giants shutouts at home this month, more than 27 teams have thrown anywhere all season.

0.98 -- Yankees reliever Andrew Miller's ERA, after he finally allowed a run in 2015 (two, actually) in Tuesday's 8-6 loss to the Nationals.

5/21/2000 -- MLB sets a record with six grand slams in a day, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The sluggers to hit the slams were: Garret Anderson (Angels), J.T. Snow (Giants), Brian Hunter (Phillies), Jason Giambi (A's), and Adrian Beltre and Shawn Green (Dodgers).

He said it

"I don't think it's the last time you'll hear of Batman, regardless."

A.J. Hinch, Astros manager, talking to the Houston Chronicle about the Batman spikes rookie pitcher Lance McCullers wore in his major-league debut Monday. MLB sent McCullers a warning letter about the spikes, so we'll see if he risks a fine and wears them again when he takes the mound against the Tigers on Saturday.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984