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Originally published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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New division, same old Astros

The Astros had the worst record in baseball last season, and a move to the strong American League West probably won't help them this season.

The Associated Press

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HOUSTON — The Astros and their staff think they'll be much better than they were last season.

They're about the only ones with that opinion.

Prognosticators and pundits across the country don't see any way the Astros can avoid finishing last in the majors for the third straight year.

The odds are stacked against a Houston team that has just five players on the 40-man roster with more than two years of major-league experience and the American League's lowest payroll. Add to that the move from the NL Central to the powerful AL West, and things look even more daunting.

It will be tough, most figure, for this team to avoid becoming the first to lose at least 106 games in three straight seasons since the expansion Mets did it from 1962-65.

First-year manager Bo Porter, the former Nationals third-base coach, has worked to instill a winning attitude this spring and has implored the Astros not to listen to the critics.

"Ignore the noise," he said he tells the players. "It doesn't matter what anybody has to say — at the end of the day, on March 31, it's the Houston Astros vs. the Texas Rangers. It's us against the other team. All the predictions and other things go out the window."

Still, it's difficult to envision this team being competitive with a payroll of $25.9 million, and that figure includes the $4.5 million Houston will pay Pittsburgh as part of the deal that sent pitcher Wandy Rodriguez there last season. Without that $4.5 million, the entire team will make about $6.5 million less than Alex Rodriguez alone will earn this season.

"The one thing that you can never account for in competitive sports is what lies inside of a man," said Porter, who was part of the recent turnaround in Washington. "We've all seen enough baseball and we've seen enough competition to know that a lot of times that will and that desire and that passion — a lot of times it wins out.

"Now, is that going to translate over a 162-game season? Nobody has the answer to that. None of us has a crystal ball. We don't know."

Opening-day starter Bud Norris is the highest-paid player on the team with a salary of $3 million. He'll try to bounce back from a tough 2012 season where he went 7-13 with a 4.65 earned-run average. Following him in the rotation will be Lucas Harrell, who was Houston's most successful starter last season with an 11-11 record and 3.76 ERA.

The Astros added Philip Humber, who threw a perfect game for the White Sox against the Mariners last season.

Houston's biggest offseason acquisition was slugger Carlos Pena, who will likely be the team's first designated hitter. The 34-year-old is coming off a season where he hit just .197 with a career-high 182 strikeouts.

"That's a reason we targeted Carlos Pena — No. 1, he has experience as a DH," Porter said.

The Astros also added Pena, who has 277 homers in his 12-year career, to give their young clubhouse a veteran presence.

Another new addition is left fielder Chris Carter, who came in a trade from Oakland. The 26-year-old hit 16 homers in 67 games for the A's last season.

Harrell said things have already changed under the guidance of Porter this spring.

"I wouldn't say the attitude was bad here," he said. "It was just that it wasn't necessarily a winning attitude ... and so that's what we're trying to change."

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