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There’s plenty of optimism surrounding the Lone Star State’s two baseball teams heading into the 2011 season. For the Texas Rangers that’s not surprising considering they made it to the World Series last year and may have a better team this year despite the loss of pitcher Cliff Lee to free agency. It is a little bit surprising, however, for a Houston Astros team that finished 10 games below .500 on the season. Even stranger—there may be more excitement surrounding the Astros for the 2011 season than they’ve experienced in a number of years.
Texas enters the 2011 season knowing that anything short of a return trip to the World Series will be a disappointment. Despite this considerable pressure, there’s no reason they can’t compete for another American League pennant since the team is better in virtually every phase of the game. Texas lost out on Cliff Lee, but didn’t exactly come away from the off season empty handed—they signed free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre to a five-year, $80 million deal, traded for catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli and signed former NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb and left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes. 
Net net—their offense is better, their defense is better and their pitching is better. General Manager Jon Daniels says that the team doesn’t feel much added pressure from the World Series run:
"I think the external expectations might be different this year but internally is the same. We had a year we can build off. We're expecting big things from the club. We wanted to retain Cliff (Lee), and when it was evident we couldn't add a No. 1 starter, we tried to enhance our club across the board, offensively, defensively and in the bullpen. I think we've done that."
The enthusiasm of the Houston Astros is much more understandable when you look at their 2010 season in greater detail. After a brutal start to the year—which included a franchise record losing streak to start the season—they showed marked improvement after the All Star break posting a 44-30 record. That was the 4th best second half mark in the senior circuit and was responsible for interim manager Brad Mills landing the permanent job. General Manager Ed Wade gives most of the credit for Houston’s second half surge to the rookie manager:
"The overriding factor that allowed us to get better was how Brad Mills handled the ballclub. Millsie never changed. He kept the same attitude, the same level of communication, the same attention to detail. Players recognized that. The manager still held them accountable, and they responded."
Houston also reloaded with young prospects, trading away veteran stars Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. Wandy Rodriguez will take over as the #1 starter and the rotation could be very good if J.A. Happ and Bud Norris continue to improve. Utah native Brandon Lyon returns in the closers role. Among the everyday players with the exception of veteran outfielder Carlos Lee there’s plenty of youth and how quickly the Astros’ youngsters develop into legitimate big league players will largely determine their success this season.
Overall, there’s no reason to think that Houston will get off to another miserable start this season and by avoiding that hole there’s every reason to think that they’ll show even more improvement in 2011. If they can even come close to a reprise of their second half performance from a year ago the Astros could be back in the winning side of the ledger and possibly even put some pressure on Cincinnati and St. Louis in the NL Central.