1. It's in the routine, not the spectacular. The Astros set a major-league record last season after committing only 67 errors. Houston's defensive range factor was a little above-average in six of nine positions, but its strength was in being steady with the balls it could reach. "We talk about not being spectacular -- in other words, routine," manager Cecil Cooper says. "Paying attention to the little details and making routine plays, that's the key. We've got veteran players, and they buy into that." The defense may be slightly better this season, with Geoff Blum taking over for Ty Wigginton as the primary third baseman. Riding that defense and a strong bullpen (see below), the Astros were only three games out of the wild card -- with the same record as the eventual World Series champion Phillies -- when Hurricane Ike interrupted a six-game winning streak and contributed in sending Houston into a tailspin. They still finished with the National League's best record after the All-Star break (44-24).
2. Miguel Tejada can't keep himself out of the news. The 35-year-old shortstop took a plea bargain in which he pled guilty to one count of perjury for lying to Congress. Shortly after the plea, Tejada held a news conference in Houston and on first day in spring training apologized to coaches and teammates; the story was done. But then Tejada's name still ran through the news for a few more days after he announced that he was backing out of the World Baseball Classic because he didn't receive assurances that he'd play shortstop ... only to change his mind a few days later. Playing in the WBC will expose him to more media than Houston's small number of beat writers, which could keep his name in the headlines.
3. The economic toll could have been worse. Yes, the Astros were unable to retain lefty starter Randy Wolf -- after acquiring him at the trade deadline, the team was 10-2 in his starts -- because they didn't think they could afford him. They let Wigginton walk. But Houston general manager Ed Wade says it was almost much more dire. After opening last season with an $89 million payroll, Wade estimated it would have taken $120 million to return the team intact and make a small move or two. That was more than the team could afford after key sponsors like Landmark Chevrolet, AIG and LyondellBassell pulled out, so the self-imposed cap was adjusted to $105-107 million. Then the economy got worse and Wade feared payroll might be limited to about $95 million, which would have required dumping a prominent player or two. But after evaluating the competitive needs of the club, Wade and team president Tal Smith called owner Drayton McLane and received the blessing to return to the $105-107 million range, where payroll now stands. The Astros did not raise ticket prices for 2009, and McLane publicly called for a salary cap in the offseason.
The bullpen. Closer Jose Valverde has led the National League in saves the last two seasons, and Cooper will have options in front of Valverde for a full season. It's a stark contrast to 2008, when 41-year-old set-up man Doug Brocail, who had 21 holds and a 3.93 ERA as the primary eighth-inning reliever, burned out from so many appearances (72 for the year, 47 before the All-Star Game) and warm-up sessions in the bullpen (countless). At the trade deadline, Wade acquired LaTroy Hawkins from the Yankees, who proceeded to allow only one run in 19 innings down the stretch -- quite the turnaround from his time in the Bronx, where he had a 5.71 ERA in 41 innings. "People say, 'You only gave up one run the whole time you were with the Astros,' but I tell them, 'Yeah, but I gave up a hell of a lot of runs when I was with the Yankees,'" says Hawkins. "It all evens out a little. The baseball gods said, Hell, we're tired of pounding down on this guy."
Supporting the three guys in the back of the 'pen are Geoff Geary, who had a 2.53 ERA in 64 innings, and a pair of lefties, Tim Byrdak and Wesley Wright. There's also Chris Sampson, who, in roughly the same number of innings as a starter and reliever, nearly halved his ERA in relief (from 5.66 down to 2.92) and cut his WHIP by 0.49 down to 0.97. Of course getting to the bullpen in non-Roy Oswalt starts might be a tricky proposition.
Chris Johnson. The 24-year-old third baseman, a fourth-round pick out of Stetson University in 2006 who batted .324 with 12 homers in 84 Double A games last year (and later struggled at Triple A, hitting only .218), is Houston's "closest to the big leagues prospect," says Wade. He got off to a torrid start this spring, blasting a bomb of a home run to left field in Wednesday's opener against the Nationals, doubling against the Braves on Thursday and starting 3-for-5. The Astros already have Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone to play third, but Johnson remains "in the mix" to break camp with the major-league club, says Cooper, adding that in the Arizona Fall League, the prospect hit "two of the longest home runs I've ever seen." He's drawing raves from teammates, too. "He's a big kid, got good hands at third base [and] a good arm," says Berkman. "He's got a great looking swing. You just look at him, and he looks like a major-league ballplayer. There's not one thing you can point to that says that -- it's just his overall carriage and bearing. He looks like he belongs up here."
Cooper says the young Bud Norris has "probably the best arm in the camp" but needs to be more consistent. ... Brian Bogusevic is trying to convert from a pitcher -- a southpaw, he was a two-way star at Tulane and Houston's first-round pick in 2005 -- to an outfielder. Berkman says his case is "intriguing" and that he "looks great, with a tremendous swing." ... In his only pre-World Baseball Classic start for Houston, staff ace Roy Oswalt looked in near midseason form. ... In Mike Hampton's first outing, he hit the first batter and then walked the next two. But he rallied to get out of the inning by striking out Austin Kearns and getting Jesus Flores to ground into an inning-ending double play. ... On the bulletin board in Cooper's office was this Teddy Roosevelt-attributed saying on the morning of the spring opener: "Do what you can, with what you have, when you can, where you can."
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