2 Houston Astros Age and injuries are catching up to the Astros, as is the rest of the division

March 27, 2000

Right in the middle of manager Larry Dierker's confab with the
media after the Astros' first full-squad spring workout, a
high-pitched electronic beep began to echo throughout the
interview room. As befuddled reporters reached for their cell
phones and pagers, Dierker realized the sound was emanating from
his wrist. "This damn talking watch," Dierker said, laughing as
he struggled to silence a timepiece Dick Tracy would envy. "I'm
wearing it, and I don't even know how to use it."

Alarms of a more silent type have also been going off in the
Houston clubhouse this spring, for the clock is ticking on these
Astros and their dominance of the National League Central. After
winning three straight division titles and building the
third-best winning percentage in baseball (.582, behind the
Yankees and the Braves) since 1997, the aging and injury-prone
Astros are slipping back toward the pack. "Other teams in our
division have improved," says general manager Gerry Hunsicker,
referring to the Reds and the Cardinals in particular. "But
we're still the team they have to knock off."

Life got much easier for Houston's opponents when the Astros
continued their off-season tradition of losing their No. 1
starter. Lefthander Mike Hampton, last year's Cy Young
runner-up, was traded to the Mets in December. Houston received
quality players in return--speedy centerfielder Roger Cedeno and
promising young starter Octavio Dotel--but replacing Hampton in
the rotation will be pretty much impossible. He won 22 of his 34
starts in 1999, and the Astros' overall record in those games
was 29-5. "Every year we've had to deal with key losses,"
Dierker says. "We lost Darryl Kile [to free agency] in 1997, and
we still pitched all right. We lost Randy Johnson [also to free
agency] the next year, and we pitched all right. I don't think
we'll throw in the towel."

New staff ace Jose Lima was 21-10 with a 3.58 ERA last season,
but the 27-year-old righthander wore down in the second half,
when he was 8-6 with a 4.04 ERA, nearly a run higher than his
first-half figure (3.23). He also gave up 30 homers for a second
straight year, including 16 to righthanded hitters. Those are
troubling numbers for someone who's leaving the spacious comfort
of the Astrodome for new Enron Field and its 315-foot leftfield
line. "I'm going to give up home runs no matter where I pitch,"
says Lima. "But I don't think I won 21 games because I was
lucky."

After Lima and righthander Shane Reynolds (16 or more victories
in three of the last four seasons), the staff drops off
precipitously, so much so that 35-year-old Dwight Gooden, a
nonroster invitee after putting up a grotesque 6.26 ERA for the
Indians in 1999, has pitched his way into the rotation. He'll
have to help keep the Astros afloat until fireballing
righthander Scott Elarton is ready to return from off-season
shoulder surgery, which the team hopes will be sometime in May.

"Everyone's asking how our pitching is going to contain all the
hitters in our division," Hunsicker says. "My question is, Is
there a staff that can contain our lineup?"

If everyone stays healthy, the answer is no, but the odds of
that happening are longer than the ZZ Top beard first baseman
Jeff Bagwell has been sporting in camp. Outfielders Moises Alou
and Richard Hidalgo both returned this spring from serious knee
surgeries; they must produce as they did in 1998 (a combined
.309, 45 homers, 159 RBIs) to make up for the loss of Carl
Everett, the Astros' most consistent hitter in '99. Cleanup
hitter Ken Caminiti had six homers and 25 RBIs in September
after missing three months with a strained calf, but he chipped
three vertebrae in October when he fell out of a tree stand
while hunting quail. The spill did force him to stop his
customary intensive lower-body weightlifting regimen, which in
turn has given him more flexibility than usual this spring. "It
might have been a blessing," he says. "Usually I can't move for
two months." On the brighter side the top-of-the-order pairing
of second baseman Craig Biggio and Cedeno is the league's best
(94 stolen bases between them last year), and Bagwell, even if
his beard reaches his navel, is a lock for 40 homers and 120
RBIs.

Last year Dierker worked magic despite injuries. "We had
infielders in the outfield, outfielders in the infield, minor
leaguers in the majors," the manager says. But can he repeat
that success if his every-day players start falling like quail
again? After all, the Astros only won the Central by a game and
a half over a Reds team that has since taken on Ken Griffey Jr.
While that isn't yet reason for outright panic, it is certainly
cause for alarm.

--S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE INTO THE FIRE The promising Dotel can bring the heat, but he will feel plenty of it too as he attempts to replace the NL's winningest hurler from last year.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON

around the Horn

OFFENSE
[4 stars]
DEFENSE
[4 stars]
STARTING PITCHING
[4 stars]
BULLPEN
[3 1/2 stars]
MANAGER
[3 1/2 stars]

by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (NL rank)

Batting average .267 (8)
Runs scored 823 (8)
Home runs 168 (11)

1999 record: 97-65 (first in NL Central)

Opponents' batting average .267 (9)
ERA 3.83 (3)
Fielding percentage .983 (3)
[BOX]

next up...

There's no question Daryle Ward, the son of former major leaguer
Gary Ward, deserves a spot in the lineup. "He's poised and just a
really good, strong hitter," says third baseman Ken Caminiti.
"Daddy obviously taught him all the secrets." The 24-year-old
Ward showed he was listening. After hitting .353 at Triple A New
Orleans last season, he was called up to the big league club,
where he hit eight home runs and drove in 30 runs in only 150 at
bats. Though Ward will not start, manager Larry Dierker will
squeeze the lefthanded slugger into games on days when surgically
repaired outfielders Moises Alou and Richard Hidalgo need to rest
their bones. "I would be thrilled to get him 300 at bats,
especially since a lot of righthanded pitchers give our lineup
trouble," Dierker says. "Our veterans say they really like to
watch him hit."

the lineup
projected roster with 1999 statistics

Manager: Larry Dierker (fourth season with Houston)

BATTING ORDER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

2B Craig Biggio R 35 .294 16 73 28
CF Roger Cedeno[1] S-R 82 .313 4 36 66
1B Jeff Bagwell R 2 .304 42 126 30
3B Ken Caminiti S-R 128 .286 13 56 6
RF Moises Alou* R 26 .312 38 124 11
LF Richard Hidalgo R 200 .227 15 56 8
C Tony Eusebio R 302 .272 4 33 0
SS Tim Bogar R 322 .239 4 31 3

BENCH

OF Daryle Ward L 183 .273 8 30 1
IF Bill Spiers L-R 277 .288 4 39 10
OF Matt Mieske[2] R 298 .307 9 29 0
IF Russ Johnson R 313 .282 5 23 2
C Paul Bako L-R 400 .256 2 17 1

STARTERS PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Jose Lima 13 21 10 7.0 1.22 3.58
RH Shane Reynolds 27 16 14 6.6 1.24 3.85
RH Octavio Dotel[1] 121 8 3 5.6 1.38 5.38
RH Chris Holt 157 5 13 6.1 1.52 4.66
RH Dwight Gooden[1] 240 3 4 4.8 1.69 6.26

BULLPEN PVR W L S WHIP ERA

LH Billy Wagner 4 4 1 39 0.78 1.57
RH Jay Powell 218 5 4 4 1.63 4.32
RH Doug Henry 243 2 3 2 1.70 4.65
RH Jose Cabrera 270 4 0 0 1.02 2.15
LH Trever Miller 308 3 2 1 1.75 5.07
RH Scott Elarton[3] 224 9 5 1 1.24 3.48

[1] New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 164)
*1998 stats
[2] Combined AL and NL stats
[3] Will begin season on DL

the book
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Astros

This is the third year in a row the Astros have lost a No. 1
starter. That's going to catch up with them. They don't have a
lot of pitching depth.... Reynolds and Lima give the Astros an
edge over the Reds. Cincinnati has a bunch of starters who could
win 12 to 15 games, but they could easily lose just as many....
Chris Holt looks like he's all the way back from his arm injury.
He's looked great in spring training.... Octavio Dotel has
better stuff than Holt, but he's inconsistent and has a lot of
pressure on him after coming over in the Hampton trade.... The
Astros don't have a true frontline catcher. Tony Eusebio doesn't
want to catch more than three times a week. Mitch Meluskey can
hit, but he's not very smart behind the plate.... Shortstop Adam
Everett was spectacular in the field in the spring. He might be
up playing every day in August, if not before then.... The keys
for this team are how long Caminiti can stay healthy and if
Moises Alou is all the way back from his injury. When Alou's
right he turns on the fastball better than anybody, including
Vinny Castilla.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)