2 Houston Astros A suddenly younger team will count on a superb staff and that old offensive pop

March 25, 2002

Daryle Ward was probably fooling with his PlayStation in another
room, he can't exactly remember, when he learned on Dec. 19 that
he was finally a starter for the Astros. After the words
scrolled across the TV in the family room--houston free-agent of
moises alou agrees to a three-year, $27 million contract with
chicago cubs--bedlam erupted. Wife Shannon and the three kids
shrieked, and Ward admits to feeling a bit of a tingle. For a
moment, anyway.

Then the 26-year-old first baseman turned outfielder reflected
on the past three years, when he went from can't-miss to
can't-crack-the-lineup. With Alou and fast-emerging fellow
prospects Lance Berkman and Richard Hidalgo filling the
outfield, Ward was a part-time player. "As a starter the thought
process is a little different, but I know that it doesn't mean I
can approach the game differently," says Ward. "I still have to
be myself." So forgive him for not turning cartwheels. It's just
that the Astros' new leftfielder can't help but think this
moment could have come a lot sooner.

At the same time it seems as if his team has come to a
crossroads as well. Last year Houston won its fourth division
title in five seasons and then failed again to claim the
franchise's first playoff series victory, a setback that cost
manager Larry Dierker his job. (He was replaced by former Red
Sox skipper Jimy Williams.) With the Killer B's--first baseman
Jeff Bagwell, second baseman Craig Biggio and, now,
Berkman--returning, and a talented young rotation and a potent
bullpen intact, the Astros' off-season changes don't add up to
an overhaul. Still, with the free-agent departures of Alou and
veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla (to the Braves), two
rookies likely to start on the left side of the infield (Morgan
Ensberg at third base and Adam Everett at short) and an outfield
with a combined six full seasons in the majors, a youth movement
is afoot, to the dismay of Bagwell.

"We lost a lot when [Alou and Castilla] left, and it remains to
be seen how much that will hurt us," says Bagwell, in the first
year of a five-year, $85 million contract extension.

Says Biggio, "We're looking to some young guys, but it's not like
they're all rookies."

Instead they are players such as Ward, who split the 1999 season
between Triple A New Orleans and Houston, hitting .273 in 150 at
bats with the Astros, before sticking in the big leagues for
good. When an outfield spot opened late in the 2000 season,
Dierker passed over Ward for Berkman, whom the manager
considered the better athlete. But Ward's talent was obvious,
and last year general manager Gerry Hunsicker promised him a
chance to start this spring or perhaps be traded. When Alou
signed with the Cubs, the opportunity to play every day became a
reality.

While there's little question Ward can hit (his combined Triple
A average was .324), his defense is another story. A hefty 230
pounds and far from nimble, Ward has been nagged about his
conditioning, but he says he did more running and working out
with weights this off-season than in past years. "I dropped off
the weights as camp got closer," he says, "because I like to
concentrate on my hitting at that point."

With superb righthanders Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt, plus setup
man Octavio Dotel, who led all major league relievers in
strikeouts (128) last season, and closer Billy Wagner, Houston's
staff should be dominant. If Ward and his fellow youngsters
afield don't underachieve, the NL Central title won't be the
only championship the Astros will contend for this year. --J.E.

COLOR PHOTO: STEVE MOORE After two frustrating seasons on the bench, the sweet-swinging Ward gets the chance to fill Alou's shoes--as well as his own potential. COLOR PHOTO: M. DAVID LEEDS/GETTY IMAGES MILLER

In FACT
After he's hit by two more pitches, Craig Biggio will move past
Frank Robinson (198) and into third on the alltime list.

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Astros

"Their pitching is going to be filthy good. They have a really
strong blend of young and established arms, and a bullpen with
guys who throw a mixture of stuff.... Wade Miller is flat-out
nasty and Roy Oswalt and Carlos Hernandez are two other kids
with big upsides. Then they have veterans, like Shane Reynolds
and Dave Mlicki, who have been around and will help.... Billy
Wagner and Octavio Dotel make them strong in the back end of the
bullpen, though you wonder about Wagner's health [left elbow
surgery in 2000]. If he goes down, they're in trouble.... Jeff
Bagwell remains the unquestioned team leader and still drives in
a ton of runs and gets on base. Craig Biggio is on the downside,
but continues to be an effective player and a leader on the
field.... At shortstop the Astros can go with Julio Lugo or Adam
Everett, who's real slick with the leather but hasn't hit
much.... Lance Berkman is a superb player who has good
leadership ability. He reminds me a lot of Todd Helton.
Eventually this is going to be Berkman's team.... Daryle Ward
isn't going to drive in the runs Moises Alou did, but he's going
to hit. He's an adventure in leftfield, though. You won't see
him out there in the ninth inning too much.... Richard Hidalgo
will be fine. People said he had a bad year, but he still
knocked in 80 runs.... I like the Jimy Williams influence. One
thing that helps is he's not Larry Dierker. The big guys on the
team didn't like Dierker, but they should respond to Williams."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2001 statistics

PLAYER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
BATTING ORDER

2B Craig Biggio R 76 .292 20 70 7
LF Daryle Ward L 89 .263 9 39 0
1B Jeff Bagwell R 19 .288 39 130 11
RF Lance Berkman S-L 13 .331 34 126 7
CF Richard Hidalgo R 64 .275 19 80 3
3B Morgan Ensberg (R)* R 154 .310 23 61 6
C Brad Ausmus R 266 .232 5 34 4
SS Adam Everett (R)* R 320 .249 5 40 24
IF Julio Lugo R 257 .263 10 37 12

BENCH

C Gregg Zaun[1] S-R 333 .320 6 18 1
OF Orlando Merced S-R 348 .263 6 29 5

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA
STARTERS

RH Wade Miller 21 16 8 6.6 1.22 3.40
RH Roy Oswalt 14 14 3 6.4 1.06 2.73
RH Shane Reynolds 93 14 11 6.5 1.34 4.34
RH Dave Mlicki[2] 167 11 11 5.5 1.65 6.17
LH Carlos Hernandez (R)[3]72 12 3 5.9 1.32 3.69

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA
BULLPEN

LH Billy Wagner 31 2 5 39 1.02 2.73
RH Octavio Dotel 109 7 5 2 1.20 2.66
RH Nelson Cruz 231 3 3 2 1.17 4.15

[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 154)

*Triple A stats [2]Combined AL and NL stats [3]Double A stats

Manager
Jimy Williams
first season with Houston

2001 record
93-69
tied for first in NL Central

IN THE FIELD
with defensive ratings

Golden Glover

Everett
Ausmus

Good Leather

Hidalgo
Berkman
Bagwell
Biggio
Ensberg
Miller

Iron Hands

Ward

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)