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2 Houston Astros Jeff Kent's big bat will more than justify the displacement of Craig Biggio

March 31, 2003
March 31, 2003

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March 31, 2003

Baseball Preview 2003

2 Houston Astros Jeff Kent's big bat will more than justify the displacement of Craig Biggio

Early in spring training third base coach Gene Lamont was
standing in the on-deck circle of a practice field, hitting
grounders to Jeff Kent, Houston's new second baseman and a
seven-time All-Star. The first ball hit the heel of Kent's glove
and rolled away. The second skipped between his legs and into
the outfield. The third, fourth and fifth were handled cleanly,
but the next two eluded him, and then he botched another.

This is an article from the March 31, 2003 issue

Standing along the first base line, a reporter turned to Craig
Biggio, who had also been watching Kent, and said, "Your
replacement looks terrible."

Biggio didn't take the bait. "Aw, Jeff will be fine," he said.
"Anyhow, I've got my own thing to worry about."

Biggio's own thing is his relocation to centerfield, the second
time in 11 years that the Astros asked him to change positions.
At the start of the 1992 season, manager Art Howe moved Biggio
from catcher to second base to limit the physical toll on his
5'11", 185-pound frame. The results? Four Gold Gloves at second
base, knees and ankles that rarely creak and fingers as straight
as pencils. "I took a lot of pride in being in the middle of the
action as a catcher, so it was tough," Biggio says. "But looking
back, it gave my career new life."

This time, however, the change is less about Biggio's well-being
and more about Kent's. After putting together some of the biggest
offensive years by a second baseman in history, Kent left the
Giants to sign a two-year, $18.2 million free-agent contract in
December, with the understanding that he would play second base
in Houston. Did it matter to the Astros that Biggio is a
significantly better defensive player? That Kent started his
major league career as a third baseman, a position Houston still
would like to upgrade? That Biggio might be insulted? No, no and
no.

"When you're in my position, you have to ask yourself, What's
more important--one player's feelings or the improvement of the
organization?" says G.M. Gerry Hunsicker. "Craig is a big part of
our family, but look what Jeff Kent brings to our lineup."

A former National League MVP who has knocked in 100 or more runs
in six straight seasons, Kent adds more oomph to a club that last
year ranked fifth in the league in homers (167) and RBIs (719).
Manager Jimy Williams plans to bat him fifth, forming an awesome
back-to-back-to-back power trio of Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman
and Kent. Although he no longer has Barry Bonds to protect him in
the order, the righthanded-hitting Kent should benefit from
Minute Maid Park's cozy dimensions in left (315 feet down the
line and 362 in the alley).

And Biggio? When he learned of Kent's signing, Biggio, the team's
alltime leader in games played, was taken aback. Within days,
though, he began to warm to the idea of manning a position once
played by such immortals as DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays and Snider.
Thinking about the long runs a centerfielder makes to track down
balls in the gaps, Biggio began taking four-and five-mile runs
near his Houston home to build up stamina. Even if Biggio is no
better than an average centerfielder, Houston's outfield defense
should be significantly improved by his presence. Last season the
overmatched Berkman played center like a blindfolded bull, and
leftfielder Daryle Ward, who was traded to the Dodgers in
January, had no range and a poor arm. Now Berkman will return to
his natural position in left, and strong-armed Richard Hidalgo
will man right. "Center is the toughest spot to play in the
outfield, but Craig is blessed with incredible athleticism," says
reserve outfielder Brian Hunter. "He'll learn positioning and how
to read the ball."

Regardless, Biggio expects to have more fun this year than he had
in 2002. His personal nightmare began last May when Monsignor
James Jamail, Biggio's close friend and family priest, died of
cancer at 63. Last June, Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, another
longtime pal and a former teammate, died of a heart attack in a
Chicago hotel room. The grieving Biggio struggled on the field
(he hit a career-low .253), and the question of whether, at 36,
he was finished as a regular became a topic of speculation on
sports talk-radio shows.

"People tend to think professional athletes are protected by
steel plating," says Biggio. "We're not. Last year I had to deal
with a lot of loss, and that got to me. But I've been able to
move forward. I'm ready for the new challenge." --J.P.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO SECOND BEST Kent (right) won't win any awards for his play in the field, but Biggio gives Houston a Gold Glove in center.COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES AUSMUS

IN FACT

Last year Ricky Stone tied the NL rookie record for relief
appearances (78), set in '85 by Tim Burke. Sean Runyan set the
big league mark (88) with Detroit, in '98.

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

"I'm not in lockstep with most observers who say this is the best
team in the division. Yes, they've got marquee players--Jeff
Bagwell and Jeff Kent will mash the ball--but those two better
stay healthy, because Julio Lugo and Geoff Blum are on the left
side of the infield, and they're run-of-the-mill.... Craig Biggio
is on the downside, but he's still a good player. Moving him to
centerfield won't be as difficult as it would be for him in a
bigger park.... I'd be more concerned about Richard Hidalgo,
who's coming off a terrible year. He's in better shape, but what
about his mind-set? ... Brad Ausmus is the best defensive catcher
in the league.... Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt are nasty--power
fastballs, power breaking balls. Those guys embarrass hitters....
The rotation's depth is questionable. Shane Reynolds and Brian
Moehler have touchy-feely stuff, and both have to avoid injuries
for this team to make a serious run--but don't count on that. I
worry about Reynolds's back.... The middle-inning relievers are
shaky. I don't know how Kirk Saarloos gets anybody out.... Closer
Billy Wagner and setup man Octavio Dotel are a top-shelf
combination, but after Wagner they're in trouble from the left
side."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2002 statistics

BATTING ORDER

SS Lugo
CF Biggio
1B Bagwell
LF Berkman
2B Kent
RF Hidalgo
3B Blum
C Ausmus

JULIO LUGO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 200 .261 8 35 9

CRAIG BIGGIO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 143 .253 15 58 16

JEFF BAGWELL

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 27 .291 31 98 7

LANCE BERKMAN

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-L 8 .292 42 128 8

JEFF KENT [#]

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 18 .313 37 108 5

RICHARD HIDALGO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 175 .235 15 48 6

GEOFF BLUM

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-R 236 .283 10 52 2

BRAD AUSMUS

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 260 .257 6 50 2

BENCH

ORLANDO MERCED

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

L-R 303 .287 6 30 4

JOSE VIZCAINO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-R 327 .303 5 37 3

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Roy Oswalt 8 19 9 6.8 1.19 3.01
RH Wade Miller 11 15 4 6.3 1.29 3.28
RH Shane Reynolds 99 3 6 5.7 1.43 4.86
RH Brian Moehler*[#] 166 3 5 5.1 1.44 4.86

LH Jeriome Robertson (R) 269 0 2 2.7 1.88 6.52

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

LH Billy Wagner 37 4 2 35 0.97 2.52
RH Octavio Dotel 108 6 4 6 0.87 1.85
RH Ricky Stone 223 3 3 1 1.45 3.61

[#]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Combined AL and NL stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 157)

2002 RECORD

84--78
second in NL Central

MANAGER

Jimy Williams
second season with Houston