2 Houston Astros With a quality rotation in place, the pressure's on the bullpen to hold up its end

April 04, 2004

Billy Wagner knew he was gone even before rumors of an off-season
trade began to simmer in late September. The Astros' illustrious
closer was having the finest season of his career, but with an $8
million salary slated for 2004 and the emergence of Octavio Dotel
behind him in the bullpen, Houston's alltime saves leader (225)
knew he had become expendable on a team seeking payroll
flexibility. "Last season Billy kept telling me, 'They know they
don't need me anymore, because they have you,'" says Dotel, who
was a setup man for Wagner for almost three seasons. "'Get
ready,' he would say. 'Your time's come.'"

Days after the final game of the World Series, Dotel got the call
from his agent: The Astros had dealt Wagner to the Phillies for
righthander Brandon Duckworth and two minor leaguers. The trade
ultimately enabled Houston to sign former Yankees starters Roger
Clemens and Andy Pettitte. It also placed the Astros' 2004
fortunes, in part, on the slender shoulders of Dotel, who gets
the keys to a bullpen that last year was the National League's
busiest (3.6 innings per game) and was the league's second-most
effective (3.24 ERA). "You don't replace someone as good as
Billy," says general manager Gerry Hunsicker, "but having a guy
like Dotel [scheduled to make $2.8 million this season] certainly
takes away a bit of the sting."

Entering the 2001 season, Dotel, who had broken into the majors
as a starter with the Mets in 1999, was told by Astros coaches
that he had no future in the rotation. "He didn't have the
repertoire," says pitching coach Burt Hooton. "He'd go out there
relying on his fastball and get by with it for four innings, but
eventually hitters would catch up."

"I didn't think I was given enough of a chance," says Dotel, who
in 34 career starts, 20 of them in Houston, was 9-9 with a 5.61
ERA. "I didn't want to show up at the ballpark [and work as a
setup man]. My only thought was, F---Houston."

Dotel eventually realized that his restless personality and
one-pitch arsenal were better suited to the one-inning setup
role. Since moving to the bullpen in '01, he has a 2.09 ERA in
215 games, and last season he held hitters to a .172 average. Now
he will be set up by 27-year-old righthander Brad Lidge, a lanky
6'5" power pitcher and former highly touted Astros prospect whose
career advancement was slowed by injuries. (He was on the DL
every one of his first four seasons, 1998 through 2001.)

Injury-free in '03, Lidge spent his first full season in the
majors, working in middle relief and striking out 97 batters
(fourth most among big league relievers) in 85 innings. "Brad was
given a grueling workload," Hooton says. "Now he's battle-tested
for his new role."

Elsewhere, the rotation and every-day lineup were already set
when spring training started. In fact the lineup is a carbon copy
of last year's--though Houston hopes some players, particularly
leftfielder Lance Berkman, don't have seasons that look like last
year's. After a monster 2002 with 42 homers and 128 RBIs, Berkman
fell to 25 homers and 93 RBIs. "Last year it was reasonable to
expect we'd have four guys with 100-plus RBI seasons, and instead
we had one [Jeff Bagwell]," says Hunsicker. "No one had anywhere
near a career year. More players than not had below-average
seasons. We expect the offense to do significantly better."

With the arrival of Clemens and Pettitte, expectations have never
been higher in Houston, a city that has never had a team in the
World Series in the franchise's 42-year history. These Astros are
built to win now, and not even a good October push will suffice
because too many uncertainties await at season's end. The list of
players eligible for free agency includes 38-year-old Craig
Biggio, 41-year-old Clemens, 36-year-old Jeff Kent and
28-year-old Richard Hidalgo, who will make a hefty $12 million
this year. Team officials also wonder how much longer they can
count on the 35-year-old Bagwell, whose arthritic shoulder
prevents him from going all out during pregame fielding practice.

"We all realize that this is, in all probability, the last year
that a lot of these guys will be together, perhaps the last time
they will be able to do something special," Hunsicker says. "The
clock is ticking." --A.C.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER PERFECT TIMING New arrival Pettitte may never have as strong a supporting cast in Houston as he does this year.
COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES DOTEL

IN FACT

Last season Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte each had
a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

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

"This team is going to be the class of the NL Central because of
the Clemens-Pettitte factor. While the Astros go into spring
training hoping to win, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte go into
spring training expecting to win a World Series. It's an
incredible mind-set to have, and to have rub off on the rest of
the club.... Overall the pitching is deep and very experienced.
Wade Miller is a Number 4 here, and he's a Number 2 anywhere
else. If you don't have five starting pitchers that can match up
with these guys, good luck. It's like going to a gunfight with a
switchblade.... The only chink in their armor may be the bullpen.
Octavio Dotel has all the stuff you look for in a closer:
explosive fastball, power arm. The guy right behind him, Brad
Lidge, has a power curveball. The unknown is whether Dotel can
handle the pressure of saving games not only for Roy Oswalt, but
also for Clemens and Pettitte.... The Astros have the edge over
the Cubs because this is a better offensive club day in and day
out, and better defensively.... They will, however, miss Geoff
Blum. He was versatile and could swing the bat."

THE LINEUP
projected roster with 2003 statistics

BATTING

ORDER

CF Biggio
SS Everett
1B Bagwell
2B Kent
LF Berkman
RF Hidalgo
3B Ensberg
C Ausmus

LANCE BERKMAN

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-L 55 .288 25 93 5

CRAIG BIGGIO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 160 .264 15 62 8

RICHARD HIDALGO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 43 .309 28 88 9

MORGAN ENSBERG

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 49 .291 25 60 7

ADAM EVERETT

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 186 .256 8 51 8

JEFF KENT

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 61 .297 22 93 6

JEFF BAGWELL

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 32 .278 39 100 11

BRAD AUSMUS

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R 266 .229 4 47 5

BENCH

JASON LANE

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

R-L 245 .296 4 10 0

JOSE VIZCAINO

B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

S-R 340 .249 3 26 0

ROTATION

PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

RH Roy Oswalt 25 10 5 6.1 1.14 2.97
LH Andy Pettitte 16 21 8 6.3 1.33 4.02
New acquisition
RH Roger Clemens 34 17 9 6.4 1.21 3.91
New acquisition
RH Wade Miller 43 14 13 5.7 1.31 4.13
RH Tim Redding 98 10 14 5.5 1.39 3.68

BULLPEN

PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Octavio Dotel 26 6 4 4 0.97 2.48
RH Brad Lidge 192 6 3 1 1.20 3.60
RH Dan Miceli 251 2 4 1 1.19 3.20

New acquisition
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 142)

2003 RECORD
87-75
second in NL Central

MANAGER
Jimy Williams
third season with Houston

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)