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Astros regroup after tough year

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One American League team had its regular conference call of scouts and officials Friday, and when it was over the consensus, in one executive's words, was "the Astros are the most improved team in baseball."

Oh, they didn't go get Mike Hampton -- although Hampton wished they had -- or Alex Rodriguez or Mike Mussina. They traded for two members of the gang (Doug Brocail, Brad Ausmus) and they signed Mike Jackson, who missed all last season. But this team that was out of it by July because of injuries and a pitching staff's stage fright after moving from The Dome to Enron Field has shown everyone that -- if healthy -- they'll be right back in the National League Central mosh pit.

Billy Wagner
The Astros will be pumped up if Billy Wagner returns to his 1999 form.

Hey, even without Billy Wagner they were nine games over .500 after the All-Star break. The lineup kills. Only the team that plays in Coors Field scored more runs among NL teams, and the 'Stros were without Craig Biggio for two months. The star second baseman is back, lean and quick. Jeff Bagwell, Moises Alou and Richard Hidalgo are stars. Lance Berkman will be, too.

But that's only part of it. "I've looked across the field at them for years and really admired them for the way they play and carry themselves," says Atlanta's Rico Brogna. "There's something there that commands respect. They play hard, they play right."

If you like baseball, like it to be played hard and with respect and a tough edge, you like the Astros. They can drive you crazy, as well; there's no way they should have allowed Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile to leave. When ESPN Magazine was looking for special clubhouse people, several Astros could have been picked -- Bagwell, Brocail, Ausmus, Billy Spiers. To their credit, this winter they brought back Brocail and Ausmus from Detroit.

They are worried about Spiers' back, because he is a guy that hits good pitchers. But Chris Truby is a fine third baseman, and if Julio Lugo struggles at short, Adam Everett is a Gold Glove waiting to happen. But it is a good, tough team.

The question is the pitching. And this spring, most of the news has been good, especially at the end. "It really killed us not to have Billy (Wagner) at his best," says Bagwell. "He was so great (39-for-42 in save opportunities, 1.57 ERA) in '99." Wagner, pitching with an elbow injury that went back to late '99, blew nine early saves and the pen -- and team -- self-destructed. They were out of it by the All-Star break.

"Wagner was physical," says Jose Lima, who started 1-13 after winning 37 games in 1998-99. "For the rest of us, it was mental. The first day we took BP, I said, 'Why did we do this?'" That 13-27 home record at the break was a journey to the center of the earth. The last 10 years at The Dome, the Astros' home ERA was 3.32. At Enron last season it was 5.55.

Wagner looks good this spring, except for a minor groin pull. "Last year, his radar gun readings were fine, but the opponents didn't swing and miss at Billy," says manager Larry Dierker. "This spring, they're swinging and missing. I feel much better." And with Brocail, Jay Powell, Jackson and Nelson Cruz all expected to be healthy by May, the bullpen depth is much better.

So is the starting pitching. "We have more depth than any time I can remember," says Dierker. Scott Elarton is a 17-game winner. Shane Reynolds is expected back from a knee scope by May 1. Kent Bottenfield has had a great spring. Then there's Lima.

"I went to winter ball even though I wasn't covered (in insurance or contract)," says Lima. "I got it back. I have a two-seam sinker I never had. I'm pitching inside."

Thursday, Lima pitched against the Royals in Haines City. Ausmus kept setting up inside and using Lima's fastball, and every time Lima tried to shake him off and go away Ausmus refused to budge. "When he pitches inside and sinks the ball," said Jermaine Dye, "Jose is really good."

Ausmus -- called "the single biggest offseason move by anyone" by Lima -- has a lot to do with that. Bagwell read so many stories about Ausmus that he calls him "The Franchise." "I'm not that good," replied Ausmus. To this team, he may be.

Octavio Dotel threw brilliantly on Staruday. And the players think Wade Miller not only has No. 1 stuff but No. 1 one makeup, as does Roy Oswalt. "By August, Miller will be the best pitcher on this team," says New Orleans manager Tony Pena. "He has No. 1 stuff and stomach. He'll get the consistency in his delivery."

So, watch out. The 'Stros are back.

News and notes

  • The Braves have some concerns. John Smoltz, who had looked in prime form Friday, was sore and stiff on Sunday. "He's concerned, and so am I," says Bobby Cox. "He should be OK, but it's something to watch." Kevin Millwood's delivery is such a mess that he did a bullpen workout Sunday with Don Sutton. Javy Lopez and Eddie Perez are optimistic about their health, but Lopez could be out until May, Perez the All-Star break. B.J. Surhoff has had back problems he thinks are getting better.

  • While outgoing custodian John Harrington is rewarding general manager Dan Duquette with a three year, $4.5 million contact, one Sox official, when asked if they would soon try to extend Jimy Williams, said, "I don't think he's interested in an extension." "I'll bet Rick Down as Sox manager by Memorial Day," says one AL GM. Are Boston and the Red Sox that crazy? "I'll side with Dan," says one GM. "Why didn't Jimy send a clubbie in to prod Everett the day he missed the bus? Why did Jimy talk to the media that day?" ... Duquette thinks rookie 3B-1B-OF-C Shea Hillenbrand is a sleeper at third if John Valentin isn't ready to open the season. "He's played the position well, he's got a great attitude and he looks as if he can hit," says Duquette. Incidentally, Duquette believes 19-year old left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, whom the Sox signed for $600,000 out of Monterrey, Mexico, "can help us this season. He can come quick." The Red Sox reports compare De La Rosa's stuff to John Rocker's. Other clubs aren't quite as high. "He's closer to Ricardo Rincon," says one club official. Hey, Ricardo Rincon might be a lot better than any other lefty reliever on the Boston roster

  • The Royals are ecstatic about Mac Suzuki's comeback from surgery, so much so that they think he'll open the season in the rotation. But they are concerned about Jose Rosado, who isn't yet letting the ball go. ... Carlos Beltran is having the kind of spring that will erase most any memory of Johnny Damon. ... Ken Hill's comeback has him throwing 95-mph for the Devil Rays, and Larry Rothschild will use Hill, Tanyon Sturtze and Esteban Yan as closers. ... Spring training always brings a lot of great stories, but few are better than Cleveland's Roy Smith. The 6-5 right-hander originally signed with the Mariners in 1994, was released after the '97 season and in 1998 toiled with a 5.03 ERA in the Northern League for the St. Paul Saints. In 1999, he dropped from the top (where he threw 85 mph) to low sidearm. His velocity shot up to 90-91, he was signed by the Indians, was 7-3, 2.34 with 71 hits and 95 strikeouts at Kinston and Akron, has allowed one hit this spring and may turn out to be a significant part of the Cleveland bullpen.

  • The Yankees have known for days that they'd like to put Alfonso Soriano at second base and move Chuck Knoblauch to left, but they're looking for the right time. "We don't want to lose Chuck," says one official. "We need his offense at the top of the order, and we hope that taking the pressure of second base off his shoulders will help him. The month that Soriano played second base at Columbus last season he was terrific. No problem there." ... There may not be a team anywhere with three better left-handed relievers than Atlanta's Rocker, Mike Remlinger and Odalis Perez. ... C.C. Sabathia turned it up to 94-96 in Thursday's outing and now has Cleveland's front office thinking that if Jaret Wright snd Charles Nagy aren't ready to open the season, the monster rookie left-hander just might be.

    On the rumor front

  • Bobby Valentine staunchly defends his outfield. "We got to the World Series with this group (minus Derek Bell)," says Valentine. "Jay Payton is getting better. Benny Agbayani gets better every year. Timo (Perez) deserves a chance to show what he can do." In fact, Valentine is of the thinking that when all is said and done, the Mets may need another frontline starter more than they need an outfield bat. ... Several teams are in looking at Ugueth Urbina, but the reports are mixed. The Expos asked the Yankees for Soriano and the Rangers for Ruben Mateo, but those deals aren't happening. ... Milton Bradley to Cleveland, on the other hand, isn't out of the realm of possibility. ... The Rays are looking to move several of their veterans. The Mariners and Dodgers looked at and passed on Vinny Castilla, but there is a lot of interest in Gerald Williams. If Williams were traded, it would clear the way for Josh Hamilton, although he's struggled of late. ... The Pirates are looking for pitching with Francisco Cordova and Jason Schmidt behind schedule. Colorado's Masato Yoshii and Brian Rose possibilities.

  • There is a cloud over the Detroit camp because of ownership's refusal to build that club after promising to do so last summer. "Phil Garner is one of the best managers in the game," says one former Tiger. "But they even lied to him and Randy Smith. It's a shame." So don't be surprised if Todd Jones and Bobby Higginson are gone by the trading deadline, since they are free agents at the end of the season and right now are far apart in extension negotiations. ... Florida can be so good if their young pitching continues to develop and the Phillies are much improved (even if scouts insist they still don't see it out of Travis Lee). It's going to be a lot more difficult for the wild card to come out of the NL East with the unbalanced schedule.

  • There are a lot of players who think the emphasis on moving the strike zone up and in will lead to record numbers of hit batters the first couple of months. "And since we play one another a lot more," says Atlanta's John Burkett, "expect a record number of brawls."

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