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Houston deserves a happy fate
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- It is still difficult to fathom that the Houston Astros have never won a postseason series in their 41 years of existence. They lost two of the greatest league championship series ever played, to the Phillies in 1980 and the Mets in 1986. In this current team's run -- which included four first-place finishes in five years -- they were stopped in 1998 by a superhuman Kevin Brown and the next year lost to the Braves when Billy Wagner's arm creaked and Walter Weiss made a series-deciding diving stop to save John Rocker.
"One of these years, aren't we due for a break?" asks Craig Biggio. Indeed, they are. But while owner Drayton McLane spent the money to bring in Jeff Kent, every year that baseball's economy puts the screws to middle and upper middle class teams like the Astros, the more difficult it becomes. Biggio first came up with the 'Stros when Ronald Reagan was president, and at 37 is moving to center field 11 years after moving from catcher to second base. His sidekick, Jeff Bagwell, will be 35 in May and plays through a chronically arthritic shoulder.
It is because of Bagwell and Biggio that it's hard to be unbiased when it comes to this team, because everyone would like to see them play the role of pile jumpers. "We've got a chance this year," says Bagwell. "We can be pretty good. It will depend, as it does with everyone, on pitching. Big market teams can invest in being deep. Teams like us have to really work at it and hope to find solutions."
Biggio has worked very hard to make the transition from second to center to make room for Kent. He says "the move from catcher to second would be like you stepping in against Randy Johnson. It took me two years to be comfortable. This is easier."
He takes early work. He takes balls live off the bat in batting practice. He has shown that he can make routine plays, he can go to the gaps (he made an outstanding play in right-center Friday on a ball hit by a right-handed batter that was tailing away from him) and that he has instincts. "What I want is to be able to play shallow," says Biggio. "In my opinion, the balls that kill you are the balls that drop in shallow center field. I want to catch them."
Biggio in center allows Lance Berkman to play left, hit and not put pressure on his knee. If Biggio gets his on-base percentage back up to the .380-.400 area, the Astros will have a dynamic offense, with Bagwell, Berkman and Kent in the middle. Richard Hildalgo has shown some power this spring, but he's now a 4.7 runner, so Jason Lane, who has had a very good spring, will play some in right. How Jimy Williams plays it at shortstop (Julio Lugo, Adam Everett) and third between Geoff Blum and Morgan Ensberg remains to be seen.
Bagwell's shoulder, in his words, "is never going to get much better." The great first baseman throws only on occasions, and can seldom turn the 3-6-3 double play, an art he turned better than any right-handed first baseman. "But I am better at the plate this spring," he says. "I'm driving balls to center and right-center that I couldn't do last year. So that's encouraging."
This likely will be, at best, an average defensive team with the exception of team fulcrum Brad Ausmus. So, as Bagwell says, how they fare in the division with the Cardinals, Cubs and Reds will be determined by the middle of the pitching staff.
They have two potential 20-game winners in Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. They have arguably the best back end of the bullpen in Octavio Dotel and Wagner. It's what comes in between that will determine their fate.
Shane Reynolds has diligently worked to come back, and has thrown well. Brian Moehler, who averaged 12 wins and 195 innings a year for the Tigers from 1997-2000, is healthy (86-89 mph consistently) and will sit in the fourth spot. The fifth spot is to be determined between rookie left-hander Jeriome Robertson (he of the funky delivery and 12-8 2.55 record at New Orleans) and Tim Redding.
The first outing for Brad Lidge after knee surgery came this week, and was encouraging. He's a power arm that could give them significant help in front of Dotel and Wagner -- if he's healthy, and that's an "if" that has plagued his career. They have been trawling for a left-hander out of the bullpen, and signed Bruce Chen after he was released by Cincinnati.
"What's happened with the economics is that there seems to be more parity than there's been in a long while," says Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker. "In each division, there are a lot of teams that believe that if certain things break right that they have a pretty good chance. We're one of them."
And few teams deserve to have those things go right more than the Houston Astros.
Don't cry for Cleveland
Milton Bradley has gotten on base at a .444 clip (with a .727 slug) this spring. Matt Lawton is healthy after complicated shoulder surgeries. Brandon Phillips has been sensational; this is a guy who'd still be in college if he hadn't signed out of high school. Travis Hafner, acquired from the Rangers for Einar Diaz, has a 1.280 spring OPS, and the bulked up Ben Broussard has pushed him with a 1.478 OPS. Josh Bard has been sound behind the plate.
Then in the group of those to watch at Buffalo, Alex Escobar has shown the raw ability that made him a wunderkind before breaking his leg; RF Jody Gerut(1.356 OPS) has demonstrated power to go with his discipline and great swing path; 20-year-old shortstop Johnny Peralta has been impressive, as has switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez, the Eastern League MVP. "There's a lot here to be enthused about," says manager Eric Wedge. "We just have to remember that it's spring training and that this is a development process."
Rookies Ricardo Rodriguez, who has looked terrific, and big, athletic Jason Davis (a former college hoops player with sinking 95-mph stuff) will likely make the rotation, where C.C. Sabathia is established at the age of 22. Billy Traber has gotten hitters out. Cliff Lee, who was supposed to make the rotation but pulled a stomach muscle in February, has started throwing. Last year's top draft choice, right-hander Jeremy Guthrie from Stanford, has been sent out, but made a definite impression on Wedge and pitching coach Mike Brown.
Saturday in Kissimmee, when Bradley got picked off first by Robertson, Wedge went down the dugout, put his arm around his young center fielder, and talked it out. When Bradley made an outstanding catch, Wedge was there at the far end of the dugout to greet him coming off the field. "Eric's got something special about him," says GM Mark Shapiro.
The Indians have had two consecutive impact drafts, and with the 11th, 17th and 31st picks this June are in place to have three straight. It's not going to be long until the Tribe is back. And when they get there, they will be there for a long, long while.
Could have fooled us
1. John Kerry is running for president.
2. Bonnie Raitt is against the war.
3. Miguel Tejada will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Anyone who follows baseball knew months ago that this would happen and that Oakland's aim will be to sign Eric Chavez, a potential Hall of Famer and potential free agent at the end of next season. Oakland lost Jason Giambi and went from 102 to 103 wins in the season after he left. They begin this season projected to be the best team in baseball.
Former No. 1 pick Bobby Crosby has had a great spring, which projects him into the potential successor category to Tejada -- although that's way down the line. And at the end of the year, it is shortstop free agent heaven, with Tejada, Rich Aurilia and the best Matsui from Japan -- Kaz -- on the market.
News from around the majors
"My career turned around last spring when I sublimated my ego, stopped trying to hit 15 home runs and concentrated on getting on base," says Roberts. "Maury is a great teacher."
Murray, who Dodgers manager Jim Tracy calls "one of the five best defensive center fielders in the game," has been an apt student. He's beaten out bunts and may yet revitalize his career.
"The kid could cost Hocking playing time or even his job down the line," says the scout. "But he's out there, working with him. Is that the Twins, or what?"
But Cox still loves 44-year old Julio Franco.
"I want to hit .300 at the age of 50," says Franco. If he gets close, we may learn his actual age.
More news you can use
With the Cubs and and Mets, that player they want would be Juan Cruz or Aaron Heilman, although Heilman has had a bad spring; in his last outing, he didn't have one swing-and-miss. Florida is pushing first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and a prospect, so they then can deal Mike Lowell's contract to either the Cubs or Mets.
But the Braves have had a terrific spring from rookie LHP Horacio Ramirez, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Andy Pratt will make it as a second lefty out of the pen. Give Cox credit -- he will give anyone a chance, and 31-year-old Joe Dawley, who pitched in three different independent leagues, is being given every opportunity to make the club. And he's looked very good.
Batter vs. Pitcher
Keeping an eye out
"Too many things can happen, so you never have enough," says Dodgers GM Dan Evans, for whom the Omar Daal factor was crucial in staying in the race to the wire last season. Boston virtually uses a six-man to keep Pedro Martinez healthy and dominant; he started only nine games last season on four days' rest, as it makes sense to have 29 great Pedro starts, rather than 34 that aren't so great.
One more to chew on