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Houston deserves a happy fate

Special to

March 16

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.

Craig Biggio
Craig Biggio enters his 16th season in the majors and his first as a center fielder.

"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
The Indians are not one of those teams. But for those who weep and moan for the days of Jim Thome, Albert Belle, et al, understand this: it won't be long until they are back, because no team in either league comes close to the young talent the Indians have looked at this spring. "As a veteran player, you hear that a team is rebuilding and you keep your eyes open," says third baseman Bill Selby, who has seen most everything in baseball, from the U.S. to Japan to Mexico. "But this team isn't just young, it's really talented. There are a lot of really good players here."

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
News of the day for March 15:

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.

Wow! We didn't know that at the end of last season? We don't know that Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and Mike Sweeney are not going to be free agents?

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

  • One of the most interesting spring training stations is the Maury Wills leadoff school at Dodgertown, where every day Dave Roberts, Calvin Murray and Jason Romero work on bunting, slapping the ball around and discussing the mentality of getting on base.

    "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.

  • One scout says one of his favorite sights of the spring is Denny Hocking working every day with rookie utility infielder Jose Morban, whom the Twins picked up in the Rule 5 draft. Hocking is trying to help Morban turn the double play.

    "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?"

  • Speaking of the Twins, Kenny Rogers is the perfect signing. He throws groundballs and uses what now will be a very good defense, no one can run on him and it's a quiet atmosphere. Oh yes. The Eric Milton insurance pays the $2 million contract.

    Johan Santana still might be their best potential starter, but with him, J.C. Romero and Everyday Eddie Guardado in the bullpen, they have one of the strongest pens in the league.

  • A's GM Billy Beane says the Cubs "have power pitching the likes of which we may not have ever seen in Arizona." In three games against the A's, Cubs' pitchers Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz have all been clocked in the high 90s. "If they score runs, they're going to be very tough," says Beane.

  • A couple of GMs insist that Bobby Hill can be had, at a price considered cheap relative to his buildup.

  • Luis Gonzalez's three-year, $30 million contract extension is done.

  • The Reds believe Ryan Dempster has turned the corner now that he's come up with a changeup.

  • The annual Bill Selby What-to-look-for-after-his-Mexican winter report: "The two breakout players to watch are Luis Garcia, the outfielder with the Indians who put it together this winter and has big-time power, and Red Sox left-hander Jorge de la Rosa. He has a great arm, but his catcher in Mexico called too many breaking balls. He can pitch in the big leagues in a hurry."

  • "With the exception of the Yankees and Mets, we all have budgets," says one AL general manager. "So I look at the Casey Fossum thing like this: the Red Sox have him for five years. Bartolo Colon would have cost them $9.7 million. So they kept Fossum and with the $9.7 million have Jeremy Giambi, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Ramiro Mendoza and David Ortiz."

  • Another GM says "the two best bullpen arms we've seen this spring are Franklyn German (Detroit) and Guillermo Mota (Los Angeles).

  • The Tigers are likely to open the season with German in the bullpen and Jeremy Bonderman in the rotation. Interesting. Bonderman, Jeff Weaver and Ted Lilly were all traded in the same deal, and each has looked great this spring. Essentially, the Yankees got what they wanted (Weaver), the A's ended up with Lilly and Erubiel Durazo (with the players they got from the Yankees) and the Tigers got foundation blocks in Bonderman, German and Carlos Pena.

  • Detroit people seemed pleased with Eric Munson's defensive progress at third base.

  • The Braves are raving about rookie first baseman Adam LaRoche -- yes, Dave's son -- who played the second half of last season in Greenville. "He can really hit," says Chipper Jones. "It won't take him long to get here," says manager Bobby Cox.

    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

  • There is a growing suspicion that Boston will deal Shea Hillenbrand before the season starts. One reason is that they feel that they can get by with Bill Mueller in the seventh or eighth hole in the batting order until Kevin Youkilis is ready, and Hillenbrand is the one chip that can get them a young, talented player into a weak system. The Mets, Cubs, Marlins and Orioles have all expressed interest, and it appears the Sox will wait until they get what they want.

    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.

  • There are a few clubs in looking at Boston's two Rule 5 left-handed relievers, Matt White and Javy Lopez. "They can both pitch in the big leagues now," says one NL GM, "and they can't keep them both. So we'd like to get one of them." White will likely stay.

  • Mike Hampton's 8.00 ERA and 15/9 hits/IP numbers are bad, and while the Braves like to point out that he's getting a lot of groundballs, there are a lot of doubters as well. This week against Houston, he tensed up, overthrew, his ball straightened and he gave up eight runs in the second inning. "The old stuff isn't quite the same," says one scout.

    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.

  • The Orioles are using one of their chips, Melvin Mora, to try to get some young talent into their organization. Mora is a useful, versatile player on a contender, and the Cardinals are one of the teams interested.

  • Last season, Darren Oliver threw 82-84 mph for Boston. This spring he's throwing 90-92 mph for the Rockies. Figure that. As a result, Colorado may not take Sterling Hitchcock, whom the Yankees are trying to give away.

  • The Giants are trying to give away Livan Hernandez. The Mets, who need at least one starter with Pedro Astacio questionable, have looked at both Hernandez and Ryan Jensen. But they still seem reluctant to give their fourth-round draft choice to sign Chuck Finley, which is all it would cost them since they lost their second and third for Clifford Floyd and Tom Glavine.

  • If Finley doesn't return to St. Louis in May, the best destination might be Anaheim, if the injuries to Matt Wise and Jarrod Washburn thin their starting pitching, what with Aaron Sele not ready to open the season.

  • This week's Carlos Beltran sweepstakes still includes the Rangers, but add in the Padres (Sean Burroughs, others) and Orioles trying to create a three-way deal. There are indications that San Diego will trade Burroughs. He has not had a good spring defensively, but he can hit. Problem is, he was thrown into a tough situation with Phil Nevin asked to move to first base and left field in successive springs to make room for the former No. 1 pick.

  • The Mets are talking about Tyler Yates as their closer, when and if Armando Benitez leaves as a free agent at the end of the season. Yates is coming off Tommy John surgery and will begin the season in Binghamton, but he has been clocked as high as 100 mph this spring. His concern is staying healthy.

  • Scouts in Arizona offer some concerns about the Oakland bullpen, especially Ricardo Rincon's weight. And Seattle's starting pitching. Freddy Garcia is still way behind -- he pitched in a minor-league game Thursday -- and while Gil Meche is up to 93 mph, one scout says, "he's about 85 percent of what he was before he got hurt. His stuff doesn't finish or his breaking ball bite the way it did. It may well come back, but right now, it's not there yet."

    Batter vs. Pitcher
    Some numbers to ponder:

    Highest Batting Average (Min. 40 ABs)
    Batter Pitcher AB H Avg.
    Mo Vaughn David Wells 66 30 .455
    Jeff Bagwell John Burkett 51 23 .451
    Al Martin John Smoltz 47 21 .447
    Gary Sheffield Pedro Astacio 52 23 .442
    Ray Durham Mike Mussina 43 17 .442

    At Bats Without a Hit (Min. 20 ABs)
    Batter Pitcher AB
    Ray Durham Mariano Rivera 25
    Tony Womack Kirk Rueter 24
    Jeff Bagwell Scott Sullivan 22
    Benito Santiago Steve Reed 21

    Most Home Runs
    Batter Pitcher HRs
    Jim Thome Rick Reed 9
    Mo Vaughn David Wells 9
    Barry Bonds Greg Maddux 8
    Barry Bonds Terry Mulholland 8
    Barry Bonds John Smoltz 8
    Frank Thomas Mike Mussina 8
    Jim Thome Roger Clemens 8

    Most Strikeouts
    Batter Pitcher Ks
    Jorge Posada Pedro Martinez 26
    Craig Biggio John Smoltz 25
    Dean Palmer Randy Johnson 25
    Greg Vaughn Roger Clemens 25

    Keeping an eye out

  • As Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort continue to impress in their comebacks, there has been the suggestion that having six starters is a problem. Whaaaat? Considering the strain on Brown, Dreifort, Andy Ashby and Kaz Ishii, the Dodgers may be better with a six-man rotation much of the season.

    "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.

  • Good sign for the Arizona pen: Bret Prinz hitting 95 mph.

  • One NL GM says "one of the most impressive things this spring has been Kansas City's young pitching. They have some very good power arms." Jeremy Affeldt has been 87-94 mph with a nasty hammer, Kyle Snyder is hitting 92-94 mph, Miguel Asencio and Ryan Bukvich are at 93-94 mph, and Mike MacDougal has been up as high as 97 mph. Also, Runelvys Hernandez is one of the better young pitchers in the American League.

  • It's not good for the Padres that after losing Trevor Hoffman, it's likely that Jay Witasick, Jaret Wright and Kevin Jarvis will start the season on the DL. Jarvis had been thought to be in the Raul Mondesi deal, which would also involve taking Bubba Trammell's salary.

  • New ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine thinks Kevin Millar "might be the best right-handed pull hitter in the game, and born to play in Fenway Park."

  • Range factor doesn't do a lot, but this is a range factor: Derrek Lee's DP to Error ratio last season was 121/12, Mo Vaughn's was 47/18.

  • White Sox manager Jerry Manuel has so much respect for scouts that he's pledged the pool money from fines to the scouts' fund, and if the players prefer to use it for a party at the end of the season, Manuel will match the money out of his pocket. There are people up and down the White Sox organization who appreciate that.

  • Ken Davidoff of Newsday noted Friday that George Steinbrenner has banned his Tampa operation employees from eating in the cafeteria at Legend's Field. With The Boss, it's about stars; let the people who don't make good money stand in line and buy a $4 hot dog. Max's café is open to media and visiting club officials for $5, while club employees were charged $4. Davidoff fairly pointed out that one problem is the huge influx of Japanese media covering Hideki Matsui. But, still ...

    One more to chew on
    Just in case you don't appreciate how good Vernon Wells is and can be -- and remember, he's not far from the Hunter/A.Jones/Edmonds level defensively, here is the list of center fielders who had 100 RBI in their first full major league season:

  • Vernon Wells (Toronto in 2002)
  • Carlos Beltran (Kansas City in 1999)
  • Fred Lynn (Boston in 1975)
  • Joe DiMaggio (New York Yankees in 1936)
  • Hank Leiber (New York Giants in 1935)
  • Wally Berger (Boston in 1930)
  • Al Simmons (Philadelphia in 1924)
  • Charlie Abbey (Washington in 1894)

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