added 1/3/2001 by Ray Kerby
January is here and the Astros and their fans must certainly be welcoming the new year. After all, 2000 was certainly nothing for Astros fans to write home about, and we are all glad that last season is behind us. Or is it?
Considering how poorly the team peformed last season, there has been minimal off-season activity. There was, of course, the Meluskey-Ausmus trade, but I am not convinced that trade will have much long-term effect. The players we received in trade were older, which gives the potential long-term advantage to Detroit. Of course, the best scenario for Houston to 'win' that trade is if Roger Cedeno and Chris Holt bolt for free agency after next season and Mitch Meluskey is unable to improve his defensive skills and becomes a DH. Any of those outcomes are possible, while the Astros will likely have Nelson Cruz and Brad Ausmus for the next few years. Like I said, no real long-term effect.
Other than that, what else happened? Extending Jeff Bagwell's contract doesn't really count since it maintains the status quo. Signing Jose Vizcaino, Charlie Hayes, and Mike Jackson are cheap, short-term moves that could mean either of two things: that management really thinks that the team will be competitive next season or management is too cheap to make a move for an impact (read: expensive) player. And if the team plans to be competitive, then replacing Ken Caminiti with Charlie Hayes makes no sense. Of course, the latest "big" news is the signing of Kent Bottenfield, whose impact will be discussed later.
Basically, there has been a re-shuffling of the team's bullpen and bench, which are the two areas of the team which might have the least impact on a team's day-to-day chances of winning. Sure, the Astros bullpen was horrible last year, but I am not convinced that Doug Brocail, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Jackson represent a real improvement. The only new starting position player is Brad Ausmus at catcher, and I don't think anyone really thinks Ausmus can turn the team around by himself.
I'm no psychic. If I were, I would probably be running the world through a clandestine coalition of international bankers, all out of my headquarters in the basement of the Alamo. Still, the dawning of the new millenium seems like as good of a time as any to look ahead and try to pierce the fog surrounding the upcoming season. Here are some of the things I see in my crystal ball:
Catcher - Brad Ausmus. In addition to bringing some defensive excitement behind the plate, Ausmus should have a good enough season with the stick so that there won't be much talk about the absence of Mitch Meluskey's bat. Prediction: 10 homers, .270 avg, opposing steal attempts down by a third.
First Base - Jeff Bagwell. Mr. Consistency will do it again, cranking out another Enron-assisted monster season. If Mark McGwire's back doesn't hold up, Bagwell should be the All-Star starter. Prediction: 45 homers, 140 RBI, .290 avg.
Second Base - Craig Biggio. I firmly believe that this guy is not washed up -- yet. I see an injury-free season with nice offensive rebound to silence his critics and possibly get his Hall of Fame hopes back on track. Biggio will finally get to guzzle from the keg of offense known as Enron Field, putting Keith Ginter's career on hold. Prediction: 150+ games, 25 homers, .300 avg, 30 steals. (I hope I am right)
Shortstop - Jose Vizcaino. Maybe it's just me, but I can't see much here. Vizcaino might get his career .319 OBP and .338 SLG bumped up by Enron, but he is just going to be an older version of Orlando Miller. His weak bat will look even worse if he ever finds his way over to third base. Vizcaino played more innings at 2B than combined at SS and 3B, and his below-average range at SS is not going to go away as he gets older. He has played in a World Series, so I guess he knows 'how to win'. Prediction: 5 homers, .250 avg, only two-thirds of a season.
Third Base - Chris Truby. Forget what you thought about Ken Caminiti, this position is a train wreck waiting to happen. Truby is overrated offensively and defensively, and is a little too old to start learning plate discipline. Charlie Hayes, who had to hit in Milwaukee's pitcher-friendly stadium, is a much better hitter than Truby, whose power numbers were inflated by Enron Field (SLG: .535 home, .404 road). I'm projecting a lot of bench time for Truby struggles offensively with Hayes picking up the slack at 3B. Prediction: 10 homers, .240 avg, two-thirds of a season.
Left Field - Lance Berkman. In contrast to Truby, Berkman is a future star and the future starts in 2001. Hopefully the team will wise up and lock Lance up to a multi-year deal before this season starts, because this guy is the real deal. Prediction: 35 homers, 120 RBIs, .320 average. (Big numbers for a big hitter)
Center Field - Richard Hidalgo. After he sings a multi-year deal with the team, expectations will be high for Hidalgo. But even though last year was a vindication for his long-time supporters, it was also a significant aberration in light of his previous seasons. As a result, I foresee a dropoff for Hidalgo, especially if his knees continue to bother him. Bob Abreu was the Second Coming for the Phillies in 1999, but followed that with a slight dropoff despite league-wide offensive levels climbing another 10% in 2000. Prediction: 25 homers, 80 RBI, .260 avg, 20+ games on the DL.
Right Field - Moises Alou. The team has been talking about locking up Alou for the forseeable future, and I wish that they would do it sooner rather than later. When healthy, Alou has been one of the leagues elite hitters since 1998 and shows no signs of slowing down. One thing in Alou's favor is that little of his value comes from his speed or defensive skills, which are usually the first to go as players age. Playing in Enron Field should prop up his offensive numbers for the next few years. Prediction: 35 homers, 110 RBI, .300 avg.
After looking at all of those gaudy offensive predictions, you would think that the team would be in good shape for next season. Unfortunately, pitching still remains the team's weak link and it is not just
#1 - Scott Elarton. The mantle of Staff Ace and the honor of starting the season opener should officially pass to Elarton from Shane Reynolds, who never really wanted it anyway. But before anyone gets excited about Scott's 17 wins last season, I would like to point out his career-high 4.81 ERA. After a horrendous April and May, Elarton did rebound well, especially in July and August. Considering his September was somewhere in-between "really good" and "really bad", I am not exactly sure which Scott Elarton we can see next year. Prediction: 15 wins, 4.30 ERA.
#2 - Shane Reynolds. I hate to say this, but I think Shane might be done. As he gets older, it is going to take longer and longer to recover from surgery, and he is going to be affected next season well beyond May. Prediction: 7 wins, 5.00 ERA.
#3 - Jose Lima. 'el Loco' confirmed my worst fears with his performance last season. Pitching in Enron throttled Lima so badly that his performance suffered on the road, much like Darryl Kile's experiences in Colorado. But the nice thing about a high-strung pitcher like Lima is that restoring his confidence can dramatically improve his performance. This is where Brad Ausmus could greatly benefit the team. If Lima's first few starts with Ausmus go well, things could snowball and the wins will start piling up. Prediction: 17 wins, 4.20 ERA.
#4 - Kent Bottenfield. His spot in the rotation seems secure with his signing, but Bottenfield is no panacea for what ails the rotation. His 18 wins with St. Louis in 1999 made him the poster boy for mediocre pitchers that rack up a lot of wins with run support, and he bottomed out completely with the Angels last year. He is eager to rebound, and he is in a situation where he has almost nowhere to go but up. So he'll go up -- a little. Prediction: 10 wins, 4.80 ERA.
#5 - This spot is still up for grabs: Octavio Dotel, Tony McKnight and Wade Miller will all be fighting for it. With the signing of Bottenfield, it seems likely that either Dotel or Miller will get shopped. My hunch is that Dotel will get traded, Miller will win the job and proceed to impress the hell out of everyone. Prediction: 12 wins, 3.70 ERA.
Closer - Billy Wagner. I have never been a big fan of Wagner as a pitcher, even when he was breaking club records for relievers. How's that for nonsensical? Wagner has always been a one-trick pony as a closer and has never really tried to master a second pitch. Now that's he coming off of the worst season of his career and soaking up $5M of the team's payroll to pitch 60 innings, I am not going to suddenly jump on his bandwagon. Prediction: 5 or 6 blown saves by the trading deadline, but still good enough to be dealt to a contending team.
Others - I am not a big fan of the bullpen. Plus, the bullpen has been so completely overhauled from last season that there is no way to gauge how the bullpen responsibilities will play out. Prediction: Two guys will pitch well and get contracts for 2002, two other will pitch themselves out of a job by August. Oh, you want specifics? Put Doug Brocail in the "do well" column and Mike Jackson in the "out of a job" column.
Barring a collapse by St. Louis, the Astros could be well behind by July. There is a lot of talent on the team, but there are a lot of black holes as well. Still, I think that last season's disaster was the aberration and the team will rebound well. Of course, keep in mind that I am a die-hard optimist. Prediction: 83 wins.
That is pretty much how things look to me right now at this admittedly early stage. After last year's train wreck, 83 wins would look really good to a lot of fans. In fact, if the team creeps towards 90 wins and contends for the wild card, Larry Dierker could suddenly get votes for "Manager of the Year" again.